October 2, 2014
Using a smattering of local patois can help you converse like a Caribbean islander in a region where Creole patter rolls around the tongue with a word-rich rat-tat-tat rhythm. Take a look at our Caribbean dictionary and learn to speak like a local.
The lilting languages of the Caribbean have a rhythm all of their own: a lyrical sing-song patois characterised by a syncopated cadence and beat. This distinctive dialect – with its regional variations – combines phrases of the old colonial masters with earthy local slang and the spoken words of Africa. Applying few of the rules of English grammar and pronunciation, the Creole dialect of the Caribbean Islands is a unifying force: with common expressions and familiar speech patterns uttered across the region, from the clipped light lingo of Antigua and the smooth, rich Barbados roll to the melodic social courtesies of St. Lucia and Jamaica’s pitter-patter slow-crawl drawl.
The use of patois throughout the Caribbean region has become more common in the last 40 years since the individual islands, one-by-one, secured their independence. Part of establishing their own identities was to develop a language style quite different to that of the Colonial eras. Speech has become relaxed, with the old ways of speaking now adapted to the character and people of the islands. And while it may sound similar across the region, each language is unique in its style of native Patois, sometimes known as Creole (or Kweyol). Though it is derived from English, Patois is a spicy linguistic stew lightly peppered with words influenced by French, Spanish and Portuguese – and seasoned by proverbs of Africa. Then there are the Caribbean words, syntax and phrases – each 100 per cent endemic to the region. There are diverse and distinct terms, and colourful, often indecipherable tongue-in-cheek slang that varies from island-to-island (and sometimes, confusingly, from village-to-village). Few of them are written, and those that are have no standardized spelling. Different inflections, tempo, pitch, accent and tone all add to the linguistic mix. In fact, Caribbean lingo has been shaped by almost every nationality that has ever ruled, visited or lived on its islands. Eccentric, light-hearted and idiosyncratic: Caribbean natives also pluralize words, cut them short and meld them into one. Without being aware of it, many sing their words using a rounded, rhyming ring.
Keen to speak like a local? Then listen carefully for the sounds and pronunciation of commonly used words. In St Lucia, for example, French tradition comes through in phrases like, “Sa ca fete?” when being ultra-polite. But to wow the locals, greet the islanders you meet – in a shop, bus or office building – with “bozu” (good morning) or “boswé” (good evening). Other great words to remember are “su plé” (please), “mési” (thank you) and “padon” (excuse me). In all the Caribbean islands, it is common to bid everyone you meet “good day” – if you’ve met before you may also shake hands with direct eye contact, and a warm smile, followed by a gentle pat on the shoulders or upper back.
In Jamaica, to be more “local” remember not to gasp a “wow” when you witness a gorgeous Mo Bay (Montego Bay) sunset – instead, shriek -Kiss me neck!” Jamaican style. In Barbados, they’ll exclaim “Cheese on bread!” at such a sight. In St Lucia some folk might cry out “mesye!”, in Trinidad and Tobago it’s the irrepressible “Papa Yo!” and in Grenada “bon je!” is the exclamation most often used at moments like this.
The island lingo on both Antigua and Trinidad is chilled and mellow, “cool out” they say to everyone they meet, meaning “take life easy”. In Barbados, words are dropped and fused together in a rich linguistic roll. “How-you?” the locals will ask and if the answer is “confused” a Bajan response is “cafuffled”, a Trini response “bazodee”, a Grenadian “basodi”, while a Jamaican will answer “mouthamassy”. And if you can find an opportunity to use the wonderful St Lucian saying “L bab kamawed ou pwi difé, wozé sa ou” – meaning when your friend’s beard is on fire, sprinkle your own – we salute you!
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