Patwah, Patois

This article by C. S. Giscombe appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“a compound of the most heterogeneous description” –F.G. Cassidy

I set out for the International Maroon Conference  by shouldering my backpack and walking across Berkeley to the BART station and then there I was on the train to SFO sitting catty-corner from a woman my age who also had a pack. Mexico,  she said.  Jamaica, said I.  She said, They’ll know you’re an American as soon as they see you. But I’d been before and replied—in what Lucy Ferriss has identified as the argot of our times—I’m good until I open my mouth.

The Maroons were slaves who, having seen no future in slavery, took to the hills and swamps from which they fought the British to a standstill in the 17th and 18th centuries.  (OED:Hist. Europe in Ann. Reg. (1796) 60/1  The hostilities against the free negroes in the Island of Jamaica known by the denomination of Maroons had been carried on a long time without effect.”) The 2012 conference was the fourth and, like the ones previous, featured academic papers, readings by poets, dance and drumming by local groups of Maroon descendants, speeches by politicians, screenings of films.

The conference was on the north coast, in Charles Town, but the point of embarkation—at least for the American academics—was Kingston. A small Toyota bus had been chartered for the trip up to the conference site, over a shoulder of the Blue Mountains. The A3 was steep and pot-holed and wound through tiny towns and the driver, a man named Neville, used the horn—that language—to announce us as we’d climb and descend through hairpin turns. I had managed to get the shotgun seat (though I lost it eventually to an aggressive 12- year-old girl) and engaged Neville about the countryside—names of towns, rivers, etc.  He was patient, a fount of information, and his voice was soft and deep and lilting, an Islands voice indeed—but alongside that was a measure to his diction that made me think British and I regret the shyness that stopped me from asking him where he’d grown up.  Behind him were two women who were not part of our group but who, through some arrangement, were being given a ride to Annotto Bay. I could always tell when he was talking to me and when he was talking to them: I understood his answers to my questions perfectly but he spoke to the women in a language I couldn’t begin to understand and I was amazed—though not for the first time, since I’d been to Jamaica before—at the ease with which he switched between tongues while at the same time playing on the horn and negotiating a bad road over the mountain.

Patois; patwah; Jamaican Creole.  Rather many of the Jamaicans I met, this trip and earlier ones, were bilingual—a familiar English for me, patois for one another, all in the same conversation. I lean on Frederic Cassidy’s Dictionary of Jamaican English and Jamaica Talk for learning beyond my own observations about the latter. Speakers of the Queen’s English should not be disturbed, Cassidy wrote in 1982, to find that “people of many kinds in a new colony have pooled their home differences, seasoned them with the tropical spices of Arawak and Carib Indians, Africans, Spaniards, Frenchmen and assorted others until a strong and tasty pepperpot of language is concocted. This, of course, is what has happened in Jamaica.”

Go here for Miss Lou (Louise Simone Bennett-Coverley, OM, OJ, MBE) talking both about and in “patwah” and “talking about” British English too, all in the same clip, my dear.

Later, back in Kingston, I hired a cab to take me to the airport. It was 6 in the morning and the road was empty until a cop stepped onto the pavement and waved us down.  Showing the driver the numbers on an old-fashioned radar gun he asked why my man was exceeding the speed limit. The cop posed his question, I noted, in a severely enunciated standard English that let the driver know that whatever hodgepodge answer he could mouth wouldn’t matter. This nearly last encounter was no pepperpot but its opposite, the language of authority.

For the original report go to

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