Courtesy of Paxton Belcher-Timme – Rhetoric of Reggae – December 1, 2009
For a country of only 2.7 million people, Jamaica seems to get more publicity in the world wide pop culture industry than any other island in the Caribbean does. For one reason or another the Jamaican culture fascinates the outsiders. It seems that Jamaican culture is one that has many aspects that set it apart from other cultures, making Jamaicans easily distinguishable from other cultures.
One huge difference in the comparison of Jamaicans, and Americans, is the dialect that is being spoken between the two of them. When you visit Jamaica as an American, and you come in contact with a native Jamaican, you feel as though you and them are speaking two entirely different languages from one another. The truth is that you are both speaking the same language, just different dialects.
Most Jamaicans speak a dialect of English that was developed in Jamaica, and has formed a strong culture that the people of Jamaica have grown very proud of. This dialect has been one of the strongest unifying forces for the Jamaican people, as well as one of the most recognizable characteristics of the Jamaican people in pop culture, other than dread locks of course.
This dialect of Jamaica is known as patois (Pah-Twa), or patwa. It is important to note that patois can be called any number of other names such as Jamaican Patwa, Jamaican Creole, black English, broken English, and has even been known to be referred to as baby talk on occasion. Patois is considered an unacceptable official language. This means that it is not to be used in any formal settings, and is not fully recognized as its own language.
Many people who feel strongly about their patois have been lobbying to get Jamaican Patois recognized as an official language for some time now, with limited success. The argument is that since it is really just a form of English, and if there are so many differing forms of patois across the Caribbean, then it should be viewed as a dialect, not a language. The issue with not acknowledging patois as a language lies in how established this languages culture has become already. The Jamaican patois has had a long and trying history, that has gone through adversity, and heartache.
This dialect, or language, as people do still argue over which category patois should fall under. The dialect of Jamaican patois that is spoken is an example of a Creole. Creole as defined by The Free Dictionary is a language that has its origin in extended contact between two language communities, one of which is generally European. It incorporates features from each and constitutes the mother tongue of a community. Creole languages are present on every continent in the world, and are 200 attested Creole languages in the world. A Creole language is formed when multiple languages come into contact with each other, causing a new dialect or language to be formed. Most Creole dialects are directly connected to a large movement of people from one culture in the world and are brought to another culture, and Jamaica is no exception to this.
When the British colonized Jamaica in 1655, they turned Jamaica into an English speaking country, even though the majority of people who lived in Jamaica at the time were brought there as slaves, and spoke other African dialect as their primary language. When the British brought slaves to Jamaica from Africa, they were immediately submerged into an English only speaking culture, and told to speak English. The British actually outlawed the use of native tongs as a way to try and weaken the bonds that the African people had to their homelands.
The British would split up people who were from the same area in Africa, and sent them to different plantations on the island, making communication between slaves in their native tongs almost impossible. The early settlers and slave owners were afraid that the slaves would conspire against them, or attempt to escape if they could communicate with out being able to be understood. In rebuttal to this fear, the British forced the slaves to only speak English.
After living their entire lives speaking the native languages of their homelands, the English that the slaves spoke was far from perfect. Slaves were forced to speak English in everyday situations, and because of this, a dialect of broken English came into fruition. This exact situation was mirrored on nearly every other Caribbean island as well, creating an un official dialect of the Caribbean, and Jamaica in general.
As time went by, this broken English developed into a uniform dialect of broken English. The dialect began to adopt its own set of rules, phrases, and words. This development of this form of broken English became widespread and understood in Jamaica, creating its own dialect, rather than just the title of broken English. This dialect is helping to create a Jamaican race of people.
Patois as a spoken dialect cannot be defined as easily as just a Creole of English and African dialects, because it has truly formed its own identity. There were many other factors at work in the creation of modern day patois, from slave codes of old, to more modern day religions like Rastafarianism.
Much of the influence on patois is due to the slave codes. The slaves saw it as a form of rebellion, by not speaking in perfect English. Making patois a form of civil disobedient that has gone on since the people of Jamaica were taken from their homeland and brought to the island of Jamaica.
The slaves that were brought to Jamaica, although forced to speak English to communicate with the British in every day settings, the slaves them selves still had to come up with their own words for names of things, such as names of plants, animals, religious ceremonies, and even actions of people. This aspect of patois is responsible for some of the most interesting phrases in any English dialect.
