English has been the official language of Jamaica since the 17th century. However, Jamaicans at all levels speak a unique language called Jamaican patois. In rural areas, people may speak only Jamaican patois; in cities, most speak both patois and English.

During the centuries of slavery, patois developed as a slave language that, while based on English, included elements of West African languages such as Twi, Ewe and Akan, plus Spanish and Portuguese. This constantly evolving language reflects the vitality of Jamaican culture and its strong African heritage. Although Jamaican patois began as an oral language, it is now also written.

New words are constantly being added to the Jamaican dictionary. Many resemble their English equivalents, but others are unique: ital means "natural food" and irie means "fine, wonderful." In general, pronunciation is closer to West African languages than English. For example, "th" is pronounced "d" or "t," so the word "that" become "dat" and "three" becomes "tree."

Patois grammar also differs from English. While English has a basic tense contrast (past versus present), Jamaican Patois grammar is more like some African languages in that it distinguishes between continuing versus non-continuing action. "She say" might mean "She has said" or "She said."

Some English words in Jamaica haven't changed since the 17th century, reflecting the country's isolation from Britain. People address married women as "mistress," the long form for Mrs. Jugs are called goblets. Similarly, some Jamaicans have old-fashioned English names, such as Wellesley or Locksley.

Jamaicans appreciate debates and verbal games. They are also fond of proverbs and use these freely. "What sweet nanny goat ago run him belly" means "What you like may not necessarily be good for you." "Every hoe have him stick a bush" is "There's an ideal partner for everyone." Jamaica's strong, oral folklore tradition includes fairy tales, legends and Anancy stories.

English Jamaican Patois
Good morning Mawning
Where are you from Whey you come from?
How are you? How you di do?
What's your name? Whe yu name?
Where are you going? A whe yu a go?

  Did you know?
People descended from the Kromanti tribe in Africa were the largest group in Maroon communities; the Kromanti language is still used in Jamaican Maroon festivals.

  Did you know?
Anancy tales are based on a folk hero called Brer Anancy, half-man, half-spider, who lives by his wits.