10 Words That Are Permanently Plural in Jamaican Patois

 

Jamaicans are as well-known for being irate as we are for being laid back. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but that dose of unpredictability sure keeps things interesting. When it comes to our language, however, you can predict simplicity with accuracy at every turn.

We swallow syllables and consonants in Jamaican Patois like it’s nobody’s business. You might think Jamaicans talk fast, but the truth is that some of the words and syllables you didn’t hear? We never said it.

One way in which we simplify our language is to do away with unnecessary bits and pieces of the Queen’s English. An example of this is that there are several English-based words in Patois that are permanently in their plural form. If we want to make a word deliberately plural, we add dem as a suffix.

While I’ve always been conscious of the use of dem to pluralize, it never actually occurred to me that, by English standards, we were double-pluralizing a lot of words. That observation came from a reader who made a special request for this piece.

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I’ll include sentence examples with each word, but note that the examples are more English-based than we would actually say them. It’s written this way for non-Jamaicans to better understand.

1. Ears

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When speaking in Jamaican Patois, we never say “an ear” or even just “ear”. The word is always ears. Rurual Jamaicans sometimes pronounce it more like i-ez with all short vowels.

Singular: You have something on your ears.

Unspecified: You clean your ears this morning?

Deliberately Plural: You pierce your two ears dem?

2. Teeth

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If you are a dentist in Jamaica, but you’re not Jamaican, you have your work cut out for you. Jamaicans never say tooth. Tooth is just not a part of our Jamaican Patois vocabulary. The word is always teeth and we will die on that hill.

Singular: Yes, doctor! This one teeth a-hurt me!

Unspecified: Long time I plan to fill my teeth but I only found time for it now.

Deliberately Plural: You really need to fill the two teeth dem?

3. Ants

51 Macrophotography Ant

I sometimes forget “ant” is a word until an American says it. It sounds so unnatural. Obviously, the correct word is always ants!

Singular: I can’t believe the one ants bite me!

Unspecified: I do not like ants!

Deliberately Plural: If I catch the ants dem a-run through my house, I just spray them with Bagon!

4. Flowers

17 Red Flower in the Desert

If you ask a Jamaican about “flower,” be prepared to have us think you’re asking about the white powdery stuff. We could also think you mean the verb flour, which describes the childish practice of dousing someone in chalk dust or actual flour as a prank on their birthday.

Singular: I really like that flowers!

Unspecified: I don’t really like the flowers.

Deliberately Plural: The flowers dem in front of your yard look so nice.

5. Bees

Bee on Flower - New York Botanical Gardens

In the tropics, we have a lot of plants, and subsequently, tonnes of bees. Apparently, we have so many that one “bee” is simply just not something we say.

Singular: That bees really went out of his way just to sting me!

Unspecified: I don’t like the sound that bees make.

Deliberately Plural: Leave the bees dem alone! They keep my garden looking pretty.

6. Matches

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If you ask a Jamaican for a match, you might get the reply, “Cricket or football?” If they’re already playing, you might even get invited to join. Meanwhile, you’re standing there with the cigarette in your mouth feeling rather confused.

Singular: You really wet up the one matches I had left??

Unspecified: Children really shouldn’t be left alone with matches.

Deliberately Plural: The matches dem finish already? How?!

7. Shoes

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Jamaicans understand you perfectly when you ask us about that one shoe you can’t find while holding the other one in your hands. We just won’t call it that. It’s not how we do things.

Singular: You ever driving somewhere and see one random shoes on the side of the road and wonder how it got there??

Unspecified: Clarks is the national shoes of Jamaica.

Deliberately Plural: If I have to tell you one more time to pick up the shoes dem off the floor, watch me and you!

8. Socks

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Socks follow the same general path as shoes. Whether we’re talking about the full pair or half of it, we never say “sock”.

Singular: You see my socks anywhere ’bout the place? I can’t find one foot.

Unspecified: I don’t know how people just leave socks rolled up on the floor.

Deliberately Plural: Where all my socks dem gone? I only have one foot of each!

9. Strokes

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The CDC estimates that getting a stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death in America. Jamaicans never get a stroke. When this unfortunate incident affects Jamaicans, we refer to it only as strokes.

Singular: My father died after he had strokes recently.

Unspecified: Strokes can really limit mobility. The road to recovery is a long one.

Deliberately Plural: Three strokes she get last year — and that last one was worse than the others. We knew she probably couldn’t hold on for much longer after that.

