For a small island with an accent as the official “language,” the popularity of Jamaica’s dialect, patois (patwa or patwah), and usage spreads far beyond its borders. For Jamaicans abroad, it’s a way for us to recognize and connect with each other — it’s the same for imitations of the dialect. The fascination with Jamaican patois is altogether cringe worthy, amusing and at times adored — that’s until it’s not done properly. We love being seen, but please do it on our terms. I credit Reggae music and Rastafarianism for the trendy attraction to patois, but let’s not forget Disney’s 1993 motion picture, Cool Runnings, featuring a Jamaican Winter Olympics bobsled team who had never seen snow, for being the catalyst for a new era of admirers and imitators.
I admit, I found the film to be funny and at times heartwarming, but for us Jamaicans, the actors’ Jamaican accent makes us cringe. Jamaicans have a tremendous amount of pride in every facet of what makes us, us. (Sometimes too much) The admiration is cute, though oftentimes falls short. It took me awhile to understand that international production, appropriating our dialect wasn’t for our benefit, it was just business. Offend a few and appeal to the masses. It’s not that there aren’t Jamaican actors to play roles, the few Jamaicans in motion pictures actually mask their accents. There is character training in linguistics for the dialect, but most times it’s not prioritized in the production budget. The main reason I’m told is that film producers fear that the audience won’t follow or understand the character(s) and or the plot and closed caption is off-putting to most English-speaking viewers. A beg your pardon?! Thus, Jamaican patois is admired, marketable and funny, but watered down to be more palatable to the bigger non-Jamaican audience. Irie
Patois is funny on your vacation and for entertainment, but costs too much to be taken seriously. Sadly, it costs us too. I can still hear the chimes of authority demanding that school-age children “speak properly.” I was teased mercilessly in grade school in The Bronx for my strong accent. I now know that they were jealous, but in 1994 I could have really used the help seeing representation. In college, my roomate would greet me with an illusive version of “wha a gwan” (a common greeting used amongst close friends and relatives, meaning, “how is it going?”) whenever I entered my dorm room. And I get it, much of it is meant to be cool and in a weird way, welcoming, but only to the others, the non-Jamaican. Then there are the curse words, which are consciously omitted from Jamoji’s App content. Sadly, curse words are most foreigners’ introduction to patois and Jamaicans are guilty for teaching them. It’s obscene and offensive to hear others scream words in distorted sounds while not knowing its meaning. It all seems trivial until it’s at your expense. Your admiration and imitation is well intended and even welcomed, but know that there are little girls and boys who pay the price.