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Patois Fe Real

Kai Imani Gandy and Allan P. Evering


     According to the 1990 Census of Population and Housing, only three out of five New Yorkers claim to use English at home. This statistic is due to the fact that there is a large number of ethnic communities in New York. New York is home to 439,4000 Jamaican immigrants, making New York the state with the largest population of Jamaican immigrants. One of the largest communities of Jamaican-Americans in New York is situated in Queens and has 93,153 Jamaican-Americans. In this paper, we will give you an account of what we have learned about the history of Jamaicans in America, the history of Jamaican Patois, the accent of Jamaican Patois, conflicting views of Jamaican Patois, Jamaican Patois in early childhood education, effects of Jamaican Patois on education, intercultural communication, stores and restaurants, Jamaican publications, and the Haitian presence in the Queens Village community.

History of Jamaicans in America

     When Columbus "discovered" Jamaica in 1494, there were indigenous people residing in Jamaica known as the Arawaks. The Arawaks were a peaceful people who migrated from Venezuela at two separate points in history. The first migration was in 650AD and the second was in 900AD. Columbus heard the natives call the land "Xaymaca", so he decided to call the land "Jamaica". There was an influx of Spanish-Europeans in 1510. They settled in present-day Spanishtown in Jamaica. In 1655, Jamaica was captured by the British who turned to large-scale importation of Africans to be used on sugar plantations. In 1838, slaves were emancipated and plantation owners began to pay wages to its workers.

     In the years following World War II, United States and United Kingdom were in need of reconstruction and expansion of their economy. Many Jamaicans saw this as an opportunity to come to the U.S.A. and the U.K. for a more prosperous living. Consequently, the years following 1944 saw a tremendous migration of Jamaican immigrants who came to aide reconstruction. These immigrants settled in areas such as New York and London. Today, there are large and well-established Jamaican communities in these areas.

History of Patois

     When the British began the large scale importation of Africans to be used as slaves in 1655, plantation owners and slaves used a Lingua Franca to communicate with each other. A Lingua Franca is a language used to facilitate communication between two people that do not have a common language. As the contact between the plantation owners, who spoke English, and the slaves, who used various African dialects, was sustained, the Lingua Franca developed into a pidgin language. The pidgin was based on the languages of the plantation owners and the slaves, but had a much smaller vocabulary than any one of the languages. The children of the plantation owners maintained the English language. The children of the slaves, however, considered the pidgin to be their native language. As the pidgin became more advanced with respect to grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary, it developed into a Creole, which we now refer to as Jamaican Patois. Not all Jamaicans use Patois. It is the dominant dialect among the poor in Jamaica, but it is not exclusive to them. Many middle-class and upper-class Jamaicans use Patois in social settings as opposed to the standard English they use in the workplace.

A Lesson on the Accent of Jamaican Patois

     Jamaicans often drop the h's (thus 'ouse' instead of house) and add them in unexpected places (e.g., 'hemphasize'). Many don't pronounce 'th' and also drop the 'h'; so you hear t'ree for three and t'anks for thanks. The is usually pronounced as de and them as dem. They also sometimes drop the w, as in ooman (woman).

Conflicting Views of Jamaican Patois

     There is an ongoing debate in Jamaica over the use of the Jamaican dialect. There are people who strongly support the formalization of its use in Jamaican society and there are those who strongly oppose it. However, in the Jamaican community in New York, it is only acceptable to speak Jamaican Patois among others who also speak the language. The general feeling about Patois is that it is a "poor man's language". It is considered to be so because Standard English grammar rules are not followed, giving the speaker the appearance of being uneducated. It does, however, serve as a good way for Jamaicans to relate to each other in informal settings.

     A boundary is something used to express one's membership in a specific ethnic group. Jamaican Patois serves as a boundary for the Jamaican-American community. Those that use a deep Jamaican Patois, the Patois that most strongly deviates from Standard English, are obviously thought to be Jamaican immigrants. Those who are born in the United States, but are of Jamaican heritage usually do not acquire the ability to master Jamaican Patois. Jamaican Patois is lost in first generation Americans because immigrant parents usually do not encourage its use and it is not taught, or even allowed, in American schools.

