Migrations My Grandmother’s Patois and Other Keys to Survival
Patois was our secret, allowing us to be in the English world and then escape to Jamaica through language.
“Which aisle has the soup packs?” my grandmother asked the shopping attendant. I noticed all her words were perfectly enunciated. The soft Patois that often gripped her tongue was replaced for a more palatable, less judgmental English. The attendant led us to the soup packs and my grandmother’s brown eyes scanned the rack for the Cock-flavored mix. She was getting ready to prepare a dish that she had been making since she was a child: her most coveted chicken soup.
“Oh, thank you so much!” she said with a smile. Once the attendant was out of sight, she picked up two packs and threw them into her shopping basket, kissing her teeth. “Yuh no this ah get more expensive?” she said, slipping back into her more familiar way of speaking. It was not a question. It was a definitive statement coded as a question, but I was used to the way she disregarded the conventions of speech in exchange for her own.
When I was growing up, my grandmother’s sly remarks in Patois provided the comedic relief when we went out. Patois was our secret, allowing us to be in the English world and then escape to Jamaica through language—if only for brief moments at a time.
A ritual followed her speech, in which I would laugh loudly, too loudly, and she’d hush me up and pinch me with a smirk. That’s how our times out would go: English in public, Patois in private.
My grandmother was born twelve years before Jamaica received its independence. The colonial oversight that had controlled the island loosened, but she would still grapple with its insidious residue through her speech, even when she was 1,776 miles away.
She migrated to Toronto, Canada in 1971. Prior to her arrival, Canada had just received its second wave of Caribbean immigrants through the West Indian Domestic Scheme, a policy implemented in 1955. The need for domestic labor in a post-war Canada afforded a select group of Caribbean women—particularly from Jamaica and Barbados—who were single, aged 18-35, had at least an eighth grade education and successfully passed an interview and medical examination with Immigration Canada, an opportunity to get permanent residency and increased likelihood of sending for their families in exchange for one year of domestic labor. My grandmother saw an opportunity for herself. Arriving with one suitcase, fifty Canadian dollars, and a desire for a better way of living, she settled in the West Toronto neighborhood of (pre-gentrified) Trinity Bellwoods, preparing for my then-three-year-old mother, who was back in Jamaica, to join her.
My grandmother was able to build a comfortable life for herself in her new home: She started doing precarious housekeeping work until she was able to secure a stable job, dedicated her life to serving God, and was able to accumulate all that was needed to change her socioeconomic status — a much different reality than her country life in Trelawny, Jamaica that was the backdrop to her youth. She had done all she needed to do to effectively assimilate into this new life, but once she opened her mouth, her tongue would reveal her otherness.
Because of this, she reserved Patois for intimate spaces, particularly the church and our home. Four a.m. was her designated prayer time, and not a morning went by when I wasn’t awakened by her cries to Christ. She thanked Him for her life and pleaded to Him to repair the bad in the world, in our family, or in her personal life. Her words for the early morning were lazy but still purposeful, a contrast to her quick and witty replies we frequently giggled about. The denouement to her spiritual appeals would be eclipsed with hymns she had sung throughout her Christian life. “When you see mi go pon God business, Satan move, mek mi pass.” She sang her Patois, evoking more conviction and rigour with each new line.
This would continue throughout the week until Sunday morning, when we made our way to church. Our congregation was comprised of people from different countries within the Caribbean, including a strong number of older Jamaican folks. Part of my formative memories of Patois were made here, amidst the elders who would give us peeks into their youth through their storytelling and my pastor who, at the height of her sermon, would sometimes slip into the lexicon that we all knew. We sang hymns, said prayers, lifted our voices, and received revivals weaving in and out of the languages of our three worlds: English, Patois, and tongues.
Church would end six hours later, as very Pentecostal and very Caribbean churches do. Youth would run to the back room for patties and pastries, and adults would engage in pleasantries. Everyone would go back to their lives, likely shedding their Patois upon exiting, to engage with the world in Standard English, and inadvertently, replicating the relationship that people had with Patois back home.
The sound of Jamaican Patois will forever be my favorite song. It’s as expressive and sharp as the people who speak it, but its history is one informed by the country’s colonial past. Then slave owners forced slaves to speak English, outlawing their native tongue. What was left was a fragmented English, whose vernacular has etymological roots in English, African, and Asian languages, reflecting the diversity of the country’s people.
But the politics of Patois have limited how it’s regarded both on and off the island. It hasn’t been recognized as the country’s official language. Whether or not it is a dialect or language is a catalyst for debate. Its employment is a marker of class and socioeconomic status, and it is typically reserved for the country’s lower-class citizens.
Decades later, my grandmother still contends with this through her veiled Patois and strategic usage of English. In her new world, she knew she would be subject to criticism already, and chose to speak “properly.” The minute her Patois fell in the ears of others, her Black body would be scripted as one that did not belong—as one belonging to an immigrant, uneducated, amongst other things.
When my grandmother and I get together now, I’m usually met with a speech about how I don’t see her as frequently as I used to before getting older and assuming more responsibilities of my own, but I’m always embraced with a hug and many kisses. No matter how much time stands between our last and current encounter, I look forward to traveling to her days in Jamaica through her stories. My favorite stories are the ones from when she was very young.
She was given the nickname “Bad Penny” for how often she misbehaved. In one instance, my great-grandmother sent her to the market to buy mangoes. On her way home, she began to get hungry, so she decided to suck out the fruit and juice from one end of the mango and replace its insides with small pebbles. When her mother found out she was, understandably, not impressed. My grandmother and I cackle at the thought of her getting away with it.
Storytelling has a way of transporting you to another place, bringing you along on a visceral journey. When my grandmother tells the stories of her past, I see her revert back to her most vulnerable self. Her wrinkled hands make grand gestures and her face explodes with expression. I’m always drawn into how she’s able to recreate voices and locations through her words, reminded in these moments that this is a much older Bad Penny—whose story is illustrated by the vibrancy of Patois.
In the spaces I occupy now, I think about the ways of communicating I have at my disposal. How I unapologetically take up space with language, embedding Patois in my academic writing; how I am often afforded the opportunity to speak Patois in Toronto, amongst the many other Jamaican migrants and first- and second-generation children.
I do this for my grandmother. For all the times she made a decision to draw from her secondary bank of knowledge in an effort to conceal her difference. For all the times she sacrificed showcasing the beauty of her language to quell the curiosity of others. For all the times she’s thought of me and my future, I think I think about her and her past.