What is Patois?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term “patois” is used to refer to a variety of nonstandard languages, including provincial dialects, pidgin languages, and creole languages. Some people also mistakenly use the word to refer to specialized slang or jargon; this is technically incorrect, as slang or jargon is part of a larger language. One well known example is the variety of English spoken in Jamaica, which is known as Jamaican patois or simply patois.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

This word entered the English language from the original French in 1643. It is believed to be derived from patoier, which means “to paw or handle clumsily,” in a reference to the fact that the language can sound very rough and imperfect. The French originally used the term to refer to native dialects, and later to regional French dialects, such as that spoken in parts of Canada, differentiating them from the French spoken in France.

Many languages have a large number of dialects, and some speakers consider certain dialects to be more pure than others. For example, American English and British English have diverged quite significantly since the 1600s, and some people consider British English to be the “pure” form of the language, dismissing American English as a mere patois. In fact, evidence suggests that American English more closely resembles the English of the 1600s than British English. Speakers of either American or British English would probably consider pidgin English to be a patois, however, because pidgin is so markedly alien to their ears.

In the case of creole languages, which are complex languages that have evolved from pidgin to become standardized, the term “patois” can also be used. Many creole languages are evolved from pidgin versions of French, Spanish, and English, and they are sometimes very hard for native speakers of these languages to understand because they have diverged so radically from their roots.

Patois is not firmly defined in linguistics, and the definition sometimes depends on where one stands and how one speaks. In all cases, the implication is usually that the language is simpler than its parent language, and that it is a clumsy imitation of the original. Furthermore, it often integrates foreign words, reflecting a meeting of cultures. Speakers of a patois may have marked accents or ways of speaking that seem strange to others, especially in cases where the meanings of words evolve to refer to new concepts.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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