Patwa – The Creole Language of Jamaica

Russell Green – Kingston

It’s the crayons Jamaicans use to colour their lives. It’s the essence of every dancehall song. It’s the sweet sound that reminds every Jamaican living abroad of home. It’s Jamaican Creole, commonly  referred to as Patwa (Patois).


Patwa came into existence more than 300 years ago, on the plantations of Britain’s then-largest Caribbean island territory, Jamaica. As with other Caribbean creole languages, Patwa emerged as a result of the need for African slaves and their British oppressors to communicate. Unable to assimilate seamlessly to the English language, slaves spoke a reduced, simplified version of English, a version that omitted certain features of English, and added some new features of its own. It also incorporated aspects of the slaves’ native languages, such as Twi and Yoruba, which came to influence the vocabulary, grammar and phonology of Patwa. Given how long slavery lasted in Jamaica, the constant influx of slaves from various parts of West Africa, and the high fertility rate among slaves, Patwa developed and flourished as a creole language, becoming quite naturally the mother tongue of the new generation of slaves born on the island. We can only imagine how that version of Patwa sounded, but we can infer that perhaps it resembled the languages of the slaves more closely.

Attitudes towards Patwa

We cannot analyse the current attitudes towards Patwa if we don’t first take a look at the position and status of Patwa in the former plantation society. Prior to the emancipation, Patwa was mainly the language of the slaves. Various novels set in Jamaica during the era of colonisation and slavery in the Caribbean tend to designate Creole languages as ‘negro talk’ or ‘slave talk’. Though Patwa soon also became the language of some ‘creolised’ slave masters (whites that were born in Jamaica), the language was never really considered a language in itself; it was but a broken or contaminated form of the English language that primitive blacks, supposedly, could not speak properly.

Fast-forward to independence. Patwa remains suppressed, though released in spontaneous bursts of excitement, grief, laughter or ire. Of course, being such an expressive language, as most creole languages are, it was the ideal language for the arts. Thanks to Patwa, Jamaican music, drama and literature progressively made indelible marks on the world scene. In addition, Patwa, at that time, resonated in the hearts of many Jamaicans, even many of those who decidedly erected an outward facade of disapproval and dismissal when it came to the language. For this reason, Patwa prevailed at cultural events and festivals, where music, food, dance and general Jamaican-ness was best expressed through the language. And this was accepted to an extent, especially because such cultural expression became the oil for the engine of tourism. However, Patwa remained shackled to its role in entertainment, prohibited from stepping over to the realms of education, government and social services, as it was still ‘broken, sub-standard English’.

Present-day feelings

Though Patwa has not gained official status, and continues to be disregarded by some, its indubitable rise in recognition and use in the public sphere have not gone unnoticed. Huge banners and billboards advertising local and even international products and services now headline catchy phrases in Patwa. Politicians now openly perform speeches in Parliament and to the general public partly or even entirely in Patwa. Television and radio ads now feature lively skits or dialogue in Patwa. Still, many still don’t see Patwa as useful enough to be used officially in public milieux such as in hospitals, tax offices or schools. All this despite the fact that Patwa is indeed spoken in these contexts. Nonetheless, for many, Patwa should be relegated to speech only, because according to them, it is a “spoken” language. This, despite the fact that we text in Patwa on a daily basis. It always seems as if Patwa is never enough even though we use it to do everything.

In spite of such opposition, it would be inaccurate to say that all people feel this way. Some are very proud of their language and would like to be addressed in it when they go to government offices and restaurants. Some would like to see their language taught in schools for reasons of pride, while others dream of an education system that incorporates Patwa and allows students to grasp concepts in their mother tongue. There is progress, no doubt. Indeed, there are still (and there will always be) those who view Patwa as the language of slavery, the language of uneducated people, the language of the ghetto, the undesirable language, but one thing is certain: Patwa naa go no we! (Patwa is here to stay!)

Patwa moving on a slow band wagon

Change is coming, but on a sluggish, dilapidated, old band wagon. An old band wagon that many Jamaicans seem to jump on in the moments at which Patwa brings glory to Jamaica. When it wins a Reggae Grammy, or is appropriated by “tap a tap” (famous)American singers, as Beyonce and Drake, for their #1 hits, when it attracts tourists who are eager to learn it, or becomes the popular language of European cosmopolitan cities. It is only when the foreigner comes in and tells us we’re pretty that we really believe it, as it were. Otherwise, we look into a disfiguring mirror shattered by colonisation that only portrays Patwa as a hideous corruption to be done away with.

In any case, the band wagon may be slow but at least it’s moving. Caribbean linguists such as Professor Hubert Devonish and Dr Michelle Kennedy of the University of the West Indies have contributed extensively to research on Patwa, and the former even once instituted a bilingual education model, in which both Patwa and English were used to teach primary school students. Of course, this model yielded positive results, showing an improvement in performance when compared to similar monolingual groups at the same grade level at the same school. Others have paved the way for a standardised writing system. Cassidy and LePage, two linguists who were fascinated by the Jamaican language, developed this system. However, it is hardly ever used in day to day communication, since everyone believes that he/she should be able to spell Patwa any way he/she thinks makes sense. It’s a pity they don’t realise they’re further weighing down the band wagon instead of propelling it forward. Hopefully one day we’ll be able to say proudly, “We speak Jamaican Patwa here” without feeling as if an ingenious product of our ancestors’ resilience and resourcefulness is inferior or “chaka-chaka” ( muddled and unpleasant) in any way.

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