Winjy: is some one who is thin and sickly looking.
Labrish: is gossip, or chit chat.
As you can see, some of the words were created at the same time that the dialect of patois was, as shown in the examples above. Many of the original sources for the creations of these words have been lost, or are just unknown, but many are modified versions of that word in their original tong. It is important to also realize that not every word that is used in patois is that different from its English counterpart, in fact most word used in Jamaican patois are similar in sound, just written under a different set of spelling and grammatical rules.
Some Examples of similar words in patois and English:
As you read the words in the Jamaican patois side, and compare them to their English equivalent, notice how the spelling differs, but the sound is generally the same. The sound is almost a condensed abbreviated English.
In Patois, because it was founded as a spoken dialect before a written one was even considered, words are almost always spelt phonetically. When patois was first starting to be spoken, it was illegal for the slaves to know how to write, not that it would have served much purpose at that time, in the agricultural economy of Jamaica. Allowing the dialect of patois to develop as an oral language, prior to it ever being written down. In this case, as is true with most Creole dialects, they spelt the words as they sound.
Then again the whole notion of spelling is not that curtail in Jamaican patois. Since patois is a spoken dialect, the individual sound is depending on ones heritage, and the area in which one lives; no ones patois sounds the same. Due to this vast variant in sounds, the spellings of patois have also varied over time.
There have been efforts to create unified Caribbean Creole dictionaries, and Jamaican patois dictionaries, yet non-has been able to gain recognition as the official dictionary. The problem is that not every dictionary spells words the same way, making the whole point of a dictionary irrelevant. The best thing you can really get your hands on, both online or off, is a Jamaican Patois phrase dictionary. That will give you many common words and phrases used in Jamaican patois, as shown below.
English: Where are you from? / From what part are you?
Frah wha = From Where
Pawt = Part
Yuh deh = You from
Patois: Suh yuh nah guh badda guh?
English: So, you are not going to bother going?
Suh = So
Yuh = You
Nah guh = Not going
Badda = bother
Patois: cooh deh, dem ah galang lakka seh dem nuh ha nutten
English: Look at that! They are behaving as if they do not have anything.
Cooh Deh! = Look at that!
Deh ah = They are
Galanga lakka she = Behaving as if
Dem = They
Nuh ha nutten = Do not have anything
The writing of patois is not all that important to most Jamaicans any way, as they like the freeform sound it creates. As the language of Jamaican patois formed into what it is today, it has built its self a reputation of being the language of the islands. Many people who speak patois as their primary language are very proud of their ability to speak it. Below is an example of Jamaican American rapper, Busta Rhymes, using patois in a song called “Rastaman chant.”
Much of the pride associated with patois is due to the connection patois has with Rastafarianism, and the creation of Jamaica. Many of the people who hold onto patois as their primary dialect are people who want to hold onto their roots. The speaking of patois is a reference to the time when most Jamaicans ancestors were taken from their homeland, and forced to speak English. Jamaicans as a people are very proud of the struggle that their ancestors have had to fight through and over come, making patois a staple of any true Jamaican. Patois and Rastafarianism share a common path, and many similarities. Patois and Rastafarian both started in Jamaica, with roots in Africa, and influences in reggae.
Reggae and Patois:
Reggae and Patois go hand in hand. One is the sound of Jamaica, with reggae, the other the voice of Jamaica, in patois. Seeing as how reggae is a Jamaican music, and most musicians who perform reggae are from Jamaica, making most reggae musicians sing in patois. The fact that patois is a spoken dialect gives it a smooth sound that ties in nicely with a heavy reggae beat.
An exert from the song be yourself, by the Gentlemen
A no time deh
Fi go join dem
Jah rastafari say fi seek and you shall find then
No time deh
Fi we go join dem
You follow babylon you end up ina problem
Well nuff a dem out deh sell dem soul because of vanity
Me see dem a search but can not find fi dem identity
Cause their identity is coming from the nozzle of dem gun
But I and I identity is coming from the nyabingi drum
If you listen to the song while you read the lyrics, you can see clearly how the words are spelt exactly as they sound, unlike the English language that has silent letters, and other grammatical tricks. You can also hear how well the patois seems to flow with the beat, its seems to flow much more poetically than Orthodox English does. There are many examples of this that I could show you, as the majority of reggae stars sing in patois, apart from the some of the better-heard artists like Bob Marley, who sings in to what would be considered English.
