What Language Do You Speak?

Kwame Edwards, IUP

“A eyeful en a bellyful,” a Caribbean saying that translate into its near English origin as “an eyeful isn’t a bellyful,“ meaning not to put more food on your plate than you can eat. A saying my mother often told me as I would frequently put more of the delicious West Indian food on my plate than I could eat. “Guh dun de road en bi sum bakl wata fa mi from de corna sto” is another example of patois spoken in my home as a child.  At age fourteen I left for America and the familiar Caribbean tongue of Patois was less frequently heard.

Where are you from?  A common question everyone gets asked when meeting someone for the first time.  A question I often replied to by saying it’s complicated. Are you asking where do I reside? Where have I lived? Or where I was born and raised. After establishing that I was born and raised on the West Indian (or more commonly know as Caribbean) island of St.Kitts and Nevis and have lived many places, the next question I usually get asked is what language do you speak or can you say something in Jamaican?

Throughout many of the Caribbean countries such as Jamaica, Barbados, St. Kitts and Trinidad they speaks Patois (Pat-Twa) and is the commonly spoken language among those Caribbean people, although “English” is their official language of these countries. For a long time Patois wasn’t recognized by majority of linguist as a language. It was more referred to as a dialect of English. For many years students from the University of the West Indies have been advocating for Patois to be consider and language and some linguist are starting consider Patois as its own Language.

Patois is also known as Jamaican, Broken English, and Creole. You might be asking yourself what is Patois? Essentially Patois is a hybrid language that was developed by the combination of languages such as French, English, Ancient Ghanaian tribal languages and the indigenous languages of the people inhabiting the Caribbean-  the Caribs and Arawaks. During the time of Colonialism, many European countries fought over ownership of the Caribbean islands. This left the names of towns, capitals, and parishes throughout the Caribbean with multiple name deriving from a variety of language such as Basseterre the capital of my country deriving from the French language, Nuestra Señora de las Nieves  St.kitts sister island deriving form Spanish and Saint Christopher port deriving from the English language.  As The Slave Trade reached its peak, a flood of Africans came to the Caribbean as slave laborers and they were faced with the problem of interacting with their captors and the indigenous people that also resided on the islands.   Another problem they faced was coming up with a common language to speak to be able to communicate with the different people living on the islands. Naturally, the slaves were made to learn the language of their captors.

This past summer I was a Residential Advisor for the Julian Krinsky Camps and Programs in Philadelphia where I worked with co-workers from fourteen different countries around the world as far as the Netherlands and as close as New Jersey. As an introduction game we played Telephone or Whisper down the line, as you can imagine the phrase that we started with was not the phrase that we ended with. In all honesty we jokingly said we didn’t even know if the ending phrase was English or not.  My co-workers spoke many different languages and came from different walks of life. What they interpreted the phrase to mean was based on those factors. I watch my co-workers struggle to understand and formulate sentences as they learned and understood the syntax use in the English as they went about the summer. I also struggled when trying to roll my r’s to pronounce Spanish words and formulate my mouth to reach certain pitches to pronounce Brazilian Portuguese words.  

 Slave brought across the Atlantic Ocean also  struggle to learn the syntax and pronunciation of their captor’s native tongues. Many of the Europeans that flooded to the Caribbean to find new wealth and start new lives were pirates, criminals and the poor. Those of which who were not particularly known for being well educated and their scholarly understanding of the languages they spoke. With limited interaction between the plantation owners and the slaves that worked on the tobacco and sugar cane fields, as you can imagine it had to be an endless game of telephone as slave laborers tried to learn their captor’s native language.  

Patois that was made famous by reggae, dancehall music and Jamaica’s successes in the previous Olympic has shed some light on the language and made it more popular from interviews with Usian Bolt. Another reason Patois is widely know is in the Ratsa religion as well as the Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment. The Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment is the translation of the new testament translated into Patois for example Mathew, chapter two, verse five says “Dem ansa se, “Iina Betliyem, kaaz a dat di prafit did rait dong.”

Patois, a half of century old language and the toungue of slaves, looks like a language that is sticking around for the long run as it has added to the legitimacy of  Caribbean culture.