Fatty!”, “Shorty!”, “Big bottom gal!”, “Drunk already, big belly, stinking toe, fat nose, red skin, green armpit, Junjo breath!” Don’t panic. The above terms are not only politically correct in Jamaica, we use them as salutations to hail up
friends! Yeah man. If you were an enemy we’d be rude.
You might think they sound like insults but in Jamaica, big, small, black, white, tall, short, philanderer or monk, any idiosyncrasy you may have will be become your nickname. Take it from me, Tony “Paleface” Hendriks.
If someone shouts: ”Whitey!!” as you wander down the beach, cross the road or even sit on the toilet, it’s not meant as a racial slur. We are merely narrowing down who we’re talking to.
“Pocket restaurant” was a co-worker named for the fact he always had a snack in his, you guessed it, pocket. We started off calling him Chips then Bun then Chicken Soup until eventually settling on one all-encompassing handle.
If our voices are loud our gesticulations are louder. Use your arms, hands, legs, and bodies when talking like a local and do it so loud you drown out road traffic and guide air traffic.
Our body language is unique too. Jamaica is the only country in the world where you give directions by pointing with your lips.National hero, Nanny of the Maroons, is known for turning her back on the British Army, bending over, lifting her skirt and showing them her bare disdain. “She ketch de British bullets between her butt-cheeks, den fire dem back outta where de sun don’t shine, repelling de redcoats!” So the legend goes. Quite a talent even for a myth but her physical action is copied to this day from playgrounds to parliament.
Not just body language. Our bodies are different. Y’all might have hips, thighs, knees, shins and ankles. Jamaicans have two foot dat start at we belly bottom and reach de floor. We catch cold in our head, cold in your stomach, headache in your back, eye and knee (yes di one in your foot). Foreign doctors practice hard in Jamaica adding body parts to Grey’s Anatomy: head top, neck back, hand middle, foot bottom and goat mouth.
Okay ”goat mouth” is actually something different. It’s when you tempt providence by speaking too soon, saying something might happen and then it does... CAW YOU PUT YOUR GOAT MOUTH ON IT!
To learn any language you need a dictionary to expand your vocabulary. You’ll find phrase books in gift shops but one Jamaican word is ubiquitous: “Irie.” It means all right, nice, good, hello, goodbye, you’re welcome, and many other pleasantries but the greatest pleasure it gives all Jamaica is when visitors mispronounce it to sound like one of the great lakes. Not ”Erie!” it’s “Eye-ri!”
If I ask: “How you do?” what do you say? Not fine, good or blessed. You say: “Not as good as you!” Anything else and you’ve lost the negotiation from the start.
Don’t worry, talking Jamaican like a local isn’t cultural appropriation. At least if it is, Jamaicans don’t care. We only have to see a map of America and we sprout a Hillbilly twang. So, rope een talk like a local. ”Don’t fret if spoil at first, wheel and come again!”
If you’re a woman you’ll get ”lyrics” (sweet talk) from every man you pass. Not very #TimesUp but a major reason why Jamaica produces sprinters but not long distance runners. No Jamaican man can go further than 200 meters without stopping to say: “Hi, pretty lady, if I could rearrange de alphabet, me would keep I next to U. You so sweet, you give me diabetes!” Lyrics!
The Jamaican language is controversial. We are extremely proud of it but some think like good china it should only be used on special occasions. The rest of the time we should talk the Queen’s English. Others believe Jamaican is our first language and we need to learn English as a second language.
One thing we all agree on is, and this is perfect 101 for all beginners, Jamaican is the only language in which you can have a complete conversation using just the vowels. “Ay!” “Eeh?” “I!” “Oh, you!”
When in doubt or you’re lost for words do as the great Bob Marley and more recently Chronixx sing: “Smile Jamaica!”
Tony Hendriks; Jamaican Paleface talking. Blessed loveliness.