One reason why patois and reggae go together has to do with what it stands for. In today’s world if you are speaking patois, the people around you are going to make assumptions about you. People like Peter Tosh are proud to speak the tong of his ancestors, and tends to not repeat himself if some doesn’t understand. In the global view, patois is considered an uneducated dialect, due to its origins. Tosh embarrassed this, he felt that patois was his language, not English.
This feeling Tosh had was not isolated to just his case. In fact many fellow Jamaicans felt that same way, about speaking their dialect that is viewed as uneducated, but in their eyes is just their language. I cannot help but draw connections to other English dialects present in the United States.
If you compare Jamaican patois, and Americas Ebonics, you will find many similarities as well. For starters they are both dialects of English, both of which are spoken dialects, with loose to no rules of grammar. The truth is that when spoken Ebonics and patois don’t sound that similar, but when written Ebonics is actually very similar looking to patois.
Both patois and Ebonics are slave languages, but rather than direct slave contact creating the dialect as in patois, years of oppression forced a lack of education in the inner cities of America, causing a dialect that is viewed as uneducated to be created.
Ebonics and patois also draw a commonality in their involvement in music. Patois has reggae, which is the music of patois, and embodies many of the same ideals, and Ebonics draws connections to hip-hop, and rap. Ebonics is the language of hip-hop, as most hip-hop is performed in Ebonics. In reggae and the Rasta religion, the goal is to make it from Babylon, or Jamaica, back to Zion, or Ethiopia. Where as in hip-hop and the culture involved with Ebonics, says the goal is to make it out of poverty, and out of the struggle, and into a place of personal wealth.
These commonalities between the two of these dialects, allows one to make some comparisons. One of the things that are prevalent is that slavery has molded our culture into what it is today, and our nation is still trying to right its wrongs of the past. Both of these dialects hold a deeper meaning to the people who speak them, and then just those who have read about them, or even listened to it. To the people of Jamaica, or the people of an inner city, the dialect represents a group of people and what they stand for. It does not matter if it is viewed as an uneducated dialect, because it stands for so much more in the eyes of the people who’s family came over on slave ships. Their dialect is a tribute to the struggles their ancestors suffered through.
The island of Jamaica has a culture that is rich in history, and even richer in character. The Jamaican people are a proud people that hold onto their roots in Africa. Manny Jamaicans practice Rastafarianism, which actually calls for the return to Zion, or Ethiopia at some point. This mentality of remembering where you came from, allows Jamaica to stay very simple, and patois is no exception to this.
Patois, although not the most refined or elegant language, is a very fitting dialect to the people of Jamaica, as it does pay homage to the Jamaicans who have past. The sound of that is nice, but one issue that has risen, is the issue of if patois is actually just a creation of Babylon. I feel that if the Rastafarians don’t like to use products of Babylon, such as a lighter, or razor, but does that mean a dialect created under the force
The question now is, does speaking a dialect forced upon the slaves of Jamaica by their master, become something that should be forgot, or something that should be celebrated. It just comes down to whether or not you view speaking broken English as a disobedient action, or you view speaking patois as a remainder of the Babylon that enslaved the Africans and brought them to Jamaica.
My view on the topic is in support of speaking patois. When the slaves were told to speak English, they were not supposed to speak broken English; they were supposed to speak English. The people of Jamaica have every right in my eyes to speak patois, and speak it proud. Patois is only one of many Creoles in the world, yet could be the most famous. If there is ever a Jamaican depicted in culture, they speak patois. That may not seem that important, but it shows the effect that patois has even off of the small island of Jamaica.
Patois needs to be kept alive, and eventually needs to be recognized as its own language. Patois is a large part of what Jamaican culture has formed into, and if it continues to go unrecognized, that will be a travesty. If there is any problem that needs to be confronted, it is the problem of creating a unified Jamaican patois dictionary, so that the Jamaicans can have a set spelling for the words in the patois dialect.
In conclusion to what I have been talking about, let me close by saying that patois has as much of a right to be a language as any other recognized language, and in some cases actually has a stronger history than most of those official languages. I believe that patois is the language of Jamaica, and that Jamaicans should continue to speak patois for as long as it can still be taught.
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