The official language of Jamaica is English, but the unofficial language is a patois. Linguists and a handful of Jamaican novelists have recently transformed this oral language into written form, although for most Jamaicans it remains solely spoken -- and richly nuanced. Experts say more than 90% of its vocabulary is derived from English, with the remaining words largely borrowed from African languages. There are also words taken from Spanish, Arawak, French, Chinese, Portuguese, and East Indian languages.
Although pronounced similarly to standard English, the patois preserves many 17th- and 18th-century expressions in common use during the early British colonial settlement of Jamaica. This archaic and simplified structure, coupled with African accents and special intonation, can make the language difficult to understand for many visitors. Some linguists consider it a separate language, whereas others view it as an alternate form of English. Some of the most interesting anecdotes and fables in the Caribbean are usually told in the patois, so understanding its structure can add to your insight into Jamaican culture.
Proverbs and place names express some of the vitality of Jamaican language. For "Mind your own business," there is "Cockroach no business in fowl-yard." For being corrupted by bad companions, "You lay wid dawg, you get wid fleas." And for the pretentious, "The higher monkey climb, the more him expose."
Both British and biblical place-names abound in Jamaica. Examples include Somerset and Siloah, Highgate and Horeb. One also sees Arawak names like Linguanea, Spanish ones like Oracabessa, Scottish names like Rest-and-Be-Thankful, and entirely Jamaican names like Red Gal Ring.
A final note: The patois has been embellished and altered with the growth of Rastafarianism. Rastas have injected several grammatical concepts, one of the most apparent being the repeated use of "I" -- a reminder of their reverence of Ras Tafari. "I" is almost always substituted for the pronoun "me." It is also substituted for many prefixes or initial syllables. Thus, "all right," becomes "I're," "brethren" becomes "Idren," and "praises" becomes "Ises." The Rastafarian changes of Jamaica's patois are a recent phenomenon and have not always been adopted by non-Rastas.
How to Say It in Jamaican?
You'll be told that Jamaicans speak English. Don't believe it. Islanders have invented the most colorful language in the Caribbean: Jamaica Talk. The best expert on Jamaica Talk is Frederic G. Cassidy, who once asked a question that no one has ever really answered.
"How did Jamaicans come to talk as they do?" he asked. "The musical lilt and staccato rhythms, the mingling of strange words, the vowel sounds that go sliding off into diphthongs, the cheerful defiance of many niceties of traditional English grammar, the salty idioms, the wonderfully compressed proverbs, the pungent imagery of nicknames and epithets in the bestowal of which these islanders appear to be peculiarly adept -- where do all these hail from, and how did they come to be?"
To get you started on this strange new vocabulary, here is a preview of words and what they mean to a Jamaican.
all fruits ripe: everything goes well
alms ouse: nonsense
babylon: a policeman
baldhead: a person without dreadlocks
bata: cheap footwear
bawn back a cow: dumb
battybywoy: a gay male
bling bling: jewelry
bruck out: out of your mind
boottu: a lout
Ben Johnson day: the day before your paycheck
big up: hello
dogheart: without human feelings
fenke fenke: puny
ginnygog: a VIP
kill mi dead: I would have to die first
labba labba: gossip
likky likky: big eater
marina: sleeveless undershirt
mud up: confusing
natty dread: person with dreadlocks
poppyshow: show off
red yeye: arrogant
run boat: outdoor cooking
salt: nothing going right
skin teeth: smiling
trash 'n' ready: trendy
wha ah gwan: what's up?
walla walla: muddy
whites: white rum
zutopong: low-class person