World Savvy: Caribbean creoles

When I joined the Peace Corps many years ago, little did I know that my first Caribbean trip, then to Puerto Rico for training, would be one of countless others to most of the other islands and Caribbean shores of other countries. For those of you thinking that all I did was lay by the beach sunning myself, most of my Caribbean trips, be they to Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Aruba or St. Barts, were to sell lard, tallow, soybean oil, soybean meal, caustic soda and also to deal with lawyers to escape US corporate taxes. But perhaps the most exotic trips were to sell wheat middlings (a byproduct of wheat milling) from Chile to Puerto Rico, and Haitian soybean meal to Ireland. As you can imagine, I did some flying in those days.

To survive and make an impression, I not only needed to know the official language of the island but also the local creole to make a good impression. Perhaps I have taken the most trips to Jamaica (30, if I recall correctly) where I helped build a soybean processing plant. Jamaica was fought over by many peoples and countries, and even though the British (and the English language) won out, a lot of other linguistic elements from other countries remain. Perhaps the most fascinating is the term Montego Bay, where undoubtedly many of you have vacationed. The legend goes that the Spanish would capture feral pigs in Jamaica and render them on the beach. One of the byproducts of the rendering was manteca, lard (or fat) in Spanish. This then got corrupted to Montego, which means that Montego Bay is really a lard bay and, judging by the looks of some of the more hefty sun-worshipping tourists, the original meaning still has some merit.

In the era following Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, the Spaniards and other Europeans didn’t bring a lot of good to the islands. They brought diseases, which killed off most of the native population, then slavery to provide manpower to run plantations, and naturally they also brought their languages. Whichever European country claimed an island, its language stayed to a greater or lesser degree. No surprise there. The upper classes spoke that language, while their imported slaves developed their own creole from it, often with a simplified grammar and expressions from their places of origin. Put most simply, creole is a language born when different populations combine elements of their language to form a new one. According to linguist Ian Hancock, the world has 127 creole languages, of which 15 are French-based and 35 English-based. Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guiana are the biggest centers of French-based creole, while Jamaica and Surinam are the two biggest centers of English patois. By the way, patois is itself a French word that originally referred to a local or regional dialect.

The origins of French creole are particularly fascinating. According to Jean-BenoÎt Nadeau and Julie Barlow in The Story of French, “The Caribbean colonies’ main impact on the French language was the creation, almost overnight, of French creole. The term créole came from the Portuguese crioulo, which referred to Brazilian-born mulattos. . . . The term traveled to the new world on slave ships leaving Senegal, which had been a Portuguese colony before the French occupied it. The Spanish, and later the French, used the term for anyone born in the colonies. It generally referred to whites, but became the name for the jargon that developed among slaves.”

No one knows exactly how these creoles evolved over time because slaves could rarely write, and thus there is little record of them. Yet amazingly, speakers of French-based creoles can still generally understand each other if they speak slowly enough.

Nadeau and Barlow also point out that there are a number of Africanisms sprinkled throughout creole. In Martinique and Guadeloupe the native whites are called békés, an Africanism, but in Haiti they are called blan from the French blanc. The present meanings of particular words are often far removed from their meanings in African languages, by the way. Zombi, which originally meant god in the Bantu language, has an altogether different connotation today.

The Caribbean in the 1600s and 1700s was a linguistic melting pot — you could even find some Latvian. As the islands changed masters and commerce brought in new terms, the effect on language was immediate. The word sugar is derived from the Arabic sukkar, and neither the plant nor the word is native to the Caribbean at all. Columbus nabbed some on a stopover to the Canary Islands, and it was only later that Europeans discovered that the Carribean was perfectly designed for sugar plantations. The Spanish began setting up sugar mills there in the 1500s. Going back to language, the steps from one word to another rarely followed a straight line. Zebra entered via Spanish cebra, which meant wild donkey, and banana is a Bantu word that became French (and English) through Portuguese. Get all that?

Jamaican patois has a rich variety of swear words. I learned many of them to make a point with suppliers and merchants who tried to overprice things, and, particularly, cab drivers. When you tell a cabbie “I goin to bus ur mouf” if you charge me too much, he doesn’t know if you are joking or just a deranged expat who has been on the island too long.

In all my Caribbean travels I never encountered a Spanish creole, although there are certainly different Spanish dialects from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama. The closest to a Spanish creole is probably Papiamentu, a creole language spoken north of Venezuela on Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire Island of the Leeward Netherlands Antilles. Papiamentu derives two-thirds of its words from Spanish, Portuguese and Galician — and sometimes it is hard to tell which — another quarter from Dutch and the rest from other languages including English, French and various African languages. Unlike some other creole languages found in the Caribbean, Papiamentu has survived well up to the present day and is spoken through all levels of society.