P is for Patois

Jamaican Patios is perhaps best illustrated by example. If you’re not familiar,  the video above gives a little idea of what its all about.  When the interview starts, I think she speaks clearly in an heavily-accented English, but as the interview proceeds and she gets more angry, the dialect becomes heavier and its harder for me to understand, although she rarely loses me completely.  I’m not sure why the video’s poster called it “funny,” as the subject is very serious.  I imagine because of the animated way that she speaks, which becomes increasingly “crazy.”  But I find her style typical of very agitated Jamaicans who are speaking passionately about something, she just holds her arms awkwardly, as she is unfamiliar with how to speak into a microphone, and the camera angle accentuates that.

When I first arrived, I found it fairly easy to understand colleagues at work, but only when they were speaking directly to me.  If they turned their head in a meeting to consult with another Jamaican, my comprehension often dropped to only about 10%, as they would switch to the local lilt.  Recognizable English words would jump out from a tangle of Patois and, although I would know generally what was being discussed, it was often hard to make out the actual meaning.   Some staff, particularly those who interact less with Americans — gardeners, cleaners, workmen –have always been trickier to understand.  I still struggle today, although I am vaguely aware of improvement.  There are so many different levels of dialect all the way to full blown Patois, and the two years I have been here my ear has adjusted somewhat, but it is very hard to measure how far.  Its quite different to learning a new vocabulary in another language, although if I had applied some of the structure of language and vocabulary learning, I might have gotten further along.  I also wonder how well I’m understood, although I presume most Jamaicans fair better than me, just through continual exposure to American/British English on TV and radio.

To my non-Jamaican readers:  How well did you understand the woman in the video?

8 thoughts on “P is for Patois

  1. What a colorful, animated dialect! It’s spoken word, a dance. There is also a hostility and I am threatened. No, I barely understood a word, yet I was so drawn in by the animation it was difficult to focus. Very intense!


  2. Hello, I’m not a native English-speaker, but I understand her in the overall context. She was talking about a flooding, that flooded her entire house and property last night. All her furniture and other belongings flooded out, while she was hopping out the bed and could do nothing. The gully water mixed with the toilet water and other unsightly stuff flooded her house completely. She was very annoyed, as seen. And who did she blame it? The white men? But I couldn’t figure out, for what.


    • 10/10. The construction guys were to blame but I’m not sure why either. I wish I had picked something like this to do a little scientific experiment to see how my comprehension changed over time….but alas I didn’t.


  3. That was fun! I felt I understood nearly all of the meaning and maybe 75% of the actual words, but what I enjoyed even more than the accent and pronunciation was the body movement and intonation changes as she got more and more worked up. I had to really focus on the words and watch her face; if I turned my head and just listened, it was much harder!


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