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5 Old English Terms That Are Still Popular in Jamaica

While reading Shakespeare in high school, I made a startling observation. The English elements in Jamaican Patois are so old that British people from the 1500s might actually understand us perfectly. I saw patterns of our syntax, grammar and vocabulary repeated several times over in Shakespeare and even Victorian-era novels. I was mad with excitement when I showed this to my English teacher, but she didn’t find it half as interesting as I did.

A year later, reading Shakespeare in college brought the theory back to mind. Jamaican Patois was part of my Communications classes. As we broke the language down into its linguistic elements and cultural components, I saw Old English patterns again.

Sadly, I had far bigger puzzles to solve and this fell on the backburner. I’m sure I could have written a much longer list back then. But, here are five Old English terms that are still commonly used in Jamaican Patois.

1. Methinks

My eyes bulged out of my head when I saw the word “methinks” in Shakespeare’s plays. Most English speakers would never use this phrase in everyday conversations, but Jamaicans do use a version of it. In Jamaican Patois, the full phrase is Me-thinks so. It means, I think so.

In fact, even now, it would be strange for a Jamaican to use the modern English version over the Old English version in everyday conversations. I hope that NEVER changes!

2. A-[verb]

There are a lot of things you might say in a language that you take for granted, especially when you don’t get the chance to study it like you do in English. When we broke down Jamaican Patois conjugations in my college Communications classes, tenses stood out to me. My lecturer pointed out that we use the prefix “a” to create present-continuous tense.

For example, an English person is crying, but a Jamaican person a-cry. This is a bastardization of a similar concept used in Old English for poetic reasons. The big difference is that they still use the tense at the end. For example, an Old English poet is a-crying.

3. Bawl

Unlike many of the other words on this list, bawl still makes an occasional appearance among some other Anglophones. Every time I hear it, I chuckle a little because it reminds me of home. In Jamaica, bawl means the same thing it does in English: to cry and wail loudly.

Jamaican children learn this phrase early when a good spanking brings us to tears, only for the Jamaican parent to ask us whether they gave us something to bawl over. Lord help you if you say yes. Thoughts and prayers!

4. Fling

The first place I noticed the word fling outside of a Jamaican Patois context was the King James Version of the bible. I think most well-read Anglophones know what the word means in English and it means exactly the same in Jamaican Patois. However, most English-speakers don’t seem to use the phrase anymore … except for the Irish and the British people in West Country.

Ironically, the slaves in Jamaica must have picked up the majority of their English from the Irish. In Jamaica, both ethnic groups were hated and intermingled with no Jim Crow to get in the way. It’s one of the many reasons so many Jamaicans have Irish ancestry. Black and African camaraderie and intermingling in the Americas is also why “Black Irish” means something completely different on this side of “the pond” than it does in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

5. Almshouse

Jamaican Patois is a mix of several languages, but some words are just plain made-up ones. I always thought almshouse was one of these until watching a Victorian-era series to help me set the mood for my novel, The Moreau Witches. Apparently, in the earlier days of Britain, these were charity organizations claiming to help the poor. There was a general belief that these charity organizations took advantage of the poor and mistreated them. In other words, the whole thing was a sham. You can read more about how almshouses earned their poor reputations on Britannica.

Ironically, in Jamaican Patois, the full phrase is almshouse business. Jamaicans describe something as an almshouse business when they believe it’s suspicious, untrustworthy or a scam. You mostly only hear this phrase among older people and in rural communities, now. But, you would be hard-pressed to find even a young Jamaican who couldn’t tell you what it means.

One of the most fascinating things about Jamaican culture is its diversity. It could take hundreds of years before we ever fully connect the dots to our pre-colonial and colonial past. In the meantime, the liberal arts grad in me enjoys the little breadcrumb clues I find along the way. I hope you do, too.

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