Valerie Bloom’s poem “Language Barrier” begins:

Jamaica language sweet yuh know bwoy,
An yuh know mi nebba notice i’,
Till tarra day one foreign frien’
Come spen some time wid mi.

An dem im call mi attention to
Some tings im sey soun’ queer,
Like de way wi always sey ‘koo yah’
When we really mean ‘look here’.

and continues with marvelous examples of Jamaican idiom (“A ready yuh ready aready?”), finishing up with an expansion of the linguistic dissonance felt by “po’ likkle foreign Hugh”:

Mi advise im no fe fret imself,
For de Spaniards do it to,
For when dem mean fe sey ‘jackass’,
Dem always say ‘burro’.

De French, Italian, Greek an Dutch,
Dem all guilty o’ de crime
None a dem no chat im language,
Soh Hugh betta larn fe mime.

But sayin’ dis and dat yuh know,
Some o’ wi cyan eben undastan one anodda,
Eben doah wi all lib yah
An chat de same patois.

(If you need a crash course in patois, there’s a word list here.) The poem is just one element in the syllabus for the Caribbean Literature course (Winter 2002) of the Department of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara; they obviously have to have good course materials to keep students focused on anything but the gorgeous surroundings of the beachfront campus. (Via wood s lot.)


  1. Interesting that it is called “patois.” My friends from Dominica also speak “patois,” but it is derived from French, and is close enough to Haitian Creole that, they tell me, for mutual intelligibility.

  2. Haitian Creole may well be derived from French, but it certainly is derived a great deal more from some other linguistic sources, probably some West African tribal languages. A few years ago, fresh back from France with pretty decent French, I was given an adult ESL class composed of a dozen hard-working and charming Haitians. Most were barely literate and couldn’t understand my Parisian French nor could I understand their Creole.
    I believe Jamaican patois or their local language is closer to English, yet quite hard for speakers of American and British English to understand.

  3. Au contraire: Haitian creyol is derived almost entirely from French, with a good dollop of African stuff mixed in. (See here.) It’s hard to understand for the same reason Jamaican patois is: substantial phonological changes plus high-frequency dialect words.

  4. jean-pierre says

    One fine cool autumn morning, on an orchard in central Maine, I had the chance to get on with a Jamaican apple picking crew. Besides not being able to keep up with their experienced and deft harvesting, I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying. When I asked one of my fellow pickers what language they were talking, he frowned and said,”Why, English, of course!”

  5. John Thacker says

    Not only, of course, do Jamaicans tend to insist that they speak English (which of course it is derived from, even if difficult to understand for English and American speakers), many get understandably upset when they see their speech represented with all the weird spelling used in things like the poem above. Frankly, it looks offensive to them, like someone is trying to make fun of them.
    The same is true of speakers of dialects in general, though; Southerners react the same way, in my experience, to people who attempt to represent their manner of speech with unusual spelling.

  6. Many others, of course—like the woman who wrote the poem above—like to write down the dialect as they speak it, and clearly don’t feel it’s demeaning.

  7. Just happened to be looking at John McWhorter’s home page today, where it says, “. He specializes in creole languages and typology, with a general interest in language contact models. His language of focus is the Suriname creole, Saramaccan, which he and graduate students are in the process of writing a grammar of with the help of consultants who speak the language natively. He has also developed the “Afrogenesis Theory” of creole origins, stressing the importation of most plantation creoles from West African trade settlements, as opposed to most theories which derive creoles from local aspects of plantation demography. He has recently formulated a synchronic definition of creole languages in his Creole Prototype Hypothesis, with the goal of clarifying the place of pidgins and creoles in a general typology of language change and language contact.”
    Which all sounds interesting, but there don’t seem to be any links to web articles there, which is sad.

  8. Whenever I see the word “Suriname” in an English context I experience a sort of cognitive dissonance I expressed in a memo at a former job editing guides to doing business in other countries, when the edict came down that we were to start writing “Suriname” for The Country Formerly Known as Surinam. I wrote my fellow editors more or less as follows: “I agree to use the Dutch form Suriname on condition you all promise to pronounce it the Dutch way, soori-NAH-muh, four syllables. I don’t want to catch anyone even thinking SOO-rinam, because that spelling and that pronunciation don’t go together.” I don’t know when and why the great switchover occurred, but I don’t like it. Surinam is a good English spelling, like Russia and Germany. Suriname is a fish out of water.
    Now… what were we talking about again?

  9. why and how do creole language change?

Speak Your Mind