What does irie mean? And other Jamaican Patois phrases & words
Jamaica’s ‘official’ language is English, however if you are from Jamaica, of Jamaican descent or have even just visited Jamaica you will know another language spoken throughout Jamaica as a native language of Jamaicans called Jamaican Patois (also known as Jamaican Creole).
A brief colonial history of Jamaica
Like many other Caribbean countries, Jamaica’s English-based Creole language developed as a result of the island’s colonial history. Jamaica was colonised first by the Spanish, starting from the late 15th to early 16th century. Then colonised by the British, from the 17th century. Both the Spanish and British introduced enslaved Africans from West Africa to the island. The British introduced a plantation economy to the region, mainly based on sugar, but also rum, cotton, coffee and cocoa using the labour of enslaved Africans to grow the industry. This was until the end of the British slave trade. Slavery was made illegal in 1807 but full emancipation was not achieved until 1838.
From pidgin to creole
As a consequence of this colonial history of Jamaica, a number of pidgin languages developed. A pidgin language is defined as a grammatically simplified means of communication that emerges when speakers of different languages need to communicate with each other.
The enslaved Africans brought to Jamaica would have spoken a variety of West African languages. For example, the language of the Akan people (also known as Twi/Fante) who reside in the southern part of the former Gold Coast region (present day Ghana). The Spanish and British slave owners would have then imposed their own language onto them. So, in order communicate, the enslaved people would have used a pidgin language amongst themselves which was based on the sounds, vocabulary and grammatical structures of all the different languages.
The pidgin language was the basis of the Jamaican Creole or Jamaican Patois that is used today. A Creole language is defined as a pidgin that has expanded in structure and vocabulary and has the characteristics of other languages.
Jamaican Patois Meaning: What is Jamaican Patois?
Jamaican Creole is more commonly known as Jamaican Patois. A patois is a language that is considered not standard so can refer to any pidgins or creoles.
Jamaican Patois Language Today
Today, Jamaican Patois is spoken mainly in Jamaica as a native language, and also by the Jamaican diaspora all over the world including UK cities like London, Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham. As well as in North American cities like New York City, Toronto, South Florida and Washington DC.
Creole languages, like Jamaican Patois, are often not respected and are seen by some as a ‘lower class language’. For example, in 1960s Jamaica, Jamaican Patois was looked down on by the upper classes. They saw it as the language for the poor and uneducated. However, since then, reggae musicians like Bob Marley and later Shaggy, as well as poets like Louise Bennett-Coverly helped to bring Jamaican Patois to the masses and establish the language in Jamaica and internationally.
Jamaican Patois is heavily used in reggae and dancehall music from Jamaica. Originally, reggae and dancehall musicians used the language in their music to express their identity and share their lived realities. However, you may also recognise some words and phrases from Jamaican Patois in other genres of music like in hip hop and popular music by artists like Drake who have been influenced by reggae and dancehall artists. Their music is also influenced by the local slang of cities like Toronto and London, which itself is also influenced by and borrow words from Jamaican Patois.
Jamaican Patois Dictionary
One half of my family is Jamaica, which means I grew up with my grandmother, aunties and uncles speaking Jamaican Patois. This doesn't mean I can speak it myself! But being of Jamaican descent, growing up in London, and being inspired by Caribbean culture for my graduate Windrush Collection means you can find a few Jamaican Patois phrases and words in my greeting card designs.
Below I've listed a few favourite Jamaican Patois words and phrases:
Jamaican Patois Words
Patois: "Yuh awrite?"
English: Are you okay?
Patois: "Don't badda fi go"
English: Don't bother to go
Patois: "Mi deyah"
English: I am here
Dis (n. or pron.)
This; also disrespect
Patois: "A how much fi dis?"
English: What is the price of this?
Patois: "De bwoy dis mi star!"
English: The boy disrespected me!
Patois: "Mi si wah duppy yessiday"
English: I saw a ghost yesterday
A young child
Patois: "A fi yuh pickney dat?"
English: Is that your child?
Okay; That's cool
Patois: "Zeen mi idrin!"
English: Okay my friend!
Jamaican Patois Phrases
A nuh nutten
It’s no big deal, unimportant
Blouse an’ skirt
An exclamation, used when someone is excited about something
‘Im likkle but ‘im tallawah
He is small but strong
See you later
Tedeh fi mi, tomorrow fi yuh
Every dog has it’s day; today for me, tomorrow for you
One one cocoa fill basket
Slow and steady gets the job done
Where to find a Jamaican Patois Dictionary
If you want to learn even more Jamaican Patois, or are just looking for the translation of a specific word or phrase, here are a few resources you could use:
An online dictionary and translator
Online Jamaican Patois dictionary with words and phrases
A Jamaican Thesaurus & English-to-Patois Dictionary
A-Z of Jamaican Patois
A book of Jamaican Patois words and phrases
A Jamaican language primer for native speakers and beginners
Understanding Jamaican Patois
A guide that povides an overview of the English language as spoken in Jamaica
Learn Jamaican Patois
If you’d like to study and learn Jamaican Patois further than a few words and phrases, you may be able to find a course near you or use free online videos from YouTube. Here are a few that I’ve found for you to explore:
Taught in their Waterloo Centre (London, UK), Morley College offers an 11 week course. This course combines a mix of language with history and culture, so students also get to learn some of the African origins of words.
If you’re based in the USA, and attend or plan to attend Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts), you could enrol in this course taught by Genesee Johnson.
Learn more about Jamaican Patois including the history, vocabulary, grammar and more from language enthusiast Paul.
YouTube: Jamaica Patwa
Tevin share some Jamaican Patois words on the YouTube channel ‘Jamaican Patwah’. See their other videos for even more.
Sources & Further Reading:
1. Jamaican History - Read more
2. How did the slave trade end in Britain? Read more
3. Creole Languages of the Caribbean. Read more
4. An introduction to Caribbean English. Read more
5. Tu di worl: Creole goes global. Read more
6. Caribbean Creole Languages. Read more
7. Caribbean English. Read more
8. The Akan African Community. Read more
9. Jamaican Creole. Read more