A Brief Look at Jamaican Creole

I’ll begin today’s post with a wonderful video of the The Night Before Christmas spoken in Jamaican Creole (a.k.a. Patois):

For non-Jamaicans the clip above is probably so hard to understand that it seems like a different language.  Which is because it is a different language.

Total dialect novices would be forgiven for asking: Don’t Jamaicans just speak English?

Well, of course they do.  But the strongest variety of English spoken on the island differs enough from Standard English to be classified as a creole: a blend of different languages, in this case English with good deal of grammar and syntax derived from African languages.*

Jamaica is a country with a dialect continuum: at one end of the spectrum are people who speak Jamaican Creole, at the other end is the more mainstream accent you would hear from, say, a Jamaican co-worker in the States.  Then there’s a large number of dialects between these two extremes.

Now, I used to assume that Jamaican Patois was just a very strong accent of English.  Some phrases in Jamaican would seem to confirm this at first glance.  For example:

The English phrase, “A shortcut draws blood, the long road draws sweat.”

Becomes in Creole …

Shaat kot jraa blod, lang ruod jraa swet.

Try to read that sentence aloud a few times, and you’ll realize that it’s simply “short cut draw blood, long road draw sweat.”  So it’s not much different than the Standard English version, minus some verb conjugations and articles.

But let’s look at a different example.  Standard English “No matter how high the john crow flies, it has to come down to eat,” becomes:

No mata ou ai kiangkro flai, ihn afi kom a grong fi niam.

Which could only be rendered in Standard English as “No matter how high kiangcrow fly, in halfee come a ground fi nyam.” In other words, I can’t even transpose it into “plain English.”  This is simply a different language.

And then there are phrases that are almost completely divorced from Standard English, such as:

Aadiez pitni niam raktuon.

Which roughly translates to “Stubborn children eats stones.”  Now we’re completely into foreign language territory.

The above examples, by the by, were from a fantastic website about Jamaican Creole, jumieka.com.  It’s an great resource for people interested in Carribean English, with info about the history and current status of Creole.

Given all the actor talk on this blog of late, I’d also say this is a good resource for actors who need to learn Jamaican accents.  Studying the Creole/Patois helps you grasp the origins of all types of English spoken on the island.

That’s all for now.  I know far too little about this language to get more in-depth.  Any Jamaicans care to elaborate?

*There is a much more detailed explanation for what a “creole” is, but I’ll save that for another day.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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6 Responses to A Brief Look at Jamaican Creole

  1. OVNIS says:

    I’m not Jamaican, but I understand patois, and I think you have a few things wrong here. (Note: I’m no expert on dialects… I only found this blog because, as a Canadian, the article on Canadian Raising interested me.)

    You translate the patois about the crow to: “No matter how high kiangcrow fly, in halfee come a ground fi nyam.”

    I think the second part would be more accurate as:” ‘im haffi come a ground fi nyam “, or, in more standard English, “him have to come a ground to eat.”

    Again, I don’t know all the correct terminology to describe these words, but “fi”/”fe” is used pretty regularly, and often modified as “haffi/haffe.” It shows up quite often in Bob Marley’s lyrics, which are probably the most popularly-known examples of patois, (i.e. “nuh waan you fe galang so” or “screwface know a who fe frighten”)

    Also, “‘im” as “him” (meaning “he”) is pretty common too. “‘Im nuh have no soap fe washing.”

    • trawicks says:

      I’m a complete novice about Jamaican Creole/Patois, so I’m sorry if there’s anything a little off about the post above! Just to be clear, though, those “transpositions” I created are not attempts to decipher Creole. Rather, I’m trying to show that while some Creole phrases are only slight modifications of English, others are more clearly a different language.

  2. ebolamunkee says:

    I think it should be noted that many (maybe even most) Jamaicans speak Standard English as well as Jamaican Patois; I believe children are required to learn Standard English in school if they don’t know it already.

  3. Sirmelja says:

    Thanks, I’ve only just now come across your blog and am finding the articles fascinating! As a Jamaican who moved to the states at 9 years old, lived up and down the East Coast from Miami to Raleigh to NYC, and who has now lived in Cork, Ireland for the past 4 years… well, let’s just say my accent seems to defy characterization by a lot of people 🙂

    But, in reference to the above article, one point to note is that many Jamaicans, myself included, would have at least a couple of variations of the dialect under their belt. (Somewhat similar to one of the commenters on your Irish accent article, who found that boarding school changed her regional accent.) Like me, they would have a patois (creole) that gets used among family/friends and when we’re most comfortable, as well as a Jamaican English accent that’s the fallback the rest of the time, especially in formal situations and when interacting with non-Jamaicans. My patois is at the lesser end because I left so young, but robust because I was raised in a Jamaican community-within-a-community in Miami till I left for college.

    The continuum of the native patois can be pretty dramatic as well, probably most largely dependent on class and educational factors. There are “back country” Jamaicans who I couldn’t understand if you paid me, while the reference sample in the video is completely transparent. The more “stush” (upper class) your background, the less broad your patois.

    Of note, I’ve found the Corkonian accent remarkably similar to the Jamaican one in many respects. It’s one of the first things I noticed about why Ireland reminds me so much of Jamaica. Here’s the blog post I wrote soon after I first moved: http://jamaicanincork.blogspot.com/2007/10/why-ireland-reminds-me-of-jamaica.html And another later on about the changes I noticed in my speech after moving here: http://jamaicanincork.blogspot.com/2009/07/anniversary-reflections.html

  4. janiceglaves says:

    I live in Jamaica but mi love chat patios. Mi dweet wen mi de a mi yaad, and in mu day to day confabulations wid mi fren dem. Don’t get for the spelling I love it bout I don’t do it that good.

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