Think of the Caribbean and you’ll probably picture mile upon mile of white sand beaches and an endless stretch of sparkling blue sea. The Caribbean archipelago actually encompasses more than 7,000 individual islands, so when we talk about the Caribbean, we could be referring to a number of destinations. The islands most popular with tourists include the likes of Barbados, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and St Lucia. Although English is widely spoken throughout all of these countries, there are variations in regional dialects that you might not be familiar with, and perhaps on occasion, may not even recognise! Welcome to the world of Patois (a.k.a ‘Patwa’)!
What is Patois, or Patwa?
Known locally as ‘Pat-wa’ or ‘Pat-wah’, Patois is often accused of being little more than broken English, but that isn’t the case at all. The word ‘Patois’ is used to describe a language that is not standard, and is derived from an old French word of the same spelling meaning ‘local dialect’. Caribbean patois is sometimes, but not always, English with an additional mixture of words from west African languages. Though due to the rich diversity of the Caribbean islands, you will also hear words from various Romance languages in some places, with English percentages fluctuating in and out, whereas in others it’s more typical to encounter Arabic, Hebrew, German, Dutch, Chinese, and even Vietnamese!
Oddly enough, if you could speak any of the aforementioned languages, you could probably slowly start to string a few sentences together in Patois. Alternatively, check out WikiHow for Jamaican Patois, or reach out to a language course provider such as Language Trainers and request a Patois native.
A little history
Jamaican Patwa is one of the most common forms of Caribbean patois, is further classified as a Creole language, with a more typical west African influence. Jamaican Patwa developed during the 17th century, when slaves from west and central Africa were forced to work under English slaveholders. While Patwa is still technically English, the pronunciation and much of the vocabulary is distinctly not typical English at all!
A lot of the loanwords in Jamaican Patwa have their roots in Twi, a dialect of the African language Akan. So you might hear ‘se’ instead of ‘that’ in a sentence such as ‘they told me that’, for example. And as an example of words changing from their original meaning, ‘bafan’ means ‘toddler’ in Akan, yet in Jamaican Patwa this word describes someone who hasn’t mastered simple skills. Many other African languages play their part too in this adaptation of language for the Caribbean. As an example, ‘kaba-kaba’ in the Ewe language means ‘unreliable’, and in Patois, this has come to mean ‘a badly-done job’ or a person who has done a bad job of something.
What you already know
Many typical Patois words and pronunciations you have probably already heard and didn’t realise their Caribbean origins. The pronunciation ‘caan’ means ‘can’t”, while ‘boy’ is pronounced ‘bwoi; and ‘woman’ is ‘uman’, and so on. The chances are, you can already speak some basic Patois already!
Have you ever heard anyone speaking Patois? Are there any other languages you’ve been puzzled by while on your travels? Let me know your thoughts below.