Our local dialect, Jamaican Patois, is a colorful and energetic sing-song language that constantly evolves. Some refer to our native tongue as broken English, heavily influenced by our African, Spanish, French, and English colonial heritage. We are an excitable people and as such our language is loud, animated, and can come across as aggressive, especially in atmospheres such as at a sporting event or within the dark corridors of a rum-bar.
With a lot of gestures and passion behind our words, it can be hard to pick up on what we’re saying since it all comes at you so fast. Different regions within the island have their own accents and words too, making things even more complicated. Luckily, in the major cities and resort towns, Jamaicans speak a lot more clearly than within the deeper rural regions. You’ll get by if you ask the speaker to slow down and “seh dat again” (say that again).
The Evolution of Jamaican Patois
In the 1960s, around the time Jamaicans were negotiating their independence from England, the local dialect was frowned upon by the upper classes as the language of the poor and uneducated folk. On the other end of the spectrum, reggae musicians used the language to express their identity, and songs filled with descriptions of poverty and political strife were mainstream at the time.
Poets and theater performers also embraced patois as their primary mode of communication. One such poet, the Honorable Louise Bennett-Coverly, used her popular radio show to help bring Patois across the airwaves to wider society. For over 20 years, Miss Lou, as she was affectionately called, performed her poetry locally and internationally, helping to cement patois as an established and commonplace language of our nation.
Today, speaking the language is a form of pride as it is easily recognized worldwide. This is thanks in part to the rise in popularity of our reggae music with legends like Bob Marley and later Shaggy taking our music to all corners of the world. Now patois has been formalized and is taught in linguistic programs at a handful of tertiary institutions.
Patois is as Jamaican as our beaches, our sunshine, and our jerk chicken. Picking up a few words will help you get by in the streets as you immerse yourself in our culture and endear yourself to the people you interact with.
When strolling the markets, pick up an exotic fruit or vegetable and ask “a wah dis?” (what is this?) or point to something and ask “a wah dat?” (what is that?). When you’ve decided on what to purchase, you’ll need to know “a how much fi dis?” (what’s the price?) and you might get a little “brawta” (a little extra) if the vendor is in a good mood.
One way to begin your foray into patois is to start dropping the ‘r’ at the end of words like water, sugar, and driver, so they become “wata, suga, driva” with your emphasis on the last syllable—“wat-AH, sug-AH, driv-AH.”
Common greetings include the ever-popular “wah gwaan” as used by former President Barack Obama on his recent visit to Jamaica and “likkle more” which means “see you later.”
When you’re planning your next outing, you might ask your friend “wha time we a touch road?” meaning “what time are we heading out?” And if they tell you “mi soon come man” it means they are anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or so away.
When you’re on the dance floor, if you hear a song you love, be sure to yell to the DJ to “pull up dat” meaning to replay the song.
Learn a few of our favorite words and phrases to really get you in the vibe for a Jamaican trip. They can only come in handy here, too.
Wha’appen? (What’s up?) - greeting used among friends.
Nuff (Plenty) - used to represent volumes…of just about anything; also to describe an overbearing personality, e.g. “Memba fi buy nuff tings” at the craft market (Remember to buy lots of things); “How da gyal so nuff?” (Why is that girl so overbearing?)
Bashment (Excitement/Party) - used as a noun, adjective, adverb, e.g. “Mi a go a ‘bashment’” (I am going to an exciting event), “Im roll up inna one bashment car” (He arrived in an impressive vehicle), “What a bashy piece a outfit yu wearing!” (The outfit you’re wearing is gorgeous!)
Rhaatid! (Wow!) - used as an expression, adjective or to intensify, e.g. “Rhaatid, di gate drop down” (Wow, the gate fell), “She get a rhaatid lick” (She got a bad hit), “A figet di mango to rhaatid” (Oh no! I forgot the mango).
Walk Good (Good bye, take care, safe travels) - departing salutation, issued with good wishes.
Anancy (Anansi): The principal character in many Jamaican folk tales, Anancy, a spider, is shrewd and cunning. The name is now generally used for a spider.
Bammy: Flat round ‘pancake-looking’ bread made from grated cassava from which the bitter juice has been extracted.
Bankra: Basket made from straw or wicker.
Blabba mout: Person who talks too much.
Cho-Cho: Small pear-shaped vegetable often cream or green in color also known as chayote.
Criss: Jamaican expression meaning “Pretty;” “fine;” or “okay.”
Finnicky: Flighty; jumpy.