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Embodied Language

By: Kevin Reigh


Migration is always challenging. Adjusting one’s life to new or unfamiliar surroundings is often more lean than straightforward…or fat..with all the bending and squeezing one does trying to fit into new spaces. New friends. New codes. New languages. My own family’s experience with migration is typical of post-colonial, post-independence Caribbean narratives; my parents deciding to migrate from Kingston, Jamaica to Toronto, Canada…dragging their three kids with them as perceived better opportunities beckoned. But what do better opportunities look like? What do they sound like?

For my older brother, better opportunities sounded suspiciously like schoolyard taunts. Better opportunities included being targeted for physical attack. This beautiful black boy’s body became a punching bag for the white boy welcome wagon equipped with a generous serving of verbal abuse. Still there was some humour in it. My brother remembers being perplexed when school mates called him “buddy”. This term of casual endearment among his new peers confounded as ‘buddy’ is one of many terms Jamaican men use to refer to their genitals.

Imagine, new space, new codes, new ‘friends’ calling you penis. New language indeed.

This was just one of many linguistic disconnects my siblings and I faced as we navigated new terrain. Our modes of speech and accents dissected, discussed…dismissed. Terms like samfai, ginnal, bull-bucka, sleeping policeman, butu, coo yah, sheg up, renk, wanti wanti, that were regular features of familial discourse would mark us, almost as much as our skin, as outsiders if used anywhere but home.

If you believe in mind, body, and soul connections then our process of migration and acculturation was…is a distinctly disjointed experience. I still feel a twinge of….something…when I remember how hard I worked to replace ‘I et already’ with ‘I ate already’ to prevent schoolyard teasing.


For most Jamaicans, modes of discourse rest somewhere on a linguistic continuum with Patois on one end and the colonial english on the other…a typical day for many is an ongoing negotiation and dance between and within these poles. And though a strong movement to legitimize Patois exists, and younger generations more readily and eagerly embrace it (see Chat Patwa and Nuh English Straight Patois) the King’s English is still the official language and the language of official Jamaica. And by official Jamaica I mean the language of business and politics, the language of prestige, the language of the ruling class; this is in spite of, or maybe precisely because Patois is really the preferred mode of discourse of Jamaica’s mostly Black underclass…

Non-Jamaicans who consume Jamaican cultural products–namely Reggae and Dancehall music–or who visit the island and receive the packaged plantation nostalgia tour of an all-inclusive resort have a false sense of Jamaica's relationship to its languages and the people who speak it. It is a tourist’s ‘Irie’ and ‘Yeah Mon’ filled caricature of Jamaican speech.

The history and reality is much different. Being a Patois speaker versus an English speaker is a marker of class. Of where you belong. Of where you come from. And where you can go.


I watch popular Jamaican figures like Usain Bolt or Shelly Anne Fraser Pryce or someone such give interviews to international media…I watch and hear the way English staggers from their mouths as if their tongues are made of cotton, jaws tightened…jus’ so…by the understanding of Jamaican class and cultural strictures, of the expectation that speaking anything but the Queen’s English at this moment could open them up to criticism or rebuke.

And then I see Usain or Shelly or someone such chatting with their peoples and their faces relax, patterns of speech settle in and assume the rhythm of the market, verandah, minibus or the dancehall. I can see their bodies and souls exhale.


Jamaican Patois has an English base but has strong west African lexical, grammatical and syntactical influence–this last bit is a fancy English way of saying Patois includes lots of words and verb tenses that are African in origin. Some, usually those seeking to diminish or demean Patois, argue that Patois doesn’t stand on its own, that it is merely a broken English. Maybe. But for me, the difference between English and Patois calls to mind the difference between Classical music and Jazz.

I think of a study published by the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences that claimed the brain activity between Classical musicians and Jazz musicians differed, even when playing the same piece. Among its findings, the study observed that classical pianists concentrated on fingering and technique while jazz pianists were more prepared to change the notes, improvise and create unexpected harmonies.

For me, and in continuing this Jazz analogy, when Jamaicans speak Patois they often channel dramatic and emotional depths—bordering on metaphysical—that don’t exist in English. There are things that I express with my Jamaican family and friends that lose potency if communicated in English instead of Patois.

Here’s an example:

“Dadda, pree wah mi a seh, yuh see di Verzus ting, Beenie & Bounty mash up di place, my Lawd, ah bere shellings

can easily and (accurately?) be translated as “

Hey man, you really need to hear this. Did you see the Verzus? Beenie & Bounty really put on a great show, trust me man, it was fire.

Not only is the Patois a little more economical in terms of length but also in terms of its capacity to express drama and depth of feeling; and in its usage of ‘Dadda’ and ‘My Lawd’ the patois statement also conveys a sense of respect and intimacy between the speaker and listener that doesn’t exist in English.

Here are a couple of simpler examples: a Jamaican telling you something ‘mash up’ or ‘sheg up’ conveys so much more than simply saying something is broken. But I don’t know how to explain or quantify that difference. Other than to say I feel it. And I suspect every Jamaican feels that difference too. Similarly, me saying “I’m here” does not even begin to capture the existential and psychological drama that ‘mi deh ya’ can suggest.


Random trivia: do you know how Afrikaans, the language of South Africa’s then ruling white elite, went from being considered “broken Dutch” to a language in its own right? It happened because Afrikaaners decided it was a language and began printing books and dictionaries and such.


Like many Jamaicans of her generation, my mother, in times of great emotion, often switches from the polished English used during her professional life into the Patois spoken with friends and loved ones. And for me, speaking Patois is something I only do with my intimates (or, sometimes, if I’ve had lots of rum); and after spending most of my life in a climate surrounded by non-Jamaicans, these conversations often assume great emotional and psychological resonance. The words feel good in my mouth. They are good for my mind. They are good for my soul. They are good for my body.

What does this all mean? I’m not sure. But if you see me on the street, call me cumbolo. Don’t call me buddy.


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