African Influences on Jamaican Creole

Jamaican Creole is, well, a creole language: a language that was born not out of simple evolution, but out of a situation in which non-native users of a language (English) were placed (forced, in this case) to use another language, and so the languages blended together to form something brand new.

To most of the people who use it, it’s called Patois (Patwa), though many Jamaican linguists prefer to call it Jamaican because of the idea that the word “patois” is a misnomer, and out of respect for it as a language. Patois (Patwa) is a language, and so a proper noun. One of my pet peeves is people spelling it with a common ‘p’.

Don’t do it.

Because it’s Black History Month, I thought it would be fun to give a breakdown of some of the African influences that made our great language what it is!


As an English-lexified creole, its lexicon is largely from Middle English. But it has words that come from Spanish, Portuguese, Arawak, and West African languages like Akan and Twi (pr: chwee).

Here we go!



aki (ackee) – The Jamaican national fruit (which did not originate here, just like its peoples) came from Akan

Anansi – The trickster spider of many of our tales means “spider” in Akan

de – The locative copula (“Mi de ya.”) came from the Igbo language.

dopi (duppy) – came from an Akan word, meaning “ghost”

doti (dutty) – might also be influenced by the English word that it corresponds to, “dirty”, but it comes from an Akan word meaning “ground” and

juk – from a word in the Fula language that means “poke”

nyam – this word comes from a word in the Wolof language that means “eat”

obiya (obeah) – from another Igbo word, meaning “doctoring”, “mysticism”

suoso – from an Igbo word, meaning “only”

unu – Jamaica’s way of differentiating the plural 2nd person from the singular also came form Igbo

se – this word works as a quotation marker (“Im tel mi se…”) and corresponds to the English word “say”, and comes from an Akan word meaning “quote as follows”

yam – from the same source word in as “nyam”

Loan Translations (Calquing)

Along with words that came directly from African sources, some expressions were taken and translated using English words.

big-yai (big eye) – from an Igbo expression meaning “greedy”

red-yai (red eye) – from an Akan expression meaning “jealousy”

A source I still have from my university days says that other expressions like wich paat, man-daag, and gyal pikni are calques from West African languages, but I don’t see the language specified, unfortunately…


Reduplication – This is something that doesn’t exist in English, but I that I have seen in Japanese and JSL. Essentially, it is “is a morphological process in which the root or stem of a word (or part of it) or even the whole word is repeated exactly or with a slight change.” (Wikipedia)

But it’s not just simply a matter of repetition; English has that: “I’m very, very disappointed in you!” Reduplication doesn’t really count unless it causes a change in the word itself, forming a new word, resulting in, for example, plurality (“Ku ou moch buk-buk de bout ya so, man!”), or change in word class (verb: lik, adjective: liki-liki; “Yu tuu liki-liki.”)

Reduplication is found in Akan and other West African languages.


There are lots more stuff I could go into, but I’ll end here for now. Creoles are interesting to study, and I hope to learn a lot more!


L28J Jamaican Creole Lexicon – Part I: Sources (A handout from my university days)

“List of Jamaican Patois words of African origin” – Wikipedia

“The spoken and the written word: Jamaican Creole and the language of the Bible in Olive Senior’s early fiction” – Publifarum

This entry was posted in Languages, Linguistics, Patwa and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to African Influences on Jamaican Creole

  1. Robyn says:

    Ooh I loved this! It’s fascinating to learn about the influences that make Patois what it is. Can we have more posts like this?

    Liked by 1 person

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