Patwa, not Pah-toise

Patwa a no wa langwij, a wa daialek.”

A no so wi spel i.”

“Dis jos complikatid fi no riiz’n.”

Nobadi no taak so.”

One thing that can be said about linguists is they have a particularly difficult job. Jamaican linguists’ jobs are doubly hard as they are now in the process of not only standardizing the national language, but are also tasked with introducing this standardization to the Jamaican public, an extraordinarily tough crowd to please.

Jamaicans aren’t people who’re known for subtlety and as observed across social media, Patwa’s revolutionizing is going to be an uphill battle. Firstly, linguists must somehow prove to Jamaicans the validity of their own language. We all know there are many languages across the globe. Thousands upon thousands, some being created, some in the process of dying. This fact is readily accepted by many Jamaicans. Why then must Patwa prove itself? The answer unfortunately remains to be colonialism. In the contemporary Caribbean we think of colonialism—the entire period before, during and after—as a boogeyman of the past not to be unearthed. Regretfully, this has resulted in the stunting of progress, in this case, linguistically.

What does language have to do with progress? As American linguist Edward Sapir expertly noted, language and culture are inextricably related. One quite literally cannot exist without the other and culture is what informs society, so you can understand then why we need to make sure everyone, or at least for now our government, is on board. The Jamaican Language Unit (JLU), a department within the University of the West Indies’ Mona campus, has been, since 2002, working tirelessly to teach Jamaicans about the history of their language along with what the future of that language could be.

Patwa as we know it is associated with Blackness and with the colonial boogeyman still looming over us, having weaved its way throughout every facet of our society, Blackness is still associated with wrongness. No matter how much we try resist this fact with the crooning of, “There’s classism, not racism!” as though the two were somehow mutually exclusive. Many amongst us still have stories about how our Blackness was used as a tool to demean us showing Blackness unfortunately hasn’t lost its lowly social status in 21st century Jamaica. It goes then without saying that Patwa, the language of the slaves, or as it is often referred to as “broken English”, hasn’t lost its inferior position.

Like most Caribbean languages, Patwa began on the numerous networks of plantations where our ancestors were forced to cohabitate with enemy tribes and no language but the one their slave owners gave them. This meant, depending on the location, ethnic variation and size of the plantation, the acquisition of English varied. This linguistic variation is something we still see today where more rural Jamaicans have a stronger “basilectal” variation of Patwa, meaning the acquisition of Standard English was lower than in more urbanised areas. The acquisition of Standard English was then not monolithic, meaning not everyone learned to speak English the same way, at the same time. In fact, each plantation was much like each parish, township and district of Jamaica, having their own linguistic variation which accounts for how Patwa is spoken across the island today.

Before moving on, let’s talk a little about Jamaica’s language variation. There are three levels, the Acrolect, Basilect and Mesolect, which represent the variation found on the island. These levels are known as the Creole Continuum and while not a reliable tool, are oftentimes used by Jamaicans to make class distinctions. This is because there remains an insistence that language, particularly in Jamaica, exists as a binary—Patwa or English—and can be used to make value judgments.

The Acrolect is the standard variety which we know as Jamaican Standard English (not just standard English as we don’t actually speak “The Queen’s English” like we’re meant to assume). The Acrolect is typically understood to be spoken by the “elite”, meaning the most wealthy and most educated of the society.

eg.“I was walking.”  

The Basilect is the variety which is the closest to what our enslaved ancestors would have spoken in their plantation communities. This is the variation we sometimes call “raw” Patwa and is unfortunately the variation which receives the most ridicule as based on the societal norms, Patwa is reserved for the uneducated and poverty stricken.

eg. “Mi wehn a waak.”, “Mi behn de waak.”  

The Mesolect, is the variety which presents a mixture of both the Acrolectal and the Basilectal varieties. This is the variety used by most Jamaicans and is oftentimes the variety we understand to be Jamaican Standard English (JSE) because of its English-based syntax.

eg. “A woz waakin.”, “Mi did a waak.”

Now that you know the stratifications, you can probably see why there is a resistance to Patwa being recognized as a language and more so the resistance of it being a language for formal domains. How can the language of slaves be a language of instruction? The answer is simple: we are no longer slaves. Today we witness occurrences of what we mockingly call “twanging” and what our foreparents called “putting on airs”. This is the attempt of Basilectal speakers to adopt the Acrolectal variety quite unsuccessfully, the very language they are persecuted for not having acquired. If these speakers did not experience linguistic discrimination and were allowed to, in formal domains, speak their language freely, they would not feel the need to hypercorrect—for example like -adding ‘h’s’ where they needn’t be—and intonating awkwardly.

Patwa speakers, given space in and access to society, would perform better in academic and ultimately corporate spaces as they would not experience the linguistic insecurity which causes them more harm.

We do not teach Spanish speakers English by using French, so why should we be instructing Patwa speakers in English? How can they learn a language in a language they do not speak?

So, back to the issue of standardization. The way to teach someone their language in their language is to first develop that language as linguists have done. The system of writing developed for Jamaican Patwa is known to us as the Cassidy-LePage named after the two linguists who developed the orthography and of course this system has been met with disapproval if not disgust. We should see this system, however, as the foundation of what can be, rather than an infringement and bastardization of what we know and love. Unfortunately, we’re preoccupied with our own personal and regional understanding of Patwa, having become quite (understandably) protective of our language. There is a lot of, “That’s not how I say it,” and, “I’ve never heard that in my life,” rather than, “Oh, that’s new!” or, “I guess some Jamaicans say it like that.”

So what does the language look like? One thing that should be understood about Jamaicans is we spell it how we say it. That is to say, once you have a basic grasp of the writing system, all you have to do is say the word and you know how to spell it. There are no silent or secret letters; like the people, the language is straightforward. We use the same vowels accounting for the length of vowel sounds with diphthongs which are the resulting sounds of the combination or coupling of vowels in one word.



(Vowil dem)





a bax slap
e elp help
i sik sick
o bot but
u kuk cook

Long Vowels

(Lang Vowil dem)





ii miil meal
aa aax ask
uu skuul school

Combination Vowels

(Miks op Vowil dem)





ai laik like
ou ous house
ie fiesti


(Caribbean English)

uo buot bout

There are, as with all languages, irregularities, but don’t worry, these irregularities are easily identifiable to the Jamaican tongue. These irregularities are consonants which are not accounted for in the English orthography.


Ireegular Consonants

(Iregula consonant dem)





gy gyal girl
ky kyan/kyaana can/cannot
ny nyam eat
ng ting thing
sh shuga sugar
ch wach watch

You may be wondering where the table for the rest of the consonants are. Don’t worry, you already know what they are. Just remember G’s and J’s are always hard, H’s are always optional, C’s don’t exist , X’s and Q’s are replaced by KS’s and KW’s. Easy, right? No, okay here’s a little example:

Dem did kil awf di wol a di Kween dem a Hinglan wid aks kawz King Enri did mad out.

No doubling of consonants necessary since there’s no waste in Jamaican, every letter has its place and no one letter is doing anymore work than it needs to. That’s truly one of the best parts of our beautiful language, no surprises. The only thing left to do is to ensure legislation is put into place and ratified so Jamaicans at home and abroad can have one more thing to boast about: having the widest spoken Creole language in the world.