Jamaican Patois and Standard English, their differences and history

This is going to be my second blog post, and today I decided to make a post about Jamaican Patois and Standard English. I want to talk about some differences, similarities and some extra information on both of them.

First off, what is Jamaican Patois, and what is Standard English? To discuss the differences and similarities between Jamaican Patois and Standard English, we should look at what these languages are, where they come from and some key distinctive factors that tell us more on what they are, and where they differ.

We should start with Jamaican Patois since that is probably more foreign to most people, as opposed to Standard English. Before we get into one of the languages of Jamaica, we should look at some Jamaican history to get a better picture and some insight into the development of Jamaican Patois. Further on we are going to have a look at the development and evolution of Standard English, but for now, Jamaica has the spotlight.

(1) Jamaican Patois started with the native Taino people (also known as the Arawak people). They had a language of their own known as Taino, as well. In the 1400s the Spaniards arrived in Jamaica, took the Taino people as slaves, and brought African slaves from all across Africa. For less than 200 years they formed a pidgin/semi-creole language, this was a mixture of Spanish, the native Taino language, and various African languages. The British arrive in the 1600s, taking most of the slaves from the Spaniards, and taking full control over Jamaica, the Spaniards thus had to leave. Some slaves escaped into the mountains, forming their own culture and people known as the Maroons, which still live and exist today. The other less fortunate slaves were under rulership of the British and had to learn to communicate with them, frankly having to form a pidgin out of a pidgin/semi-creole. There was now a new creole in Jamaica, consisting of Taino, Spanish, various African languages and a heavy influence from British English. With a good 400 years to develop, it became the language known today as Jamaican Patois. Simply put, Jamaican Patois is one of the languages spoken in Jamaica, but is also the result of colonization from the Spaniards and Britsh, along with Taino and African slaves all put together in one place who formed a common language.

(5) Now that we have a better understanding of Jamaican Patois, we should have a loot at the history behind Standard English. It all started with the natives of Great Britain (nobody knows exactly who the natives were, so for now we’ll call them “the natives”) ,Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in the late 400s to the early 1000s that formed what we know today as the British. Together they formed an early state of the English language, along with French and Norse influence due to war and conflict. After the medieval period ended, the British began colonizing areas such as Jamaica, and many other places across the world for a few hundred years. Because of this, English adopted bits and pieces from many other languages, English then became a very widespread language and a lingua franca across the world, and it is what we know today as Standard English. Simply put, Standard English is the form of English generally accepted as the correct form, but it is technically the culmination of more than a millennium of development from all across the world but is predominantly derived from European languages, as well as the lingua franca spoken across the world.

(4) We now understand the historical and cultural differences between Jamaican Patois and Standard English, but what are the in-practice differences between the two? Some examples are: “Mi chat Patwah”. Meaning “I speak Patois”. Here the “I” is replaced with “Mi”, this is because the word “me” has been adopted into Jamaican Patois to mean both “me” and “I”. “Speak” is replaced with “chat”, likely due to it being more common to use “chat” rather than “speak” a few centuries ago. “Patois” is replaced with “patwah”, here the change in spelling is likely to help pronounce the word easier when spoken. Some more examples, without going into detail on their differences, are the following: “Im a nyam di kiek.” Meaning “He is eating the cake”. “Dem de a Kingston”. Meaning “They are in Kingston”.

Now that we have looked at some examples of Jamaican Patois used in everyday life, we are going to look at a quote from Sonny’s Letter (2) and one from No Little Twang (3). Both are going to have the original Jamaican Patois version, and a translated version in Standard English. A quote and translation from Sonny’s Letter (2):

“Good Day. I hope dat wen deze few lines reach yu, they may find yu in di bes af helt. Mama, I really don’t know how fi tell yu dis, cause I did mek a salim pramis fi tek care a likkle Jim an try mi bes fi look out fi him.” (Linton Kwesi Johnson, 1979).

“Good Day I hope that when these few lines reach you, they may find you in the best of health. I don’t know how to tell you this, for I did make a solemn promise to take care of little Jim and try my best to look out for him” (Linton Kwesi Johnson, 1979).

We can see the same pattern in simplifying both grammar and spelling similar to the practical examples from earlier. Words like “dat”, “deze”, “yu” and “bes” are similar to the Standard English counterparts of “that”, “these”, “you”, and “best”, but they have been cut down, simplified and are written like they are spoken. Despite Jamaican Patois having different spelling and grammar, it still has words that are the same in Jamaican Patois and Standard English, like “Good”, “hope”, “lines” and “reach”. Here is a quote and translation from No Little Twang (3):

“Me glad fe se’s you come back bwoy, but lawd yuh let me dung. Me shame o’ yuh soh till all o’ me proudness drop a grung. Yuh mean yuh goh dah ‘Merica an spen six whole mont’ deh, an come back not a peice betta dan how yuh did goh weh?” (Louise Bennett, 1966).

“I’m glad to see you’re back, son but I feel you’ve let me down. I am highly disappointed, my pride had hit the ground. You went all the way to America and spent six whole months there and did not return any better than how you left us here?” (Louise Bennett, 1966).

Again, we see this pattern of simplifying grammar and spelling similar to both Sonny’s Letter and the practical examples. Words like “’Merica”, “deh” and “spen”, spelled like the way it is spoken and spelled differently from Standard English, but still holding the same meaning, the Standard English counterparts being; “America”, “there” and “spent”. There are also words spelled the same in both languages like “glad”, “six” and “how”.

In my eyes, the core differences between Jamaican Patois and Standard English tend to be how words and sentences are shortened and grammatically simplified in Jamaican Patois. African, Taino, and Spanish influence cause the pronunciations to be different from Standard English, and finally, Jamaican Patois has an older English influence. The last point is likely due to the communication and interaction between Jamaica and Britain dwindling after Jamaica became its own free and self-governed country. There are also similarities in the languages if we look at words like “glad”, “six”, etc, which are the same in both languages!

To conclude this post, if you want to look more into the history, differences and culture behind Standard English and Jamaican Patois, check out my list of sources at the bottom down there, and make sure to check out this video by Langfocus who was the core inspiration behind this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNM-BE4xAyo


(1) Jamaica: History. (n.d.). In Encyclopædia Britannica online. Retrieved from: http://thecommonwealth.org/our-member-countries/jamaica/history

(2) Linton Kwesi Johnson. 1979. Sonny’s Letter.

(3) Louise Bennett. 1966. No Little Twang.

(4) Paul Jorgensen. [Langfocus]. (2019, July 14th). Jamaican Patois (NOT English!). [MP4]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNM-BE4xAyo

(5) United Kingdom. (n.d.). In Encyclopædia Britannica online. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/place/United-Kingdom

Published by Simen Andersen

I am a Norwegian 16-year-old aspiring to become an English professor. Please send me any and all criticism so I may improve myself!

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