The Word Was Good

“Likkle but tallawah.” Jamaica is a small island with a massive influence. Much of that is due to the words of her people. The way Patois rolls off the tongue and the wit of Jamaican wordplay has been repackaged around the world, often imitated but never duplicated. From grandma’s sayings to stageplays, Jamaican wordsmiths at all levels are powerful. Their words show up everywhere from literature to the dinner table. These words change our lives and in turn, change the world.

In the beginning was the word. The word was good.

To understand the impact of language from Jamaica, it is necessary to understand its roots. Both the formal and informal forms of the Jamaican tongue shape the image of the island and its inhabitants. What native speakers refer to as Jamaican Patois is defined as a creole by linguists. It is a mixture of English and West African languages. This particular mix has given natives of the island distinct pronunciations (“hemphasize yuh hache yuh hignorant hass,”) and a governing structure for grammar and sentence formation. A blend of cultural traditions, resilience, and cunning lends to the terminology and phrasing. “Fi” can be used instead of ‘for’; “mi” replaces the possessive ‘my’; “unnu” is a plural ‘you’, and so on. Similar mixes exist elsewhere, but Jamaica’s lingua franca carries a special import. The versatility it offers speakers to switch between the so-called Queen’s English and the equally royal parlance of the common man, makes it exponentially more potent.

Illustration by Natalie Blake

Illustration by Natalie Blake

Like most children, my learning began at home. I mimicked sounds around me until sounds became words, and words gained meaning. Later, I would realize the meanings imbued in the phrases I used translated differently across the other cultures I navigated daily. Through language, I embraced my Jamaican roots while situated in Brooklyn, New York. Sitting at my kitchen table, I experienced the figurative weight of the Jamaican word as it was doled out in morsels. It could be a light and fluffy encouragement to your “boonoonoonoos” or a heavy warning meant to warn of imminent danger or pass along a moral teaching. After all, “teef nuh laff after good sumting.”

Words are one of the primary tools we use to love, caress, chastise, educate, and sting. The island’s cultivation of sugar and spice is reflected in the simultaneous embrace and snap of Jamaican speech. How you understand a word affects the manner in which you move in the world. Consider the word, soon.  For most, ‘soon’ suggests something imminent. For Jamaicans, to suggest that something will soon be done, is to note that it is still on one’s mind, but the time frame is up to a very generous interpretation. There is nothing as belly-aching as a hungry child being told, “Hush, the food soon come.” That means the rice has yet to be cooked, the meat is not seasoned, and the vegetables are not prepared. “Soon come,” “soon reach,” “soon done,” are all indications that one will be waiting for a while. And hence, the concept of island time, explained in one little word; soon.

Any perception of lackadaisical lifestyle however, is contradicted by other common structures of Jamaican language. Verbs and nouns both become hyper-active worlds. Why ask, when you can beg? “Beg yuh a favor.” “Beg yuh piece ah gum.” We implore people to take things: “Tek it easy;” “Beg yuh tek time;” and, “Tek mi things and tek mi money too,” amongst other things.  Anger is expected if someone “tek me if idiot” or “tek me for poppy show.” My personal favorite structural trick is the repeated word. My grandmother often repeated that my dad refused to use the word small or little as a child, instead calling everything “fenkey fenkey.”  I adopted the syntax if not the actual words. I bestow praise by noting something is “good up good up,” laments are made that “wanty wanty nah getty, getty getty no wanty,” and intentions are clarified with questions like, “Is vex you wan vex me?” Any descriptor can be used twice when once would not be good enough. As an oratorical device it adds a pleasant melody for the ear.  Moreover, there is an imperative punch loaded in the repeated word. The point is clear.

The legacy and impact of Jamaica’s words does not end in the home. It extends into activism and scholarship that has made its way across the world. In my little corner of the world, I learned and recited the words of poet Claude McKay as a child. Without knowing that he had a book of verse in Patois, I found the bombasity and forwardness of Jamaican culture in his most famous poem, “If We Must Die.” The poem possesses a stark imagery moving from animals to monsters before asserting the humanity of Black people. This work retains a prominent role in the cannon of Harlem Renaissance poetry, and the militancy in its words still channels a warrior cry to fight back against racial injustice. If McKay’s work was an artistic mode of radicalism, then Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s expressed radical thought with oratorical relishes that helped spread a pan-African movement. His calls of “Africa for the Africans,” and implorations to “Look to Africa, when a Black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand," instilled a sense of racial pride in Blacks in Jamaica, London, the United States, and beyond.

The spread of reggae music since the 1970s has done the most to spread the power of the Jamaican language. Reggae artists have shared the word of influential thinkers. Garvey’s most well-known words were not made famous by him, but by the revered reggae artist, Robert Nesta Marley. In his popular hit, “Redemption Song,” Marley sings “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” These lyrics are modified from a Garvey proclamation: “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.” Common sayings reflecting the agricultural livelihood of many in the nation like “Every hoe have dem stick a bush” are enshrined in Buju Banton’s “Wanna Be Loved.” The country’s treasure troves—including folk songs, hymns and religious texts—are documented in song. This poetry set to music has spread throughout the world with many attempting their own versions of reggae.

As this process occurred, sub genres were created. A new form of music, hip-hop, was born pulling on many of reggae’s influences. Hip-hop in turn has promoted Jamaica’s words to entirely new audiences. Descendants of Jamaicans like The Notorious B.I.G. incorporated aspects of the culture in his songs. When we rap along to “Get Money” and say, “You can be as good as the best of them, but as bad as the worst. Don’t test me. You better move over”, we’re really singing the lines from “Don’t Test Me” by Deborahe Glasgow and Shabba Ranks. His special intonation on the line “young, fresh, and green” in “Dead Wrong” comes from Barrington Levy. More recently, admirers like Drake have sampled and borrowed the sound to great acclaim. Beenie Man’s “Tear Off Mi Garment” featured in the popular movie Dancehall Queen, provided the right punch of authenticity for Drake’s 2017 summer hit, “Controlla.”

Other forms of popular culture have continued to spread the potency of the Jamaican culture. Poet and folklorist Dr. Louise Bennett helped maintain the stories and particularities of the Jamaican word in her appearances. Comedians like Oliver Samuels have toured the world and appeared on international television, paving the way for comedians today who headline shows and share performances via social media. Most of these cultural exports exist primarily as aural delights. When accompanied by visuals, the grip that the word has over listeners is only enhanced.

The strength of the Jamaican word is also found in literature. Nicole Dennis-Benn published the riveting Here Comes the Sun which features Jamaicans speaking in their every day dialect and code-switching between speech used amongst peers versus that for business. Her book sections are titled with common sayings like “God Nuh Like Ugly” and “Chicken Merry Hawk Deh Near.” Similarly, Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings puts on full display the variety of the Jamaican word as you move amongst different classes, locations, and temperaments between characters. The nuanced distinctions make a point about the power of linguistic choices in defining a person.

Since I first learned to speak, I have been influenced by a countless number of cultural factors. Still, the early introduction to the language of Jamaica will always have an outsized impact on my life. Sugar and spice, the island’s ying and yang, pulls and pushes at the ways in which I express myself. It underlies the basis of my thought process and an inclination to exaggerate the mundane, and minimize the unfortunate. The language of Jamaica has made me who I am.

A so de ting set. Don’t say a word.