Why French Creole matters

Dr Jo-Anne Ferreira, senior linguist at the University of the West Indies (UWI) and head of department at UWI’s department of Modern Languages and Linguistics says the Trinidadian variant of French Creole/Patois is dying. But French Creole throughout the Caribbean is the region’s second language spoken by about 10 to 11 million people.
Dr Jo-Anne Ferreira, senior linguist at the University of the West Indies (UWI) and head of department at UWI’s department of Modern Languages and Linguistics says the Trinidadian variant of French Creole/Patois is dying. But French Creole throughout the Caribbean is the region’s second language spoken by about 10 to 11 million people.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart – Nelson Mandela

THERE are words that hit straight to the heart of any Trini and these hold a special meaning. Trinis have a deep, intrinsic understanding of what it means to be bazodee. Words like tantie, the less commonly used doux doux are all part and expression of what it means to be a Trinidadian.

These words/expressions are derived from the once prominent French Creole often called patois and, to senior linguist Dr Jo-Anne Ferreira and teacher Nnamdi Hodge, informs much of TT’s “Trinidadian-ness”. Ferreira is the head of the University of the West Indies’ (UWI) department of Modern Languages and Linguistics.

Although much of it has led to how TT speaks today, the Trinidadian variant is dying. But French Creole is the second language of the Caribbean, Ferreira said, with a speaking population of about ten to 11 million.

During the 19th century, Hodge said, all of the inhabitants spoke French Creole. He said, “It is believed that Spanish was our first language but when Trinidad became a nation in 19th century, French Creole was our first national language that we all spoke. All of the natives spoke French Creole in the 19th century...”

Ferreira said 1783 is given as the date for the arrival of French Creole to TT.

Giving greater historical background, he said, “Because that was the Cedula of Population that a French Grenadian negotiated with the Spanish Crown to populate Trinidad with French Catholics. So when the French came, they came with the Africans and so-called free coloureds and all three different ethnic groups and mixtures spoke French Creole aka patois.”

This then made French Creole TT’s lingua franca (a language or way of communicating which is used between people who do not speak one another’s native language.)

So much so, Ferreira added, that “whoever came to Trinidad had to learn it to be able to sell, to buy, to live.

“While they adopted it as the lingua franca, eventually because of all kinds of other policies, English became the lingua franca and then English Creole.”

Even today English Creole, she said is the most “‘patois-ified’ English Creole I can think of.”

Expressions such as “to take in front before in front take you” and the way we say, “it making hot” are directly translated from French Creole.

Language components

To everyday ears, patois means the broken form of a standard language.

Patois, as defined by Cambridge dictionary is “the form of a language spoken by people in a particular area that is different from the standard language of the country.”

Some might question whether French Creole is a language in its own right, Hodge and Ferreira say that French Creole is since it has “all of the definitions for it to be a language.”

“A language has to have three components. It has to have a vocabulary, an inventory of words, an inventory of sounds used and more importantly a grammar. Patois has a grammar like any other language that can be taught and learnt. It also has a community of speakers.

“It has all of the definitions required for it to be a language. Systematic grammar, the stock of words used (the vocabulary) as well as certain sounds that belong to the language that any language has to have. Also the role of French Creole as well. It is used in most countries in the French Caribbean for day-to-day communication like any other language. It can also be used to bring people together,” Hodge explained.

Sharing an identical view to Hodge, Ferreira said the language has a long history with next year being 150 years of the first French Creole grammar written anywhere in the world. This was written by Trinidadian John Jacob Thomas in 1869. It is Ferreira’s hope to have some celebrations around that event.

Not broken French

“He wrote the grammar to show that it was really a language and not just what people used to consider broken French,” she said.

This is just one way the people like Ferreira and Hodge are trying to preserve the language. Other ways include hosting classes and responding to invitations to go to schools and interviewing elders.

With Creole month being celebrated, internationally, this October, TT’s efforts are centred around the language’s preservation and as a way to link-up with other people doing work in their communities, Ferreira said.

There are some spaces particularly along the East/West corridor hosting French Creole classes. Patois classes are being held at Caribbean Yard Campus, Lloyd Best Institute in Tunapuna, in Talparo, run by Michelle Mora and then one started at the Alliance Française on October 8. One of the spaces also teaching the language is the Women Working for Social Progress in Tunapuna.

Jacquie Burgess, the organisation’s convenor and one of its founding members said, it began offering patois in 1999 under its School of Alternative Education.

The school which began in 1991 offered Language for Empowerment under which basic literacy, Spanish, English for Tertiary Education and other subjects were taught.

Teacher Nnamdi Hodge has been teaching the Trinidadian variant of French Creole/Patois to people at spaces such as the Women Working for Social Progress. Hodge wants to see French Creole/patois to the school's curriculum.

Hodge, one of the organisation’s support members, had “done some work in French Creole at the UWI. We asked him whether he would teach that, first, to just members of the organisation and, of course, in the discussions we were talking about while a lot of people know it is an existing language, it seemed to be dying because less and less people were speaking it.”

Teaching patois

Adults fluent in French Creole, Burgess said, did not pass the language on to their children as “they would dismiss the children because when they spoke patois it was to discuss things they did not want the children to hear.”

