Istwa - History

History of French Creole in the Caribbean


It is thought that the name ‘creole’ came from Portuguese ‘crioulo’, which originally referred to the children of non-indigenous peoples (Europeans and Africans) born and raised in European colonies in the Americas, their parents’ new home away from home. The word probably came from criar (‘to raise’), and later came to be extended to the animals, culture, cuisine and speech of those born in the colonies, regardless of ethnic or national origins.

The name ‘Patois’ was originally used to refer to non-standard or non-literary regional dialects of French peasants in France. The word ‘Patois’ means ‘rough speech’ (17th century French) and is thought by some to have come from patoier (‘to treat roughly’), possibly from patte (‘paw’) in Old French, although this may be simply conjecture. The name ‘Patois’ has also been passed onto dialects of French Creole, especially in the anglophone Caribbean region.

Related to French through their mostly shared vocabulary, French Creole/Patois is a language that grew up over a relatively short period of time, and under difficult and extreme conditions. Growing up alongside French (as opposed to under or after it, as a daughter language), Patois developed its own grammar, its own sound system, and its own range of meanings. Historically dependent on French for its lexicon, French Creole remains independent at every other linguistic level, including the fundamental grammar.

Unlike French, which took over a thousand years to develop out of Latin (which is now dead, or immortal, as some would like to say), French Creole grew up in a matter of possibly two generations. Many varieties of French Creole developed simultaneously around the world, and some of these are mutually intelligible, but some are not. Trinidad’s French Creole was born out of other varieties of French Creole from the francophone and former francophone Caribbean, and is therefore closer to the French creoles of the Lesser Antilles than it is to those of Louisiana, Haiti and French Guiana.

Patois is a contact language – one born out of contact between and among speakers of vastly different languages. Under arduous conditions, speakers of 17th and 18th century Norman French and many other French dialects (both standard and regional/popular dialects) came face to face with speakers of Ewe, Igbo, Twi, Wolof, Yoruba, and some fifteen other West African languages, some of which were unrelated to one another. Picture the difficulties in communication, and the need for a common language that would serve the communication needs of all these groups. Under these circumstances was French Creole born in the ‘New’ World, a brand new language similar in some respects to all of the languages that participated in its development, but different from all – a new language in its own right.

This document was originally distributed as part of a brochure from the Department of Liberal Arts, Faculty of Humanities and Education (formerly the Department of Language and Linguistics, Faculty of Arts and General Studies). The brochure was written and updated by Jo-Anne S. Ferreira (© 2003 and © 2009). See more here.

See Marvel Alves Henry's article on Montray Kreyol.