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Exploring the Vibrant World of Creole and Patois Languages in the Caribbean

Rich in culture and history, with an astounding diversity of traditions, languages, and peoples, the Caribbean remains an enigma to many all over the world. This much was apparent when the media descended into the region to cover Hurricanes Irma and Maria — when journalists were mispronouncing names and mixing up regions. This Caribbean Heritage Month, also referred to as Caribbean-American Heritage Month, let us expand our cultural awareness. We will touch on a few facets of the vibrant Caribbean culture through the lens of the different languages spoken over the 7,000 islands, islets, and cays.


Table of Contents:


What Are the Caribbean Languages?


There are around 70 different languages spoken in the Caribbean, but the most commonly spoken languages reflect centuries of colonization by different European nations. The six official Caribbean languages are English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Haitian Creole, and Papiamento (another Creole language). The dominant (official) language of a region is related to whichever European nation had colonial power the longest (or which power first conquered the area). Where different languages are spoken in a region, it is because colonial power changed hands numerous times and people had to adapt to the language of the current colonial ruler.


English


English is the language used in official business and tourism, though Spanish is the most spoken language among natives. About 15% of people (just under 6 million) in the Caribbean speak English. The Caribbean countries that speak English are the most populated, as Britain conquered the most Caribbean countries/islands. They include:


  • Anguilla

  • Antigua and Barbuda

  • The Bahamas

  • Barbados

  • Bermuda

  • Belize

  • British Virgin Islands

  • Cayman Islands

  • Dominica

  • Grenada

  • Guyana

  • Jamaica

  • Montserrat

  • Saint Kitts and Nevis

  • Saint Lucia

  • Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

  • Trinidad and Tobago

  • Turks and Caicos 

  • United States Virgin Islands


Britain first began its conquest of the Caribbean regions in 1612 with Bermuda. Nowadays, many of these territories are independent from British rule.


Spanish


Spanish has the most speakers — about 28 million — in the Caribbean, which was invaded by Spain in 1492. Columbus had first stepped foot on the island of Hispaniola, which is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean countries that speak Spanish include three of Spain's former colonies: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Spain also conquered Jamaica, Trinidad, and the Cayman Islands, but these regions no longer use Spanish in an official capacity.


French


France's first Caribbean colony was Martinique in 1635. The French continued their conquest with a number of countries, including Guadeloupe, Haiti, Saint Barts (Barthélemy), and Saint Martin — all of which remain Caribbean countries that speak French as their official language. French and French Creole are still spoken in Dominica and Saint Lucia — former French colonies — because they have changed colonial hands several times. The majority of the Caribbean's 12 million French speakers reside in Haiti.


Dutch 


The Dutch also established their first Caribbean colony — Curaçao — in the 17th century and took over a number of other countries, including Aruba, Bonaire, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten. All of these are Caribbean countries that speak Dutch in an official capacity, although some of them also speak English, French, and/or Spanish. There are over 320,000 people in these countries.


Haitian Creole


In Haiti, the two official languages are French and Haitian Creole, which is an amalgam of the languages spoken by African slaves in the colony and French. Despite the fact that around 90% of the words originate from French, many do not have the same meanings, and the grammar is different. Haitian Creole is spoken by more than 10 million speakers, and being a distinct language with its own structure and rules, it is not merely a dialect (a geography-based version of another language).


Papiamento


This is another Creole language, based on Portuguese — spoken by slaves the Dutch brought over from Brazil — and incorporating elements of various African slave languages, as well as the language of the native Arawak people. A substantial part of the lexicon comes from Spanish. It is the official language spoken by most of the residents of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. Again, Papiamento is a distinct, full-fledged language, not a dialect.


Image by Auguel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A Closer Look at Creole and Patois


As we have introduced in the section above, two of the six official languages of the Caribbean are Creole languages. This linguistic transformation occurs in a short period of time, allowing for effective communication among the diverse community.. There are fascinating historical mixes that reflect the turbulent evolution, resilience, and adaptability of the Caribbean people and culture. What makes the Caribbean truly remarkable is Caribbean linguistic diversity — the sheer number of Creole languages spoken across all its countries, albeit not as official languages.


Patois


The actual term "patois" is a catch-all term referring to non-standard languages, closer on the language continuum to dialects. We bring up "patois" here because Jamaican Patois is a Creole language spoken predominantly (though unofficially) in Jamaica by natives — by about 2.5 million people. It evolved as a blend of the English spoken by the British colonists and the West African and Central African languages of their slaves. Compared to the official Jamaican English, Jamaican Patois is seen as less prestigious, so it tends to be spoken in more informal settings. Because Jamaican Patois demonstrates systemized components, many linguistic scholars actually classify the Jamaican Patois language as a Creole language despite its name. Look at these Jamaican Patois examples of structure:


  • "Keiti waan wan neda buk" has a sentence-verb-object structure like the English version, "Katie wants another book."

  • "A wok 'im a wok" and "what s/he is doing is working" both demonstrate creating an emphasis through repetition of a verb.


Creole Languages


Creole languages can be considered "communication bridges" in their infancy but fully develop as a blend of different languages, usually in communities with colonial histories and/or a significant slave population. They are learned as first languages by children and are often described by linguists as having a superstrate (coming from a main language) and one or more substrates (influenced by other languages). Haitian Creole, for example, would have a French superstrate with a number of African languages serving as substrates.


French-Based Creole Languages


Antillean Creole is based on French but contains elements of English and African languages. It is quite similar to Haitian Creole and hard to distinguish to those who are unfamiliar with either language. French-based Creole is spoken to varying degrees in countries like Dominica, French Guiana, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Barts, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, Trinidad, and the Virgin Islands.


English-Based Creole Languages


Bajan Creole is spoken more widely in Barbados than English and contains elements of Scottish and Irish elements in addition to West African. Belizean and Guyanese Creole share very similar traits. Other English-based Creole languages include Dominican Creole, Cayman Creole, Virgin Islands Creole, Montserrat Creole, Trinidadian Creole, Tobagonian Creole, and of course, Jamaican Patois.


Caribbean Creole Languages and Caribbean Culture

Image via Yardie, Pixabay

The Creole languages in the Caribbean are a poignant representation of the Creole peoples' hybrid identity and culture. Jamaican Patois is also a symbol of a mass-based national identity in opposition to the colonial framework imposed by European conquerors. We can hear Patois in a number of reggae songs that find popularity in part by articulating the universal struggle of marginalized ethnic minorities. Like the other Caribbean Creole languages, it is evidence of resilience in the face of subjugation. On another level, one can't help but marvel at the linguistic diversity that has flourished.


This Caribbean Heritage Month, embrace cultural awareness and take advantage of the opportunity to experience Caribbean culture. Go online and learn some phrases from one or more of the Creole languages, research indigenous or endangered Caribbean languages, find different types of Caribbean music to enjoy or download our Code of a Black Ally (COBA) to build stronger relationships with your colleagues of Caribbean descent. 



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