Although the official language of Trinidad & Tobago is English, there exists within the population a group of people who speak Kwèyòl. This language has had a profound effect on the speech patterns of all Trinidadians from the moment it emerged on the island to the present time. To most people who do not speak the language, it is known simply as a “Patois” most people are of the view that Kwèyòl is not a legitimate language and simply a vernacular of the French language, it is also a sad fact that most Trinidadians do not realize that Kwèyòl is an increate part of their culture. 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 by 1507 and it remained a Spanish colony until it was captured for the British in 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 Kwèyòl language as spoken in Trinidad was born.
History tells us that even though the Spanish kept the island for three 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 ; there are many reports by people who visited the island under Spanish rule. Many of these reports tell of native Indians running wild doing as they pleased and also of the very poor and almost nonexistent infrastructure ; the problem in Trinidad was dire indeed, so much so that by the late 18th century Trinidad’s population was about two to three thousand, comprising of some Spaniards the remainder of the native population that survived the Spanish incursion and a few Africans who were imported to work on the plantations. Trinidad was a colony ripe for take-over by another European power ; the Spanish realizing this, proclaimed the “cédula de población” 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 ; this proclamation was procured by Philippe-Rose Roume de Saint-Laurent. 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 had expert knowledge in planting different varieties of sugar cane. Settlers coming from Martinique, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Dominica, Saint Vincent, Guadeloupe, Nevis, Haiti and Louisiana flooded the island by the thousands bringing their slaves with them and setting up plantations, soon the wild appearance of Trinidad began to change rapidly as these French speaking people inundated 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 Trinité” 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, most of the 22,482 slaves on the island at this time spoke only Creole.
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 Creole language was learnt by the new slaves in order to communicate with their masters as well as the other slaves, they combined Kwèyòl with their own languages and a new variant of Kwèyòl was beginning to emerge. This Kwèyòl was also heavily influenced by Spanish also spoken in Trinidad and by the lexical items from the Carib 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 French, Kwèyòl and Spanish-speaking population, Kwèyòl became the common language of the different communities of people who spoke different languages ; by the British takeover of 1797 more than 80% of the island’s population spoke French or Creole. From 1797 until 1962 the British ruled Trinidad ; they tried, through legislation to eradicate the overwhelming Franco-Creole-Hispanic influence but were largely unsuccessful until the early part of the 20th century ; when the use of Kwèyòl, Spanish and French began to decline. The use of French and Spanish in school was now illegal and the use of Creole was discouraged. Soon Kwèyòl was superseded by English and today there remains very few places where Kwèyòl is heard regularly. One of these villages is Paramin which also has a strong Tradition of Spanish speaking, others are Blanchisseuse, Morne La Coix, Toco, Avocat, Bourg Mulatress, La Lune and Brasso Seco in these villages, one may find children under the age of ten speaking Creole and this is true for many other villages in northern and southern parts of the island ; this is because most of the French planters who arrived chose to settle in these areas of the island.
It is also in these villages that one clearly sees evidence of Trinidad’s French Creole past in terms of food, dance and style of dress. In former times, Creole was widely spoken in the rural villages as well as the cities and towns ; it was possible to find monolingual Creole speakers especially in the northern part of the island, now all speakers of Creole are bilingual speaking both English and Creole.
Creole is spoken elsewhere, but the number of 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-Galante, 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 is not a dialect of French and monolingual Francophones cannot understand the language, Kwèyòl 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 Kwèyòl 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 Yoruba, Husa, Igbo, Akan, Spanish, Carib, Hindi, Portuguese, Chinese, English and Arabic. Hindi and Arabic words entered the language when Hindu and Muslim indentured labourers came to the island in the 1840’s. The impact of Hindi, Chinese, Portuguese and Arabic on the language is very small because by the time these labourers 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 languges. The influences of these new languages and cultures are reflected most strongly in the vocabulary used to describe the food and other aspects of the new cultures that these people brought to the island especially if descriptive words did not exist previously. The language was also learned by these new immigrants for the purpose of communication. English words entered the language after Trinidad was made a colony of England ; English words are used to describe the modern world and modern inventions of the twentieth century and beyond. Despite the increasing importance of words derived from English, most Creole speakers will agree that the use of English words is to be avoided whenever possible ; borrowing from French seems to be more accepted because Creole’s lexical base is French.
Although in contemporary times less the ten percent of the population continues to use Creole as a regular means of communication, the language and has continued to have an impact on the English that is spoken here. There are hundreds of words in current use that can be traced to both French and Creole, It is imperative that a conscious effort be made to preserve and document our unique variety of Creole for the sake of future generations for fear that it will pass into extinction. There is hope that the language can be brought back from the edge of extinction, in some areas of the country there are calls for the revival of the language. Slowly, the people of Trinidad are beginning to realize the cultural in historical importance of this language and the connection that they share with other West Indian islands were the Creole language more dominant. As it stands today, the Creole language is being taught to the children of Paramin using materials from Saint Lucia, this seems to be successful and the number of Creole speakers is on the rise in this area. There are plans to do the same in other villages with an existing Creole speaking population, with hard work and determination it is very possible that Creole will once again take its rightful place as the language of the people.
’’Fò pa nou oubliyé palé lanng Kréyòl-la !’’