She added that by having the classes “we thought that we would kind of revive the speaking of patois.”

It began with only the organisation’s membership and was then opened to the public.

Since then it has, almost every year, hosted a level one French Creole class which teaches the language’s history, its alphabet, how to say one’s name and other basics.

There is also a level two class, Burgess said but it is not as popular as the level one. The class is taught by Hodge.

The organisation now also hosts a French Creole concert, now in its third year. This year’s concert was held on October 21 at Brazil Secondary School.

The classes have seen a “slight increase” in its participants over the years, Burgess said. Each year it sees about five to 12 people attending at a cost of $30 for registration and $300 for the course.

Burgess said the organisation gets a “number of interest” in the course. However, she said, people would call say they are interested but because of the distance (some of them from south) they can’t come.

“We have had a lot of interest but for various reasons people don’t follow through. People from all over the country express interest,” Burgess said.

Hodge’s interaction with French Creole began at UWI when he had to do a level three course called Caribbean Dialectology. “There was a level two course that was a prerequisite which was St Lucian French Creole. I did the course and afterwards I had a record at home that was made from Paramin that I started to use and I realised what I had learned at UWI, the St Lucian French Creole is the exact same thing as the one used on the record and the songs on the record,” he said.

He realised TT’s variant was still fairly vibrant even though it was dying at the same time and so began the class at the Women Working for Social Progress.

At the class he wanted to use songs as one of his teaching tools and began using Martiniquais songs. But was then told by one of the class’ participant that “she knew some patois songs that they sang in the Best Village as children.”

Hodge then decided to go around the country and collect all of the old French Creole songs and make a book of Trinidad French Creole songs from different genres of music.

“I realised when I went around they were speaking the language still so I decided to interview speakers as well, beyond the songs. Just to interview them on their life story and to get the French Creole recordings documented,” he said.

He visited some media houses such as Gayelle, when he started the classes, to get “any kind of footage of French Creole speakers in TT”, but they had none. This was when Hodge decided to get his own recordings. “Apart from the book (patois songbook), just to record anybody I could find here just to have it documented to use for the class. And from there it just went on and kind of built momentum,” he said.

There have been two St Lucian French Creole dictionaries with one published in 1992 and the New Testament translated into St Lucian French Creole in 1999. The Haitian Creole Dictionary and Phrasebook was published in 2008.

TT is yet to have a dictionary done. Hodge said “one of our friends in Paramin he wanted to make a dictionary...but then that sort of morphed into making a textbook instead. We were getting words but we weren’t getting enough for a dictionary.”

Gertrude Aub-Buscher, a Swiss linguist who worked at UWI, Mona, began a TT French Creole dictionary in the 60s and is now finishing, Hodge said. Ferreira and Hodge are assisting with this.

Work on the textbook is ongoing, Hodge said, when asked when it might be completed. Work on it began two years ago and hopes it can be completed in another year or two.

Over the years, Hodge believes he has taught at least 300 people French Creole. Although there are some younger people attending, on average the classes see people aged 40 to 60.

Hodge hopes when the book is completed it can be used in schools libraries. Hodge hopes one day that French Creole can be part of the wider school curriculum.

He sees it as “being at the essence of TT’s being.”

“Children now are losing our identity with all this exposure to American TV, music and stuff. Our traditions are being lost and I think French Creole is a way to bring us back to our Trinidadian-ness,” he said.

He does not expect the language to be spoken by the country but hopes “to bring back some of the traditions that accompanied French Creole. The games, a lot of the folk songs... It can be used in particular instances. A lot of stickfighters, a lot of the surviving songs are sung in French Creole, some in English. It can also come back in Best Village as well. Not spoken everyday but used in the cultural domain in particular.”

Ferreira’s first sign that the language was dying appeared in the form of a newspaper article in the 1830s and 40s where “people started to talk about Trinidad losing French Creole.”

Although Ferreira and others do not know the exact number of speakers there are in TT, they have found speakers in spaces all over in Paramin, Cumaca, Pleasantville, Arima, Penal, Tabaquite, Petit Valley, Morne Diablo, San Rafael, Moruga, Maracas, Blanchisseuse. She said a sign in Paramin years ago indicated there were about 3,000 speakers but she believes now it is about a few hundred speakers.

She said what would run into the thousands are people whose parents or grandparents spoke the language, people with a French Creole heritage.

One Paramin elder even told her to just follow “the cocoa trail and wherever cocoa was, patois is.”

But more importantly for Ferreira preserving the language gives TT’s children an idea of their past.

“If you don’t know your past you really have no future,” Ferreira said when asked why try to preserve a language in an age where English is considered a universal language.

“You have young people who don’t know where they’ve come from and elders who don’t know enough of their background and have pride in it. They have become easy victims and prey to northern domination, so we have become colonised again.

“I think human beings were created with a need for diversity and a desire to have the freedom to express that diversity,” she added.

Like Hodge, Ferreira would consider it a “dream” if French Creole were added to the curriculum or syllabus in some way.

Stating its importance to wider TT, Ferreira has called on people to get on board. If more information is needed visit/or join the group’s Patois Facebook page Annou Palé Patwa.


"Why French Creole matters"

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