Crowdsourcing Jamaican Patois

We may not think of Jamaica as a bilingual society, but local bloggers are assuring us that it is. English and Patois—or Patwa, as it's often written—are widely spoken, but the Jamaican mother tongue—passed on primarily by oral tradition—gets much less respect. So do its speakers, regardless of the fact that Patois is the first—and in some cases, only—language of many Jamaicans.

But there is change afoot. The Jamaica Language Unit at the University of the West Indies is agitating for freedom from language discrimination to be included in the country's Charter of Rights; the Patois Bible project, despite its naysayers, is forcing people to reconsider the way they view themselves and one another through language. And now, photographer and database developer Varun Baker (who is also the son of blogger Annie Paul) has started a website,, in an effort to use technology to help instil a sense of identity and pride in the indigenous language of Jamaica…

Global Voices: What motivated you to do this project?

Varun Baker: The initial motivation for this project was to build the first online audio dictionary for Patois – the Jamaican Language. I wanted to create the best tools to record and share the Jamaican language, and also to strengthen cultural identity in the Caribbean by increasing dialog around how we recognize Patois in Jamaica. It is interesting to see if technology can help create tangible artifacts from the intangible cultural heritage of Jamaican language.

GV: Can you describe the process you used and the stages the project passed though in order to get it done (or at least get it online)?

VB: One weekend over two years ago I built the first prototype of the online audio dictionary by using a free content management system called Drupal. After getting a list of words, I needed audio recordings to go along with each word so that people can hear how Patois words are used in a sentence. Grafton Music Studios here in Kingston graciously agreed to let me use their facilities to record the audio for the project. Recording artist and friend Wipa Demus also agreed to help with the project and we tried to get audio snippets for 600 words by reading the words to Demus and asking him to ‘freestyle’ a sentence using each word. I ended up with about 450 usable mp3 files so I added them all to the website.

Earlier this year I wanted to make it easier for people to contribute to the project by adding words that might not yet be in the dictionary. With so many people on Facebook I decided to build a Facebook app that allows people to add words directly to the online dictionary through a simple webform.

Varun Baker, creator of

Varun Baker, creator of Image courtesy Varun Baker.

GV: What technology did you use?

VB: I used Drupal for the website and I used open source audio editing software called Audacity to edit the audio files.

GV: Are there any similar projects in existence that you know of?

VB: Well in terms of adding audio to online dictionaries, has audio files associated with its words. Along the lines of contributing to Caribbean identity, I think is a cool project. I like how they use images to add to the dictionary content. This is a time when a lot of print media is moving online and the Internet allows for exciting new ways of mashing up content that has traditionally been restricted to physical pieces of paper.

Also to give a bit more context, in the decade before Jamaica gained independence from Britain in 1962, Jamaican linguist, Frederick Cassidy, was the first to use an audio recording device to reliably document Jamaican language usage. He went on to become the Chief Editor for the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).

GV: How long did it take to amass a number of audio samples large enough to put everything online?

VB: We recorded everything in one night, it was a very very long session and I have a lot of respect for recording artists who, like me, have no problem working through the night until the next morning. Editing the audio into smaller clips took a while, spending a few hours a day on it, I was finished within a week. After this was done, it was just a matter of spending a few hours importing them into the online platform.

GV: Why did you choose Wippa Demus as the voice for the samples?

VB: He's a friend and I always thought he has the voice of a character. If I were a cartoonist, I'd definitely make a cartoon version of Demus.

GV: How much traffic has the site received so far, and how many submissions?

VB: The site currently gets about 1500 hits a month. There were no submissions until the Facebook application went live in March. About 10 crowd sourced submissions have been added to the dictionary so far, so I feel like it's still early days.

GV: What are your future plans for

VB: Well, this has always been a weekend project for me. I would like to spend more time on it, improve SEO, and continue to build Patwa-related tools. The website is a constant work in progress so I hope to have an improved version out soon. It would be cool to also add the ability for others to record their own Patwa audio clips and share it through the website. I would also like to improve the quality of the content by consulting a lexicographer to build an improved dictionary.


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