Exercise in stylee

There is an ongoing debate in Jamaica concerning the validity and usefulness of patois, the local dialect. On one side, some argue that it is an authentic language of communication used by the majority of Jamaicans and should therefore have its place in the school curriculum; on the other side, critics argue that promoting patois will limit the user’s opportunities in a standard English world. Just yesterday, one critic, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University no less, stated that encouraging patois at school:

encourages a lapse of mental and physical discipline as well as the wanton disregard of conventional standards.
Daily Observer, 27/01/06

At that level of understanding, he might have added that it stunts your growth and can lead to blindness.

As a linguist, my starting point is that any language in use is valid and worthy of study. The interest is in discovering how different languages are used to present users’ different experiences and perceptions of their world. Patois fascinates me with its etymological richness and its oral strength. Etymologically, it echoes the national motto,


with its incredibly diverse borrowings from other languages: Wolof (Senegal), Twi & Fante (Ghana), Ewe (Ghana & Togo), Ibo & Hausa (Nigeria), Bube (Bioko), Bantu Douala (Cameroon), Kikongo (Congo), Gulla (US South Carolina dialect), Amharic (Ethiopia), Galibi (Guyana), Hindi, Portuguese, Spanish, Latin and of course English.

The oral strength of patois is evident in its many phatic expressions, such as hear me now, y’hear? Ah tell yah, seen? Phatic expressions serve to keep communication open by checking reception. It is considered to be the primary function of language for babies, when they learn that their first attempts at communication trigger enthusiastic responses. In standard English, the most common example these days is on a cellphone with poor reception:

Hello! Hello! Can you hear me?!

In face to face conversation, however, standard English has become more formalized and expects the listener to follow without extra phatic encouragement.

As a validation exercise, I thought of rewriting a famous text in patois. The text itself is without interest; the trick is rendering it in different ways. Originally published in 1947, Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style have become the most celebrated example of a writing constraint, where the writer imposes a restriction on the limits of writing. Other examples include texts by Queneau’s disciple, Georges Perec, such as La disparition, which was written without using the letter “e”, and Les revenentes in which the only vowel used is “e”!

The constraint of retelling the same banal story in 99 different styles reveals the incredible potential of language that we use every day without thought. The different versions include telling the story as if in a dream, or in the style of a book blurb or as an offical letter, or simply playing with time, colours, different accents or jargon. Exercices de style was brilliantly translated into English by Barbara Hepworth, who privileged Queneau’s spirit of playfulness over mechanical translation.

So here’s the point of this post: a retelling of Queneau’s story in patois. The story in standard English is as follows: the narrator gets in a crowded bus and notices a young man with a long neck wearing a hat with a plait (braid) instead of a ribbon. The young man has a minor altercation with another passenger then quickly retreats to a free seat. Shortly after, the narrator sees the same man in discussion with a friend. The friend tells the young man that he should put the button on his overcoat higher (!). Hardly Hollywood material, but the point is forcing this meagre material into different forms through the power of language.

Here’s my attempt at a patois version:

Now hear dis, mek Ah tell oonu, wa day de bus dem full up wid so much people dem. An ah see dere one dem jump up good fuh nutten boasie maaga jancro wid him winjy neck fit fe choke, ah tell yah bwai! ‘im a fix a ribbon an ‘is ‘at fenky-fenky come een like ‘im Selassie ‘isself, yaah! Smady cut yai an’ ‘im vex an’ bawl some faasty nying’i-nying’i. It oht fi mek one kass-kass, ah’m tellin’ yah. Cho! ‘im nah tallowah doh an’ ‘im jus’ kiss ‘im teet’ an’ a go cotch far dereso quick quick.

Kiss mi nek, nah tree hower layta me see ‘im gen laba-laba wid ‘im breddah oo seh ‘im muss put ‘im button likkle more higher depan ‘im coat so, seen?

Jack Mandora

I would be grateful if other true speakers of patois correct and improve my version. For non-patois speakers, see if you can come up with another version based on your regional dialect or local slang or marketing jargon or …

20 thoughts on “Exercise in stylee”

  1. When I speak in a strong Lancashire dialect to my children (think Wallace & Gromit – but more ‘street’ lol) they howl with laughter and ask about the different words and their meanings. I love dialects and languages and for some university boffin to make that remark, implies ignorance to me. What a God awful, boring world some people must live in to believe everything to be so scientific and logical. The above passage you translated into patois made me laugh. I might have a crack at it in Lancashire dialect. My Maori isn’t up to scratch yet!

  2. This is a wonderful, wonderful post – but please, I have to know : how on earth have you achieved such mastery of Jamaican patois in such a short time ?

