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.
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.
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?
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?
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!
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.
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.
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?!
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!
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!
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
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!
JAMAICANS ASSEMBLE 🇯🇲: This one is a special request from a reader and he gave some very good details! Share your own suggestions for the list.
— Alexis Chateau 🇯🇲🇺🇸 (@alexischateau_) November 22, 2019