On Jamaicaness

January 13, 2024
3 mins read

By Tracy McFarlane
Thursday, April 22, 2010.
We’ve all had someone declare, “You have not lived until you’ve . . .” and the sentence is completed with their idea of a life changing experience. So, they might continue, “ . . . been in love”, “ . . . had fondue”, “ . . . had a child”, or “ . . . watched the sun set from Ricks Café”.There is an array of enriching experiences with which some persons, having had them, now consider their life complete. These are all debatable, of course, but we don’t need to engage here in a debate about the essential features of a life well lived. What we will do, however, is consider how similar ideas are expressed in Jamaican: “Half yu live gone if yu neva love nobody” or, “If yu neva watch di sun set in Negril, half yu life gone!” In essence, you are as good as dead.Now, this subject of how we speak in Jamaica is itself, rife with debate. For example, do we speak a dialect, a patois, or a language? Embedded in this question are thorny issues of correct spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, among others.There are Jamaicans with expertise in this area (and I am not one of them) who have addressed these and other questions at length. In fact, I will invite my friend, Dr. Carolyn Cooper, who is an expert in matters of language and culture AND is also someone who moved back to Jamaica, to give her comments on this piece when it is posted. Nevertheless, we can all agree, when Jamaicans have something to express about which they feel deeply, there is no other thing to do than cut some patois!If you are a Jamaican living in (or who has lived in) some foreign country and reading this right now, you are probably recalling the last time you got really angry, or encountered some intense pleasure, or (heaven forbid!) remembered a joke – and the target of your communication was not Jamaican. In such situations, by the time you have translated or code switched to make yourself understood, the emotion you felt is flattened. Nuh true?Saying it in Jamaican, for a Jamaican, is usually more expressive: we repeat words for emphasis (true, true!), engage freely in hyperbole (half yu life gone!), use double negatives (neva love nobody) and have license to truncate words if it will get us to our point more quickly.This last one has many examples: In a heated moment, who has time to take a breath to pronounce the letter h? Or to put the tongue between the teeth for th? Why bother with the other letters in “even” if you can say e’n and convey the same meaning? On the other hand, it is not always about haste or thrift, there are some situations when, if you simply say “in”, you are robbing the listener of an important nuance; that is when we slather on an extra syllable, and only “een” or “inna” will do.Let’s not get started on those time when words are not enough, or would be too much, and we draw for a cut eye or hiss teeth. Ok, alright, one more example: have you ever erupted with a good belly laugh with another Jamaican – I’m talking about the type of laugh that has you bent over and leaves you gasping for air. Then when both of you are spent with laughter, and heading into recovery mode, you retrieve your upper body from over your knees and both give out, “Woi!” Of course, you both lose composure and go straight back into laughter. This time, it’s the laughter of recognition and shared meaning – WHO else does that?Finally (this is the last, last one), my all-time favourite is a combo: We invoke deity and swear words with equal fervour, sometimes in the same sentence – and we do this whether we are very angry or we are very happy. When a non-Jamaican witnesses two Jamaicans greeting each other enthusiastically, they sometimes get nervous ; taken out of context, it is impossible to distinguish from the hand gestures, body language, words expressed, or volume of the exchange if this is a happy moment or the prelude to a buss -ass!These are just a few of the special features of Jamaican communication, and I’m sure you can think of others.There are regional and social class variations in how we communicate, as well. You have probably had arguments with other Jamaicans about how you speak patois. For example, consider the following variations: “When she when a go a Kingston”; “When she’d a go a Kingston”; “When she was a go Kingston”; “When she when de go Kingston”; “When she ben de go a Kingston” . . . I’m not finished, but I’ll stop here. You get the point – all convey the same message, but as a Jamaican living outside of Jamaica, you know that no-one likes to argue about how something should be done correctly in the Jamaican way, as another Jamaican living overseas. Nevertheless, whether or not you agree on how it should be said, a Jamaican understands you are saying, “When she was going to Kingston” and is eager for you to get to the rest of the labrish.Regardless of the strata of Jamaican life that your background represents, there are some situations that simply pull out the patois in you. If you are not among Jamaicans when that happens, then you can’t express it AND be understood. These are the moments when you think, I really need to move back to Jamaica: Half mi life gone.Tracy McFarlane blogs at Francismove

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