  3. Rachie, I really wonder sometimes who finds this kind of thing interesting. Thx.

    UG, a “Corrie” version would be fun. I always loved Hilda Ogden’s great “muriel” on her wall.

    Waterhot, I don’t know if it is realistic because my fellow CariBlogrs have failed to respond …

  4. Ohh I don’t need to do that, Irvine Welsh has already done it!

    The Scots dialect, is also well served by Robert Burns and his contemporaries. So if ye’ve no got a clue wit am bletherin aboot then dinnae cum cryin tae me pal, ye ken?

  5. What a totally fascinating post. I didn’t know anything about this, but I want that Hepworth translation now. And I’m hooked on writing variations. I don’t know whether I’m doing it right or not, but I’ve just done three:


    ‘I say, do you know, I travelled on an omnibus today. Quite an experience! It was chock-full of the most extraordinary characters. Of course one tries not to look, but sometimes one can’t help seeing. There was this young chap with a neck like a cock pheasant and the most ridiculous hat, it had some kind of braiding arrangement instead of the usual ribbon. He got into an argument with another chap, but he didn’t get far, had to sound the retreat, poor fellow, and just then a seat came free so he nabbed it. I particularly remember him because I noticed him again when I got orf the bus. He was talking to a friend in the street, and as I walked past them, believe it or not, his friend was advising him to alter the location of a button on his overcoat. Is that really what these people talk about?’


    The primary problem facing the city’s public transport infrastructure is overcrowding. Consultation is required with passengers to establish issues of importance to the users of public transport. An innovative method of on-bus consultation has been piloted. This revealed conflict between passengers that may be due to the overcrowding problem. More research is needed to establish causality. Passengers participating in the pilot consultation identified the most important issue as related to garment detail, in particular hat decoration and overcoat buttons. This may be due to the public nature of the setting. More research is needed to verify or disprove this theory, and to explore the links between garment detail and public transport overcrowding.


    ‘Mum! Look at that man, his neck’s as long as a brontosaurus’s! I AM whispering. And I don’t like his yucky hat, do you? Ooh, look, he’s having an argument, that’s naughty, isn’t it? Well I only stood up for a minute so I could see. Sshh, he’s coming back this way. Hee hee hee! Mum, he’s going to sit right THERE! I AM being quiet. Is he going to have another argument? Oh, they’re just chatting. Listen… Mum, why does he need to raise his overcoat button? Why, Mum?’

    If anyone wants to comment on, argue with, or discuss these, you’re very welcome. Not that I want to hijack this comments box.

    Ria, you have seduced me into a new addiction, but I’ve got work to do! This has Got To Stop!!! I can keep it to one a day… no I will NOT start a new blog in honour of Queneau… oh dear, is there such a thing as Linguaphiles Anonymous?

  6. How can you possibly cap Zinnia? Was going to say, myself, that patois enriches formal language and that far too many languages/dialects are disappearing anyway. Look what’s happened to Kentish – where I come from – lovely stuff still around among older locals when I was young(er) but now totally subsumed by estuary English. There was a wonderful BBC competition a few years ago which in an attempt to counteract the driving out of dialect in the classroom asked kids to tell a Bible story in local language As I remember it the child who won came from Barnsley She retold the Feeding of the 5000 and had Jesus looking up at the sky and saying to God, ‘we mek a reet good double act tha’ and me.’ Incidentally: even upper twit English – even as caught by Zinnia – is a patois in its way. It entertains me now to remember my very upper class mother complaining that someone had an accent ‘you could cut with a knife’.. (usually meaning some kind of estuary English.) But you should have heard hers – think Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter or early Eliz II amd double it.) No, Granny went her own way long ago. She does not talk much like C.Johnson – no orfs for her.

  7. forgot to add to the chorus of praise – both for post itself and for the accomplished patois – even though rather difficult for ageing eyes to read….. couldn’t even hope to emulate in any language.

  8. As a native speaker of Jamaican patois, I found this post truly fascinating. It is a very good attempt by a non-native speaker. But there were some sections that just were jarring to my (1950’s-to-1960’s-lower-Kingston) ears. At the risk of being disputed by other patois speakers, & the fact that I haven’t been back to Jamaica for over 30 yrs., here is the way I would have spoken the same lines:

    Now ‘ear dis, mek mi’ tell yuh, de odda day de bus dem full up wid so much people dem. An mi’ see dere one a dem jump up good fi’ nutt’n boasie maaga jancro wid him winjy neck fit fe choke, mi a tell yuh bwai! ‘im a fix a ribbon an ‘im ‘at fenky-fenky come een like ‘im a Selassie ‘imself, yaah! Smady cut yai an’ ‘im vex an’ bawl out some faasty nying’i-nying’i. It good fi mek one kass-kass, mi ah tell’ yuh. Cho! but ‘im nuh tallowah an’ ‘im jus’ kiss ‘im teet’ an’ go cotch far ovah’ dehso quick quick.

