Sat | Jan 29, 2022

Patois – bridge or barrier?

Published:Friday | July 10, 2015 | 12:00 AM

July 1 was International Reggae Day (IRD). Long before February was branded as Reggae Month, a mere seven years ago, Andrea Davis 'sighted' the need to pay annual attention to reggae's global impact. For more than two decades, this energetic creative industries consultant has worked very hard to make IRD a calendar event, not just in Jamaica but around the world. And she has certainly succeeded!

One of the highlights of the IRD media festival is a forum, streamed live on the Internet, which focuses on current issues in the music business. This year's theme was 'Securing Jamaica's Competitive Advantage in the Global Market'. The packed programme included a wide range of speakers such as HBO's corporate VP of affiliate sales, Javier Figuera; and attorney Cordel Green, executive director of the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica.

Billboard journalist Patricia Meschino confirmed that Jamaican artistes have lost their dominance on both the album and singles reggae charts. Our music has gone to the world and we no longer control the market. I suppose that was to be expected. All the same, it makes you wonder if we in Jamaica really understand the economic potential of the reggae music industry.




I was asked to speak on the topic, 'Cultural Authenticity - Patois: Bridge/Barrier'? I really don't like that generic term 'patois'. I prefer 'Jamaican', which specifically confirms the link between language and national identity. Language is, indeed, a powerful expression of cultural authenticity.

But 'authenticity' can be very tricky. Who decides what is authentic and what is not? It all depends on who is talking to who. Or whom, as the English-language purists would prefer. Jamaican is the heart language of the majority of the Jamaican people. Some of us would say it is an authentic expression of Jamaican cultural identity.

But our school system does not take this language seriously. It's not on the curriculum. As far as the Ministry of Education is concerned, the mother tongue of most Jamaicans is not a proper language. It's a bastard child of legitimate English - an 'outside pikni'. To be truly educated in Jamaica, you must leave that 'backward' non-language far behind.




By contrast, foreigners clearly recognise that Jamaican is a real-real language in its own right. And it has to be learnt systematically. So they open their minds. Last month, I got an email with this subject heading: "I can't seem to figure out what 'fi wi' means." Based on the name and email address, I assumed it was from a Jewish-American male.

After giving some examples from my blog in which I used 'fi wi', he asked, "Can you help?" Of course, I could. I explained that 'fi wi' means 'our'. He sent another email: "Interesting! So what is our 'sinting'? And thank you very much for your prompt reply."

Again, I translated. 'Sinting' means 'something'. And I elaborated. For an individual, 'fi mi (me) sinting' would be personal possession. On the other hand, 'fi wi', first person plural, suggests collective possession of cultural traditions - intangible assets. I was amused by his response: "Wow, so complex! Thank you again for taking the time to answer my questions."

It would be quite rare for a typical victim of our school system to conceive Jamaican as a 'complex' language. Because it is the language of home and heart, it's 'simple'. We learn it naturally, not as a result of hard effort, so we don't even realise that Jamaican has its own grammar.

If you want to hear ungrammatical Jamaican, just listen to a foreigner who hasn't mastered the language! We don't understand how difficult it can be for non-native speakers to become proficient in Jamaican. Many of them are highly motivated and they invest a lot of time, energy and money in the enterprise.




A classic example is Mike Pawka, who compiled the online Rasta/Patois Dictionary in December 1992. It's regularly updated, the last time on April 13, 2014. I emailed Mike to ask what made him do the dictionary. By the way, his email address is It sweet mi fi true!

Here's his response: "When I became interested in reggae music in the early '80s, a lot of it was hard to understand, and I was looking for glossaries or dictionaries to help me out, but didn't find any. I began to collect definitions that I found in the back of books.

"I started the newsgroup in the early '90s and got a lot of definitions from contributors to that group. From there it just grew, as you can see, from the sources section in the back. Later, I added phrases and proverbs."

There's also a Japanese/Jamaican dictionary, The Patois Handbook: Let's Speak Jamaican!, written by Yvonne Goldson, a Jamaican who has lived in Japan for quite some time. Her book was first published in Tokyo in 1998 and has become a best-seller, now in its 10th edition. Incidentally, there are quite a few Japanese who don't know English but are fluent in Jamaican.

So is the Jamaican language a bridge or a barrier? It's both. For many Jamaicans, our mother tongue is nothing but a barrier to upward social mobility - even though it speaks to our heart. And then there are all those non-Jamaicans who learn the language as a sturdy bridge to understanding another culture.

- Carolyn Cooper is a teacher of English language and literature. Visit her bilingual blog at Email feedback to and