In most of the years of the Jamaican language’s existence, it has had no one way to write it. But a few years ago, the Jamaica Language Unit (JLU), a part of the UWI, has developed a system of writing for our language. It’s a modification of a system developed by Frederic Cassidy in 1961, and so is called the Cassidy/JLU orthography. Who gave these university ‘intellectuals’ the right to determine something like this? Well, keep in mind that Oxford (dictionary makers) is a university.
Honestly, I prefer it to what one of my lecturers called the “chaka-chaka” writing system based on English phonics rules. (You end up with ‘yuh’ and ‘nuh’; words with two different vowel pronunciations that are represented the same in writing. This system treats Patois as what it is: a language in itself with distinct phonology (and syntax, but that’s another issue). I hope you take a look at the alphabet so you can see what I mean.
The consonants are largely the same as in English: b, ch, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, ng, hn, p, r, s, sh, t, v, w, y, z, zh. Pay attention to the following.
- there is no ‘c’ except as ‘ch‘
- ‘g‘ always has the hard sound like in ‘get’
- there is no ‘q’; the ‘qu’ sound as in the English ‘quick’ is written as ‘kw‘
- there is no ‘x’; the ‘x’ sound is written as ‘ks‘
- n-type sounds are distinguished; n, ‘hn‘ (explained later), ng
- the consonant combination ‘zh‘ represents the sound in version
- there is no ‘ph’ (that sound as always represented by ‘f‘), or ‘th’ (that sound doesn’t exist in Patois anyway!)
There are five basic vowel sounds:
- a; as in ‘glad’
- e; as in ‘pet’
- i; as in ‘sit’
- o; sounds like the vowel in ‘son’
- u; sounds like the vowel sound in ‘put’
And here’s where it gets a little more controversial; the combined vowels. This system is designed for what you might call ‘country Patois‘. The more English-sounding pronunciations aren’t really represented here. But that’s okay, because even in English, the one word ‘water’ is pronounced so many different ways (American: wodder; Aussie: wuada…), and spelt one way. 🙂 It’s okay to have standard spelling even with variations in pronunciation.
Yes, so here are the combined vowels:
- aa; as in ‘baal’ (ball; bawl, cry)
- ii; as in ‘tiit’ (tooth)
- uu; as in ‘shuuz’ (shoe)
- ie; as in ‘niem’ (name)
- ai; as in ‘rait’ (write) [think about the sound; it’s a and i]
- ou; as in ‘kou‘ (cow)
- uo; as in ‘uol’ (old)
Finally, there is ‘hn‘, which only occurs after a vowel sound. E.g., ‘kyaahn‘ (cannot); ‘waahn‘ (want) and the classically Jamaican ‘iihn?’. One last point about vowels, though. The vowels/vowel combinations are separated by the appropriate consonant sound. E.g., flouwaz (or flowaz), iidiyat, saiyaans, obiya (flower, idiot, seance, obeah).
Rules of Writing
No letters are wasted. Each letter or letter combination has a specific sound that does not change (with one exception), so there is no need for double letters, unlike English. So, it isn’t ‘un
no‘ (I’ve seen this), it is ‘unu’; it isn’t ‘bet ta’, it’s ‘beta’.
That means there are no silent letters. You know the little rhyme, “When A and E go walking…” That doesn’t apply to our language. So, it isn’t ‘l
im e‘, it’s ‘laim’; ‘fies’, not ‘ face‘, etc. That also means the silent ‘e’ and the end of words does not exist in this system. So, it’s not ‘lik kl e‘; not at all; it’s ‘likl’. And it isn’t ‘si ck’, it’s ‘sik’. Simple, right?
Also, the ‘ng’ is a separate sound from ‘g’. So, it is ‘manggo’ (mango), ‘onggl’ (only). And the ‘ng’ sound is actually written out in ‘singk’.
Finally, one exception to the doesn’t-change rule is this: ‘or’ sometimes takes the sound we may know as ‘er’ in English. For example: ‘gorl’ (girl) and ‘worl’ (world).
Finally part 2: because the the letters have sounds that don’t change, they’re not always used to represent the same sounds that English letters are. For example: ‘jr‘, ‘jres‘ (dress); ‘chr‘, ‘chrii‘ (tree, three). And, if you listen to yourself and other Jamaicans speak, you may realise that the sounds represented in the equivalent English word aren’t found in the Jamaican one, e.g. ‘chuu‘ (true).
Thank you for reading this far! Here are some more examples of Jamaican words so that you get more of a taste.
- Jamieka, Jumieka, Jomieka – Jamaica
- apl – apple
- bikaaz, kaa, kaazn – because
- gyal, gorl – girl
- bwaai – boy
- kyari – carry
- tek – take
- bara – borrow
- jringk – drink
- brok – break
- breda – brother
- yai – eye
- iez – ear
- ier – hair; year
- an – hand; and
- pat – pot
- Patwa – Patois
- kwiin – queen
- fos, fors – first
- kot – cut; leave
- kuol – cold
- at – hat; hot; painful
- fuon – phone
- you – yow (greeting)
It iizi iihn? 🙂 Gwaan rait wi langwij! Wi fi proud a it!