    Kiss mi nek, nuh tree ‘ower layta me see ‘im gaan laba-laba wid ‘im breddah oo seh ‘im muss put ‘im button likkle more higher depan ‘im coat so, seen?

    As you can see, the corrections are minor, but it sounds more authentic to me.

    As a footnote, you have barely begun to scratch the surface of the rich complexity of Jamaican patois. My father’s native language was Hakka Chinese, but my brothers & I were raised by a Jamaican nanny in a little shop in a rough-and-tumble part of Kingston. As a youth I walked lived, walked, & played in parts of Kingston where grown men now fear to tread. I was speaking patois before I learned standard English. I wish you could have interviewed my father, who spoke to us in a mixture of Hakka Chinese & Jamaican patois that even other Jamaicans had difficulty in understanding every word. And finally, some Chinese terms, particularly gambling-related, did cross over into the common vernacular. I wonder whether they still survive.

  9. Hello,

    I think you know that there is a European Charter concerning minority languages. The dutch have signed this charter for their own minority language Fries.
    2 frisian friends translated the story into Fries for me…

    Here it is:

    Hear ris, ik sil dy fertelle… ik siet lêsten yn in tige folle bus. Ik
    seach dêr in opsketten jongfeint mei sa’n smelle nekke, om te smoaren. Hy
    hie ek in frjemde hoed op mei in flecht yn stee fan de wenstige strús.
    Hy hie in koarte diskusje mei immen, mar doe’t hy in leech plak seach gie
    er dêr snel sitten.
    Ta myn ferbjustering seach ik in pear oeren letter deselde jongfeint yn
    petear mei in freon, dy’t him sei dat er de knoop fan syn oerjas heger
    dwaan moast.


  10. Heel erg leuk, Estee!

    Thanks for the very interesting comment, GK. It is incredible to see the contribution the Chinese have made in Jamaica.

    Zinnia, hilarious stuff. Afferbeck Lauder (pseudonym) wrote a series of books on English dialect, the most famous being Let’s Talk Strine, (Let’s talk Australian). S/He/They also wrote Fraffly Well Spoken, where you can find upper-class phrases such as, egg wetter gree (I quite agree) or Awl ay hev is a fave pined nyaeot (All I have is a five pound note).

    And I should correct myself, Queneau’s book was translated by Barbara Wright, not Hepworth (?). See preview here.

  11. Well, I think you know how I feel about patois / creolese :-)

    I love the language, it is rich. Jamaicans take it to another level though, Louis Bennett, et al.

    I tried commenting here the other day…sloooow isp.

  12. To be said in the stylee of Fred-ah-says-Eliot from Corrie:-

    Ah geets ont buzz – ‘t wurr bloody ‘eavin’ an all – anyroad, the wur this yung feller wi a reet lanky neck, tha nos. Ee’s geet this ‘at ont topov ‘is yead wi a platt instead ot ribbon tha normally wurrz. Anyhow, t’young fella starts mytherin’ wun ot’otherz ont buzz. Bloke din’t tek ‘im on like so this feller beggaaz off t’back ot buzz an sits doown on wun ot spurr churz. Anyroad, a seez this same feller after, chattin’ t’wunov ‘is marraz un ‘is marraz tellin’ ‘im “tha wontz fot shift that buttun and purrit uppabit.”

    Y’know what… that was pretty difficult. I guess the old saying is true… if you don’t use it, you loose it.

  13. LOSE!

    (red flag to an editor)

    Liked “Bloke din’t tek ‘im on like”, but “spurr churz” sounds oddly West Country.

    (I can hardly believe I used to greet everyone with ‘ey oop as a kid.)

  14. Bugger. It was hard to swap back into the English lingo after that little episode. :o) Must use preview in future. Wouldn’t “spurr churz” have to be preceded with “Ooo-aaarrrr” to be West Country? lol. I was just so proud at not having said, “Eeee-bye-gum”!

    (Arghhh… there is no ‘preview’!!!)

  15. Loxias, my first thought was “Because that’s the word that’s used”, but then I got to thinking why this French-origin word should be used to describe a regional dialect in a country never colonized by the French. At the end of the eighteenth century, about 1,200 French planters from Haiti fled to Jamaica to escape the slave uprising and civil war which led to the free Republic of Haiti. Their presence was more influential in spreading Catholicism than the French language, however. Still, I have not found any other explanation for the local use of the word rather than the term creole, which is used by linguists.

    To further mark local appropriation of their language, Jamaicans often spell it patwa.

    For a very impressive and extensive review of the word, see Webster’s Online Dictionary.

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