10. Brethren | Sistren

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In African American culture, people often refer to each other as a “brother” or a “sister.” Women also shorten “sister” and refer to each other as “Sis.” These terms carry racial connotations.

In Jamaica, we say brethren and sistren. Our words denote comradery, not a specific race. I have heard Jamaicans of all races use these words, but it is most commonly heard among Rastafarians.

Singular: Who? You mean that White man over there in the blue shirt? Yeah man! Is my brethren that from long time!

Unspecified: None. Because this is a way of referring to someone, we don’t use it as a general term.

Deliberately Plural: I met most of my good-good brethren dem in high school. But my sistren dem? I think it was about college that we all became friends.

A good thing to note here is that there are also words that are permanently in singular form until we add the word dem. Examples of this include knee vs knee dem and eye versus eye dem. 

Taking a book from the English Language’s inconsistent rules, there is no specific reason for why we have some words permanently plural versus some being permanently singular. You know them right off the bat as a Jamaican and never think twice about it.

Maybe I’ll make a list about some of those permanently singular nouns as well, but that’s an article for another day. I hope you enjoyed this one! Feel free to shoot me any questions you have in the comments below.

The reader who suggested the article is Derrick Logan. Interested in seeing the original thread with contributions from other Jamaicans? Here you go!

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22 thoughts on “10 Words That Are Permanently Plural in Jamaican Patois

    1. Haha, I’m glad you enjoy them! I’ll try to do more of them, but I like to crowdsource these, so they tend to take a while!

      1. Haha, I’ll try to lessen the wait all the same. 😅 Wish me luck!

    1. Hahahahaha! I thought sistren was a feminist made up word for a long time too. It’s not. Brethren is commonly used in church in Jamaica, but I don’t think it carries the same meaning. It still means comradery, but not the way we mean it in secular terms. It would be identical to your church in that setting. ☺️

      1. Yup! That’s why I said it has that meaning in the church anywhere, but that’s English.

        In Jamaican Patois, it means something else. We would call anyone brethren, as long as it’s a guy and he’s a friend. Jamaican culture in general is a lot more inclusive than most others. One love!

  1. Excellent! Love this. Jamaicans maybe should first immigrate two years to the Louisiana bayou and create a new linguistic, indecipherable English taxonomy. Hah
    Makes me wonder if this structure is similar to the original patois before the English arrived.

    1. We never had an original Patois, actually. Patois itself means a language or dialect formed from several others. It’s the same as Creole.

      Jamaican Patois developed so that slaves from different tribes (and therefore different linguistic backgrounds) could communicate. It was also how they communicated with the plantation master. Every West Indian island with a similar history has some type of patois.

      I think Louisiana has the closest thing to a patois here in the US, especially with that French mixing! In Haiti, theirs is called Kreyol.

      1. It’s amazing to me how much history was erased by contact and colonization.
        “Taíno language. Taíno is an Arawakan language that was spoken by the Taíno people of the Caribbean. At the time of Spanish contact, it was the principal language throughout the Caribbean”. Native to: Bahamas, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, etc.
        I was thinking before the slave trade.

      2. Oh well definitely before the slave trade, there was no Patois. I don’t think the Arawaks (that’s who we had on our island) were keen on communicating with the Spanish. All of ours were wiped out. It’s considered the most complete case of genocide on this side of the world, last I checked. Any Tainos that got reintegrated came from somewhere else.

        That said, while they were being wiped out, the Africans were being brought in. So, some of their culture survived through us. For instance, our use of cassava to make bammie.

        However, the Jamaicans who would have had the closest contact with them are our Maroons. They were the slaves of the Spanish who took the opportunity to flee to the mountains when the English invaded Jamaica and took it from the Spanish. They speak a different language from us and have stronger African physical features as a whole. They have a status similar to the Native Americans in America. They are the closest we’ve got to natives since we lost our original set 🥺. I think most do at least understand English and Patois. All the ones I’ve met do, but I can’t speak for the whole group and never thought to ask.

        The Maroons played a big role in Jamaican history despite being voluntarily shut off the from the rest of us. During slavery days, they lit plantations on fire and stole slaves back to the mountains with them. They also fought off the British successfully until Britain agreed to leave them alone. They never left us to suffer despite their own freedom, so we have nothing but respect for them.

        Our only female national hero is Nanny of the Maroons. She led a lot of those wars against the British and won every one.

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