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Jamaican proverbs and riddles at glance

A proverb is a short, memorable, and often highly condensed saying embodying especially with bold imagery, some common place fact of experience. A riddle is a question, puzzle or verse so phrased that ingenuity is required for elucidation of the answer or meaning; conundrum. Proverbs how did they get here?. Well with the case of Jamaica it was inevitable due to acculturation. Frederic G. Cassidy seems to agree that when people from different backgrounds (as it relates to language and culture) come together a new language will eventually form. He also states that the Jamaican language is unlikely to have been influenced by the Tainos (Arawaks) because they had been exterminated by the Spaniards long before the English came in 1655; and if some of them had survived and intermingled with the Negro slaves they would not have survived the conditions of the Spaniards.

Therefore the language of the Jamaicans is personally derived from the influence of a number of other languages to form a unique Creole. According to Thomas Freundorfer and Martin Priebe this was achieved by the combining of the languages of enslaved Africans, slaves from different backgrounds who spoke in their mother tongues. This made it difficult for ease of communication between the owners and the enslaved. In order to communicate with each other without letting their owners understand what they were saying the enslaved Africans, spoke in their native languages, capitalizing on the ignorance of the European masters. This incited fear in the planters who grew increasingly worried that the enslaved Africans were plotting against them. This lead to the survival of a fraction of their mother tongue in fragments due to the European derived words being pronounced in a distinctively African way. Therefore the language of Jamaica is a continuation of the ancestral traditions, which is still evident in the proverbs and riddles used today.


These are some of Jamaica’s famous proverbs how many do you know?
(Fill in the blanks with words most suitable)

  1. Wha’ sweet a’ mout’ sometime __________ a’ belly. 
    (First impressions are often wrong)
  2. When bud fly too ____________him pass him nes’ 
    (Much haste worse speed)
  3. Lilly billy-goat hab __________but big bull hab none. 
    (Outward appearance is not always an indication of real importance.)
  4. Wha costs nuttin’ gib ________ weight. 
    (We are generous with what costs us nothing.)
  5. Lilly __________ sometime’ grow betta dan big tree. 
    (Small beginnings are not to be despised)
  6. Gib a ting and ’tek a___________, a bad man plaything. 
    (It is the trifling of a bad man to give and take back a thing.)
  7. Heel __________ go before toe. 
    (Important matters must be dealt with first)
  8. Han’ da a bowl, ___________ da a troat. 
    (A treacherous person, shelters his evil designs under a guise of friendship)
  9. “One eye-witness is ___________ than ten hearsays.” 
    (Hearsay is no evidence)
  10. Tired foot always say _______ ___________. 
    (All work is tedious to the unwilling)

Some Jamaican riddles

How many do you know?
  1. Within a shell dere is a cup; within dat cup dere is a bite; within dat bite dere is a sup.
  2. Nail at one side, none at de odder.
  3. Mi fader had a cock in him yard, an ebery time him crow.
  4. De king of England sen’ to de queen of America a golden vessel meant to hold flesh an’ blood.
  5. Wha’ a de difference between a tailor an’ a bunch a banana?
  6. What mek gun favour shop?
  7. sweet water ‘tandin’ up.
  8. Rope run an, donkey lay down.
  9. Dere is a man who hab a ben’ back befo’ him is ole

Answers to the Proverbs
  1. hot
  2. fast
  3. beard
  4. good
  5. bush
  6. ting
  7. nebber
  8. knife
  9. better
  10. pass over

Answers to the Riddles
  1. Coconut
  2. Fingernail
  3. A Gun
  4. A Ring
  5. De tailor cut fe fit an’ de banana fit fe cut.
  6. 1.It hab lock, stock, an’ barrel.
  7. Sugar Cane
  8. Pumpkin vine or cucumber, potato.
  9. Bamboo

  • The Daily Gleaner “Old Time tellin’s” April 7, 2003
  • Anderson, I. and Cundall, F. “Jamaica Proverbs and Sayings” T.M. MacGlinchey Publisher Irish University press Shannon Ireland, 1972, pp. 18, 26, 121-124
  • Cassidy G. Frederic “Jamaica Talk” Published by Macmillan Education Ltd. 1971, p. 2
  • Freundorfer, Thomas and Priebe, Martin “The Language of Jamaica" Publication [S.L], 1991/92
  • Collins English dictionary, Collin London and Glasgow, printed 1979, 1980


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