The first time visitor to Kingston, Jamaica is often bewildered, or even frightened by constant yells for attention and the strange language that is spoken. A young man like myself is often referred to as; “rude bwo,y” “brown man,” “soulja,” “my yout,” or even “ugly bwoy.” The reason for this is that in Jamaican tradition physical or imagined attributes are used to pick one out in a crowd or even provide a name. However, for first time visitors this becomes your introduction into the world of Jamaican Patois.
One way to describe Jamaican Patois comes from my aunt, who along with my father were born and raised in the country. She says, “we speak forward, backward, inside out and upside down.” You’ll hear the locals cut letters off words, rearrange sentences, pronounce things differently or use a word unknown to the English language.
At first you might think you know what is being said, but in reality you have no idea. For instance, what does “if a egg natty inna di red” mean? Or, “young bud nuh know storm.” Or,“one one coco full basket.” These are widely used phrases that sound like English, use English words, but are extremely hard to interpret.
Jamaican Patois is a play on words, combining the Queens English, various West African languages, Spanish, French, Hindi and Chinese. It has a rhythm and texture that can quickly excite, anger or sadden with impunity. One must be quick with the tongue, responding to insults with artfully crafted comebacks and praises with playful flirtatious humor. The average visitor fails to understand these facts, preconceiving Jamaicans to speak English. Which is true, it is the official language. But, Patois is the language widely used between friends, family, acquaintances, at the market, on the street, in music and a whole host of other unique cultural identifiers. Jamaican Patois is the mixture that is Jamaica.
There is no way to formally study Patois and there is no written standardized form. That fact gives it some magic. Metaphors are constantly used, which provides a deeper meaning to what is being said. Imagination is important and visualization helps interpretation. Most importantly, Jamaican Patois is used with humor, helping to alleviate stressful situations, rooted in Jamaican’s violent history.
So, when you make your first trip to the island and explore the market and you hear “hey yardie,” smile and take it as a complement.
If a egg natty inna di red – I am centrally involved in anything and everything
Young bud nuh know storm – Experience teaches wisdom
One one coco full basket – Every little bit adds up
Yardie – Refers to someone from Jamaica
-Pablo Hester, DUSA Graduate Peer Advisor