Patois (Creole) Language

To most people who do not speak the language it is known simply as a “Patois” Trinidad was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1498 during this third voyage to the new world, it was reported that he landed on the southern coast of the island near present-day Moruga, when he landed he saw three hills and named the island “La Trinidad” meaning “The Trinity”; true colonization of the island by the Spanish began in the following century and it remained a Spanish colony until it was captured 1797 by Sir Ralph Abercrombie, the island was officially ceded to the British in 1802 by the Treaty of Amiens.

It was during the Spanish colonial occupation, that the Creole language as spoken in Trinidad was born. History tells us that even though the Spanish kept the island for two hundred years unchallenged, they, for various reasons were not able to develop the island along the usual patterns of European colonial occupation, and as such Trinidad remained the most undeveloped colony in the Caribbean; by the middle of 18th century Trinidad’s population was about two to three thousand, comprising of some Spaniards the remainder of the native population that survived Spanish invasion and a few Africans who were imported to work on the plantations.

The Spanish realizing this, proclaimed the “cedilla de poblation” which invited any catholic subject on good terms with the Spanish crown, to settle in Trinidad on the condition that they swore absolute loyalty to the Spanish and obeyed the Spanish laws for governing the colony; the Spanish also gave many incentives to lure settlers to the island, including exemption from taxes for ten years and grants of land to set up plantations. It was reasoned that settlers from the more populous French islands should be given first preference over others because they were catholic and already has expert knowledge in planting different varieties of sugar cane.

Settlers coming from Martinique, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Dominica, and Guadeloupe flooded the island by the thousands bringing their slaves with them and setting up plantations, these French speaking people overran the island; they built roads, buildings, villages and towns. They also acquired positions of prestige in the government and took up and active role in the governance of the colony, soon their numbers and influence surpassed that of the original Spanish colonists and in essence “La Trinidad” became “La Trinity” an unofficial colony of France.

The population of Trinidad was further increased by the importation of thousands of slaves directly from Africa to work on the new plantations since the slaves brought over from the French Islands were soon found to be inadequate. As soon as they arrived in Trinidad the slaves were culturally suppressed for fear of revolt, these slaves interacted with the creolized slaves that they met on the island. The slaves born in the Caribbean spoke Creole which was the spoken language of the slaves in the French Antilles.

The Creole language was learnt by the new slaves in order to communicate with their masters as well as the other slaves, they combined Creole with their own languages and a new variant of the language was beginning to emerge. This Creole was also heavily influenced by Spanish which is also spoken in Trinidad and also influenced by the lexical items from the Carob language, all of these linguistic influences helped to make the language unique and native to this particular island.

When the British took the island in 1797, they encountered a complex culture that existed nowhere else in the Caribbean; the island was a Spanish colony with a French, Creole and Spanish-speaking population, Creole became the common language of the different communities of people who all spoke different languages. From 1797 until 1962 the British ruled, they tried their best to stamp out the overwhelming Franco-Creole- Hispanic influence but were largely unsuccessful until the early part of the 20th century; when the use of Creole, Spanish and French began to decline; the British attacked the Creole culture by passing laws against anything that did not conform to their definition of culture.

These very laws, rooted in linguistic and cultural discrimination eventually led to the Cannes Brulées riots in the late 1800’s. Soon thereafter Creole was superseded by English and its Creole counterpart and today there remains very few places where Creole is heard regularly. One of these villages in Paramin which also has a strong Tradition of Spanish speaking, another is Blanchisseuse and a remote village called Morne Carbite.

Creole is spoken elsewhere, but the number of Creole speakers in these areas is very small. In terms of comprehension of Trinidad’s Creole with that of the other islands, Trinidad’s Creole is most closely aligned with the Creole of Martinique since slaves and French Creole whites from this island were in the majority during the formative years of Trinidad’s Creole. Speakers of Trinidad’s Creole are also able to communicate with Creolophones from Guadeloupe, Marie Glante, Saint Lucia, Dominica, and Saint Martin and to some extent Haiti. Creole is the language spoken in these islands and it unites us all.

Creole not a dialect of French and monolingual Francophones cannot understand the language, It is a language with its own grammar, syntax and orthography which makes it distinct from French or any other language it may resemble; the notion that Creole is an inferior language is a colonial inference and is not based on linguistic fact.

Concerning vocabulary, 90% of the words come from French while the remaining words come from various African languages Spanish, Carib, Hindi, Portuguese, Chinese, English and Arabic. Hindi and Arabic words entered the language when Hindu and Muslim indentured laborers came to the island in the 1840’s. The impact of Hindi, Chinese and Arabic on the language is very small because by the time these laborers arrived on the island the Creole language had for the most part evolved into its present from and had less need to borrow lexical items from other languages.

English influence on the language is growing and most words borrowed from English describe modern concepts and inventions. Presently the language is being taught to some elementary school students in Paramin, these classes have been very successful and there are plans to introduce courses in other areas with an existing Creole speaking population. There is also a Creole course offered at UWI.

I use the word Creole because the word Patois has a negative connotation for those of us who still speak the language. For more information on the Creole culture, language and people please contact Marvel Henry at kanboule@hotmail.com.


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