Jamaican Patois in Early Childhood Education

     Many first-generation Jamaican-Americans are born into a household in which one or both of the parents speak Jamaican Patois. So, in the early stage of childhood development, the child will develop an ear for listening to Jamaican Patois and may emulate his/her parents in an attempt to speak Jamaican Patois as well. In the primary schools in Queens Village, Jamaican-American students would never be taught how to speak Jamaican Patois, and would thus never be taught in a bilingual (Standard English/Jamaican Patois) environment. In fact, by the time the child enters elementary school, teachers begin to "correct" any traces of Jamaican Patois in the child's speech pattern.

     We sat in on one of the Kindergarten classes at St. Joachim and Anne Elementary School to observe the speech patterns of children of Jamaican descent. There were four children in the class whose speech patterns suggested that they were Jamaican. Three of them spoke an English dialect that was much closer to Standard English than Jamaican Patois. Ethan, the fourth child, was an immigrant, himself, who spoke in a dialect that was much closer to Jamaican Patois than Standard English. It was clear that Jamaican Patois was his native tongue, but because he had attended St. Joachim and Anne Elementary for pre-Kindergarten as well, there had already been steps taken to "fix" his speech. He did not have a problem interacting with his classmates, so his teacher did not seem to be concerned with his accent; but from time to time, he would use words that did not belong to the English language and his teacher would correct him. For instance, the class was talking about fears when Ethan said that he was afraid of duppies. The class giggled a little because they did not understand what he was saying. When he described his fear more in-depth, the teacher realized that he was talking about ghosts. She corrected him and he began to replace the Jamaican word duppy with the English word ghost.

Effects of Jamaican Patois on Education

     Many of the young Jamaican-Americans in this community are appreciative of the sense of culture they received growing up, but we spoke to two college-aged Jamaican-American students who felt that growing up in a Jamaican Patois-speaking household hindered their success on the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. One of them claimed that growing up in a house where his parents would say things like, "Unu mus stop di rompin!!" instead of "Settle down!!" hurt his vocabulary because many of the words he was expected to know for the test were never used in his house.

Intercultural Communication

     Jamaican Patois is a language that is heavily based on English. So, anyone who has the ability to speak Jamaican Patois should also be able to understand Standard English with ease. Thus, it is not necessary to have a translator for translation from Standard English to Jamaican Patois. On the contrary, Jamaican Patois can be anywhere from mildly to completely incomprehensible to speakers of Standard English for two reasons: 1.) The accent used when speaking Jamaican Patois is very different from the accent used when speaking Standard English; and 2.) There are words used when speaking Jamaican Patois that are not taken from the English language. Still, there is not a need for a translator to facilitate the speaker of Standard English in understanding the speaker of Jamaican Patois because the majority of Jamaican-Americans (born in the United States and Jamaica) are taught to speak Standard English from an early age. If the situation arises in which a speaker of Jamaican Patois and a speaker of Standard English are communicating, the speaker of Jamaican Patois will "turn on" his/her Standard English-speaking ability in order to have a successful conversation.

     Because it is believed that speakers of Jamaican Patois can carry on successful conversations in English, the government does not feel that it is necessary to make special provisions for Jamaican Patois-speaking people. Likewise, people providing any type of service (such as a nurse) would never need to hire anyone to interpret for them. If the Jamaican Patois-speaking party is the patient, it is assumed that he/she could turn down his/her Jamaican accent to accommodate the nurse. We interviewed a Jamaican-American nurse, Nurse Valdie Steers, who spoke with a very thick Jamaican accent. She said that she attempts to make each patient as comfortable as possible. So, if the patient is Jamaican-American, then she speaks her natural Jamaican Patois; but if the patient is a speaker of Standard English, she changes her accent so that the patient can easily understand her.

Stores and Restaurants

     If you ever want West Indian food, Queens Village is the place to go. There are many Jamaican restaurants and bakeries all over the area. They are owned an run by Jamaican Patois-speaking people and the food is authentic Jamaican cuisine. We visited Hue's Bakery, where we ordered one order of Oxtail and one order of Curried Goat. We noticed that the employees were speaking to each other in their native tongue; but when a non-Jamaican Patois-speaking person entered the establishment, the cashier altered her speech to make it sound more like standard English. There are also a few clothing shops that sell the latest trends in Jamaica. We went into a store called One Love Clothing and observed a similar phenomenon. Taking notice of the fact that we were not Jamaican Patois-speaking people, the salesperson made his adjustment and spoke very slowly to us in an attempt to speak in a manner that was closer to Standard English than his own.

