One of our favorite things about living in Jamaica is the Patwa (or Patois) language. To give you a sample of some of the phrases we hear on a daily basis, we enlisted the help of a coworker’s daughter. She acts out six classic examples of Patwa from the Jamaican school yard. See if you can tell what she’s saying; and if you’re so inclined, post your guesses as a Comment to this post. (Current and returned PCVs don’t count!) We’ll update this post in about a week with a translation of each phrase.
Below you’ll find the translation of our Patwa Quiz: first, the phrase in patwa; then the direct translation in English; and finally the actual meaning, connotation, and uses of each phrase.
Patwa: “Mi naa romp wit yuh!” … English: “I’m not romping (playing) with you!” … Meaning: “Leave me alone/I don’t want to play” Kids use this when someone is pestering or rough-housing them, which is a very common occurrence. It’s always said very emphatically in frustration.
#2 and #3
Patwa: “Yuh too lie. Yuh too tief.” … English “You too much lie. You too much thief.” … Meaning: “You’re a liar. You’re a big thief.” Kids like to call each other out.
Patwa: “ ‘Top yuh nize.” … English: “Stop your noise.” … Meaning: “Shut your mouth/Be quiet.”
Patwa: “Yuh chat too much.” … English: “You talk too much.” … Meaning: “Be quiet/You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Alisha does a good demonstration of the attitude with which this phrase is usually delivered.
#6 (labeled #5 in video… oops)
Patwa: “No sah, man.” … English: “No sir, man.” … Meaning: “No way/I don’t believe it/That can’t be right, etc.” Often it’s just an emphatic “No sah!” when casting judgment or disbelief, often in jest.
#7 (labeled #6 in video)
Patwa: “Mi kyaan badda wit yuh, yuh know!” … English: “I can’t bother with you, you know.” … Meaning: “You’re too much/I don’t want to waste my time on you,” usually said light-heartedly but also in frustration or exhaustion.
A Likkle More About Patwa
Like so many things in this diverse country, there are many different opinions about Patwa. Some people look down on it and even teach their children that it’s bad. Some say it’s not truly a language. Others are proud of it. There is a movement to standardize its spelling as it exists primarily as a spoken language. In essence, it is a blend of African and European languages, sometimes referred to as Pidgin English, that originated with the slaves and continues to evolve to this day. In fact, Patwa words and accents vary across the island, to the point where people have trouble understanding Jamaicans from different areas.
As a visitor to Jamaica, you can get by with standard English. The extent to which Peace Corps Volunteers use Patwa in daily life varies from person to person. While a few do attempt to speak it consistently, most only uses certain phrases when necessary (like on public transportation). As an unspoken rule, it’s less appropriate to use in professional settings (unless you’re telling a story), so Volunteers hear it more or less depending on where they work.
Jamaicans seem to react to outsiders using Patwa based on their own personal feelings about the language. Whereas you might think people would all respect a foreigner’s attempt to speak the local dialect, sometimes Jamaicans take offense, as if you’re talking down to them. Or they see it as inauthentic. Most of the time, though, they just laugh. In that way, it can be a good ice breaker or tool for comic relief (Jedd’s specialty). As we’ve said before, Jamaica is a land of contradictions that will confound and surprise you; the language is no exception.