Creoles of the Caribbean

January 31, 2018

Originally written for Mélange Travel & Lifestyle Magazine. Re-printed with permission.

In my travels across the Caribbean, I’ve often wondered why the accents across certain islands are so different despite their shared language. Why the sing-song of Trinidadian prose and playful ebbing and flowing of Virgin Islanders while the swift gallop of Jamaican Patois? Surely a similar situation exists among the French, Spanish, and Dutch islands, but where do these different accents come from? Why is it that each island has a dialect apart from the official language and distinct from the other islands sharing the same official language? Curiosity set me off on an investigation that uncovered some pretty interesting stuff.

First of all, we can debunk the common belief that Creole in the Caribbean is spoken only by Haitians, St. Lucians, and Dominicans. “Creole” may be the name given to the dialect these people speak, but the term actually refers to any language born of a need for communication between people speaking different languages. When slaves were brought over to the Caribbean, there would have been communication barriers among them (people from different tribes ended up on the same plantation) and between them and their European masters. A simple set of vocabulary had to be adopted for day-to-day living, the result of which was a new hybrid that borrowed from the multitude of African tongues present and those of their European oppressors. This “pidgeon” would become the mother tongue of subsequent generations, evolving and developing over time into a full fledged language with complex grammar rules and vocabulary.

Discovering this was my “aha!” moment. This explained the rainbow of accents from the paisaje de campo of Cuba to the “heights and terraces” of Antigua and from the klein steden of Curacao to les montagnes of Guadeloupe. Each dialect, or “creole”, would have emerged from the unique blend of the many African languages present on the plantations combined with that of the European oppressors. In some cases, such as in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, creoles were peppered with influences from the multiple European languages, further enriching the dialect. Children born in this environment would grow up knowing only these dialects as their mode of communication. Of course, there was always a clear distinction between the standard language spoken by the oppressors and the Creole spoken among slaves.

This colourful and interesting linguistic legacy is not without issue, however. With the emancipation of slaves and blacks moving off the plantation into different realms of society, these creoles started to be left in the countryside, limited to the home, and branded the dialect of the lower class. Of course this view would have been fostered from their early classification as the language of slaves. Soon it was typically those living in rural areas and the poor and uneducated who spoke Creole; “high-society”, “distinguished” or “educated” people did not associate themselves with it. In some islands the creole became stigmatized and a shame of sorts: a St. Lucian fellow pilot told me he was beaten if he was heard speaking Creole as a child, and a Jamaican friend told me that parents there generally discourage their children from speaking Patois. Thankfully, in recent years attitudes have changed such that a sense of pride has emerged and local dialect is now embraced and promoted as a vital part of the culture. For example, in St. Lucia, Creole is now being taught in school and some Creole-English dictionaries have been published. In St. Maarten, children grow up freely speaking Papiamento in and out of the home.

Now when I hear my relatives speaking “rank Bajan” (raw Barbadian dialect), I don’t simply consider it different English. The pleasant lilt of other Caribbean accents is no longer simply a cause of mild amusement for me. I appreciate these as full-fledged modes of communication between people bound by a geographic and cultural history. These people, in their playful expression with one another, continue to celebrate a legacy of strength and resilience that extends beyond physical or economic achievements. Little do they know that by this legacy, each one of them is also forever bound to his bredren, his amigus, and his kanmawads elsewhere in the Caribbean’s African diaspora and out in the wider world.

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