Jamaican Publications

     In Queens Village and the surrounding areas, there are so many people of Jamaican heritage that there are newspapers from Jamaica that can be purchased at the local supermarkets. Although the newspapers are written in English they sometimes contain reference to Jamaican Patois. For example, the November 3 publication of The Gleaner contains an article titled, Patois has its Place, but Lets Teach English. This article was written by Brenda Smith, an elementary school English teacher. It focuses on her frustration with children who use Patois. She says, "My experiences while trying to teach English as a second language to learners whose mother tongue is Patois is challenging. Boys, books, and beds, would be 'bwoy dem, book dem, and bed dem.'" Smith believes that Patois should not be used in an English speaking classroom because it hinders the learning process. Like the teacher, newspaper journalists generally believe that Patios is acceptable in informal language, but not in a English speaking forum such as the newspaper. The three most popular Jamaican newspapers that are distributed in this area are The Gleaner, The Observer, and tabloid called X News. These newspapers afford the Jamaican community in Queens the opportunity to remain aware of all of the current events in Jamaica.

The Haitian Presence

     There is a large population of Jamaican-Americans in Queens Village; however, Jamaican Patois is not the only non-Standard English language that can be heard in this area. Haitian Creole is another very prevalent language that flourishes in this community. This language is a French-based Creole, influenced by West African languages that were spoken by the slaves in Haiti. Not only can the language be heard, but there are many stores in Queens Village that have signs in front that allow the language to be seen. For instance, there is an electronics store called "Caribbean Vision Audio and Video" which has all of its signs written in Creole -- except for the name of the store itself. Creole is so widely spoken in this area that some churches even hold their services in Creole. The Parish of St. Joachim & Anne, for example, offers one service in English at 11:15 a.m. and a second service in Creole at 12:45p.m. given by the trilingual priest, Father Malegreca.

     There are not any large churches in Queens that offer services in Jamaican Patois, but there are some smaller Seventh Day Adventist churches that do. These smaller churches expose the non-Patois-speaking congregation to the Jamaican dialect, but they do not preserve the dialect because it does not teach the Jamaican-Americans speak it. In exposing them to Patois, however, these churches help its members develop a deeper understanding of the dialect and introduce or reinforce the words used in Patois that are not a part of the English language. Most children are with their parents seven days a week and with their teachers five days a week. The church, which meets once a week cannot successfully teach Patois, because parents and teachers who have much more influence over the children convey that Standard English is the proper form of English. These smaller churches, however, do preserve the culture of Jamaican-Americans because they bring together groups of people of Jamaican descent who end up forming close-knit groups within their communities.


     Because there is no national language of the United States of America, citizens are free to speak whatever languages they choose. The preservation of a language is important in preserving its corresponding culture. The older Jamaican immigrants are doing a good job of preserving many aspects of their culture. Food is one way they preserve their culture. Many Jamaican immigrants still serve traditional Jamaican meals in their homes. There are many Jamaican grocery stores throughout Queens Village that make Jamaican cooking possible. Without the grocery stores, some of the Jamaican meals would be impossible to prepare because products such as Jamaican Spiced Bun, Breadfruit, Ackee, Water Coconut, and Sugar Cane are not sold in American grocery stores. The large Jamaican population in Queens Village also serves to preserve the culture of the community. There are not too many Jamaican community organizations, but because of the amount of people in the area, there is a lot of interaction among the Jamaican families in the area. As we have seen at St. Joachim and Anne Elementary School, schools in Queens Village are not helpful in preserving the Jamaican culture because by teaching the children that Standard English is the proper way to speak, there is shame brought to those who speak Patois. Our observation of the Jamaican-American population in Queens suggests that whereas many aspects of Jamaican culture are being passed down through the generations of Jamaican-Americans, Jamaican Patois is one aspect of the culture that is not passed down to the first generation Jamaican-Americans; however, because of the constant influx of Jamaican immigrants to the country, Patois will always be heard throughout the Jamaican-American communities in the United States.

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