No matter how little you know about Jamaican languages, you probably have an idea of what you think Jamaicans sound like. Maybe you’ve heard the lyrics in a reggae song, or the exaggerated accents of Jamaican movie characters.
But have you ever asked yourself, “What language do Jamaicans speak?” Is there a language called “Jamaican”?
There are two main languages in Jamaica: English is the official language, but the majority of the population speaks an English-based creole language called Jamaican Patois. Which language is spoken depends entirely on the situation.
Read on as we discuss the languages spoken in Jamaica and how they came to be. We’ll also provide you with a few examples of common Patois words and phrases.
As we mentioned, English is Jamaica’s official language, so it falls under the Indo-European language family. The primary use of English in Jamaica is in business, government and educational settings. For some, speaking standard English also signifies high social status.
The English language has been spoken in Jamaica for close to 400 years. In 1655, the British invaded Jamaica and began driving out the Spanish, who had previously had control of the island.
Unsurprisingly, because of the way English was brought over, the spelling and vocabulary of Jamaican English are largely influenced by British English. However, the pronunciation of Jamaican English words can be quite different from standard British English.
Although Jamaican English is technically the country’s official language, there’s an unofficial official language in Jamaica called Jamaican Patois (aka Patwa or Jamaican Creole). This creole language is widely spoken across Jamaica.
While Jamaican Patois is quite different from standard English, there’s actually some overlap between the two—that’s because much of Jamaican Patois is derived from British English.
How did Jamaican Patois develop?
During the slave trade of the 1600s, Africans were brought to Jamaica to work on plantations. These enslaved people came with a variety of native languages. Eventually, they began learning English—the language of the slave owners—and combined it with their own languages. They also borrowed words from other languages such as Spanish, Hindi and Arawak, an aboriginal language of Jamaica that’s nearly extinct today. Jamaican Patois is just one of many examples of creole languages that were developed from the African diaspora.
When Jamaicans gained their independence around 300 years later, Jamaican Patois stuck around. With deep cultural and historical roots, Patois is Jamaica’s main language for passing stories and customs down from one generation to the next.
A bit about Jamaican Patois
- Some of the Old English vocabulary from the 1600s, when Jamaican Patois was developed, is still in use today.
- Jamaican Patois is historically an oral language but has been evolving into a written language as well.
- Jamaican Patois doesn’t have strict spelling conventions.
- It’s an integral part of Jamaica’s arts scene: It can be found in music—such as reggae and dancehall—poetry and literature.
Jamaican Patois linguistic features
- Patois pronunciation is very song-like with many more syllable sounds than standard English.
- Jamaican Patois speakers don’t use the “th” sound: A word with a voiceless “th,” like “three” would be “tree.” A voiced “th,” as in “that,” becomes “dat.”
- The “h” sound at the beginning of a word is silent—e.g., “house” would be “‘ouse.”
- You pluralize a sentence by adding “dem,” which replaces “they,” “those,” “them,” etc.
Examples of Jamaican Patois
Since Jamaican Patois is the most widespread language in the country, we thought we’d give you a few examples of words and phrases:
- I understand – Zeen
- Pat yourself on the back – Big up yourself
- What are you up to? – Wha yuh deh pon?
- Hello – Ello / Gud day
- Where are you going? – Weh yah guh?
- Low-class; not having good taste – Crebbie crebbie
- Children – Pickney
- Leave me alone – Lef mi
To hear how some common Patois words sound, have a listen here.
Now you know about Jamaican languages—big up yourself!
So, what language do they speak in Jamaica?
Well, it’s all about context.
Although English is Jamaica’s official language of government and business, Patois is undeniably a deeply rooted and integral part of Jamaicans’ vibrant culture.
Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and children, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.