Lost in translation

Overseas visitors often assume there’s only one West Indian dialect. But native daughter Desiree McEachrane knows better…fi true!

Illustration by Darren Cheewah

I thought steeping myself in dancehall hits since high school would have better prepared me for studying in Jamaica. I used to chant over hills and valleys right along with Buju Banton. I even did a very credible “Mr Boombastic”, or so I was told. And I’ve never felt the natural mystic more than when I sang along with my entire Form Two class to Beenie Man and Lady Saw’s “Healing”. As far as I was concerned, I had it. Wasn’t sure what it was, but I was convinced that it was Jamaican-born and grown.

So I applied to study media and communications at the University of the West Indies’ Mona campus in Kingston, Jamaica. Once I was accepted, I told my bright self, “Self, go brave.” Only to have all that bravery smashed on the tarmac very soon after my father and I touched down at Norman Manley International airport.

“Bwoy, me nah know! Mi jus’ know she yuh mus’ bring mi so-and-so 50 grand fi mi now,” one very ghetto-fabulous lady yelled into her cell phone at the airport, red, blonde and probably very expensive hair swinging. I couldn’t understand what the so-and-so she was saying. That was my rude introduction to the linguistic jungle of Jamaican patois.

What should have been simple conversation battered my Trini ears. Fellow passengers, taxi drivers, customs officials… none sounded anything like Buju or Beenie or Shaggy. They sounded rough, scary, bad like yard. I had to suppress several urges to ask Daddy if we could go back home, and not because I had a craving for roti. Visiting Venezuela hadn’t scared me this much. When I struggled to say “Cuánto cuesta?” in the Spanish-people shoe store, the clerk practised his few words of English on me.

We got to campus, I got a key to my room in hall and settled in. The next day, Daddy and I flagged down a taxi to explore Kingston. It took me three embarrassing minutes to understand that the driver ran the Liguanea and Half-Way Tree route; sounded more like “leg-and-knee” and “arf-were-tea” to my virgin ears. Luckily, my father got it, which is probably why he went exploring that day – without me.

Three days later, I was alone in a strange land. For much of my first month, my interactions with Jamaicans meant my listening to them speaking very loudly and clearly – also clearly annoyed by the perpetually confused look on my face. But they spoke to each other at lightning speed.

“Mi nah ramp wit you, my girl…”
“She nah serious! She wan’ mi fi box ‘ar…”
“My youth, yuh see dis ting ‘ere? Dis a de reallest ting…”
“Mi wan’ fi talk to you, mi fren’…”
“She a give de man bun! Fi true!”

What really made me consider hopping a plane ride back home was that a Tobagonian who was on my flight to Jamaica became fluent in patois within two weeks. Worse, every time I told someone I was from Trinidad, I’d get puzzled looks. “Yuh just nah sound Trini,” one well-meaning soul finally explained, while others shrieked at my horrified expression. Apparently, I lack the characteristic “sing-song” accent of most of my fellow countrymen.

If I found female voices confusing, nothing could have prepared me for the babel of Jamaican men. I used to stand and listen to groups of campus men having conversations – but not because I understood a word. Patois just sounds sexier on Jamaican men. Ask any Trini woman.

Then there are the “bad words”. Not satisfied with the more commonplace profanities, Jamrock has invented expletives unique to that island. Of course, I can’t tell you what they are…

It took some time and practice, but I eventually started to get this new language, thanks to my patient first-year roommate, who took the time to explain and slow down. After a while I found myself incorporating words like “unoo” (translation: “allyuh” or “you all”) into everyday conversation.

When I came home for holidays, friends swore up and down that I was starting to sound like a true citizen of Jamrock. I’m not a master, but I can speak a little Trini-flavoured patois with confidence now. And when I next visit Jamaica, I plan to hop a taxi to Half-Way Tree, walk down the street and tell anybody who gets too feisty with me, “Nuh ramp wit’ me, my youth.”

Fi true!