Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Relationship between Patwa and its Lexifier

Today a friend and I spoke of the relationship between Patwa and English, revealing some misconceptions about our native language, that many Jamaicans still hold. English is the lexifier language for Jamaican Creole, and so many of our words have roots in that language. What they fail to realize is that the meaning ascribed to the many appropriated words is often nuanced, and at times completely different.

Many who hear Jamaica Creole make the mistake of identifying the English root words and then proclaiming, oh I understood that! As a matter of fact, it is not that simple.

Take the following sentence. Context is very important here, so... Two young men are in a fiesty confrontation. One of them shoves the other, and he exclaims:

"Ef yu toch mi agen mi ago tel yu bout yu mada!"
The non speaker/ patwa hater hears this and says, I know what you said. They assemble all the English roots in their heads, and come up with an idea of what must have been meant.

"If you touch me again, I will tell you about your mother."

Maybe this is just me, but I wouldn't translate the original line to English in that manner. Doing so takes away from the potency of the language, and the complexity of the ideas that are expressed with these approportaions.

"If you insist on bothering me further, I will be not restrain myself from giving you a piece of my mind."

Some would say, well I don't think that is what you mean. Tell me, what do I mean then? Clearly, offering to tell someone about their mother, may have no effect whatsoever on an individual not accustomed to the culture.

Similarly, I could say, "Mi wii lik yu dong ino!" Directly translated to be, "I will hit you!" but really, I never intent to hit anyone when I speak these words. Of course, some people do, so I wouldn't suggest using these words against someone you were onthe brink of war with... BUT! The poitn remains, that simplistic approaches to translating Jamaican Creole, using the words of the lexifier language from which many words in Patwa come, is a malicious attempt to perpetuate the perception that Jamaican Creole is but a fegenerate form of English.

Give us some credit please. I wonder if people similarly try to discredit the merits of Spanish and Portuguese as languages, because of their striking similarities and their heavy borrowing from Latin.

Unu lou di ting yaa man! Patwa mi a difen!


  1. I have had similar experiences with people saying that they can easily understand what we mean when I say some sentences. Some even called it more than colloquialism when I say that patwa is a language.
    First off, if you have never grown somewhere and experience the culture you will be the odd man out because you don't understand what they mean. You may understand the words, but never the meaning behind the expression. Take for example, there as been an article out about a hybrid language called Spanglish. I can readily identify some of the words, but never can tell you what they mean.
    Even when I am around some African Americans in my classes and they use Ebonics, I can hardly get a grasp of what they are tying to articulate.
    I can say that patwa is a language, although its a derivative of English, the way the words are use can contain different emotion than their English parentage. Not calling it a language is like calling the Latin derived languages, French and Spanish nothing more than colloquialism.
    What you say? Que or Como?

  2. Context is everything. Don't underestimate the ability of people to pick up context very fast.

    In spoken language very few people are so literal. I believe that even if someone translated "I will tell you about your mother" they would understand what it means in context.

    I've used slang on foreigners before and they well knew what I was saying!

  3. in agreement. and yes, one cannot underestimate the listener's ability to grasp content and prioritize it over the lexifier. people from the global south for example are quite familiar with this structure.

    another thing about the Jamaican patois is that the words may seem 'derived' from english, but they are not. The West African language Twi is very dominant in our language.

    Common error: 'dutty' is not derived from 'dirty' but actually means 'dirt' or 'ground' in Twi.

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