Tag Archive | "Patois"

Reviving Patois: Language of the West Indies

Patois is being taught here in the West Indies, but the movement is slow to reach New York.
Courtesy: Jo-Anne S. Ferreira

by Stephen Jiwanmall, Trinidadian Beat Reporter

Marvel Henry is on a mission to keep alive a dying language, known as Patois. Henry, a 26-year-old native of Trinidad, enjoys sharing his knowledge of the language with others and teaches a bit about the language every day.

“Say it with me, ‘Your shirt is blue. Chimiz-ou blé.’”

However, Henry, who lives in St. Albans, Queens, doesn’t get an immediate response from his students. In fact, he can’t even hear them. He’s teaching Patois online in an effort to keep the only remaining indigenous Trinidadian language alive.

Call it what you want, but Patois is a language that isn’t commonly known among Americans. Also known as Patwa, Kwéyòl and Kreyol, it’s a blend of various languages with roots in colonial Caribbean times.

Add a helping of French, a dash of Spanish, a taste of African and Indian languages, and mix it slightly with a garnish of English. To make matters more interesting, the word “patois” has different meanings in terms of national language. Patois to Trinidadians is French-based, while Patois to Jamaicans is English-based.

Just as Trinidadian Patois is difficult to explain linguistically, it is hard to calculate in terms of how many people speak the language in America. The 2010 U.S. Census has not yet released language data, and the 2009 American Community Survey lumps it into the French language category. More than 1.3 million people fall under this category, but more than 600,000 people fall under the “French Creole” category. Interestingly, Trinidadian Patois is also known as French Creole in some parts of the country. A more realistic estimate of Trinidadian Patois speakers in the U.S. is just over 28,000, as recorded in a separate category in the 2006-2008 American Community Survey.

Regardless of how it’s documented, Henry knows that Trinidadian Patois is a dying language. No one his age or younger really speaks it anymore, he said.

“It’s a heritage language for my family,” he said. “My mom, grandfather, my aunts, they all spoke the language.”

Patois was the dominant language in the West Indies about 200 years ago, but when the British started to colonize the region, English was forced upon natives as the primary language to use. Vishnu Mahadeo, president of the Richmond Hill Economic Development Council, grew up in Guyana when the British were still colonizing the country. He said Patois, known there as Guyanese English Creole, was discouraged from being used when he was in school.

“Speak properly. That’s not English,” Mahadeo recalled his teachers saying to him and his classmates. He spoke Guyana’s version of Patois for a time as a child but stopped by the time he finished school. Using the language while studying under British rule was considered as “uneducated ignorance,” he said.

This prompted West Indians to learn English and to abandon Patois, but some islanders like Henry kept using it.

“At home, it was a private language,” he said.

Though Trinidad and Guyana became independent countries in the 1960s, the effect of not using native languages for decades took its toll on the islanders. Like Mahadeo, many Guyanese immigrants have come to New York, but teaching Patois – be it English or French-based – often stayed behind in the Caribbean.

“When people first came here, it was more important for them to survive. It’s not lending itself to be more structured because of the economic hardship here. Most people are doing it because of personal issues, and they see a need for it,” said Mahadeo.

That’s exactly what Henry is doing. He started a blog called “Klas Kreyol” last December with periodic posts on basic pronunciation and vocabulary lessons. He has since expanded the online instruction to include grammar, phonetics, and the history of the language.

“It’s really sad that I had to teach myself to read and write a language that I spoke every day, a language I learned from my mother,” he said. “Unfortunately, it pains me to say this, but it’s almost extinct now. I hope to change that as time goes along.”

Henry also plays an active role to teach the language via Facebook. A group called “Annou Palé Patwa,” or “Let’s Speak Patois,” has just fewer than 1,000 members, and Henry posts in Patois frequently with English translations underneath.

“Sa ki fèt an fènwè-a, ké pawèt an klèté-a,” he posted Saturday. “That which is done in the dark, will appear in the light.”

Though thousands of Trinidadians now call New York home, Henry said Patois hasn’t resurfaced in the area.

“To my knowledge, there are no official meetup groups or educational programs geared specifically toward teaching it,” he said. “This language is moribund, and revitalization efforts have just begun in Trinidad.”

Mahadeo said English spoken by Trinidadians and the Guyanese in New York is often “populated with Creole words” to develop a sort of Patois in the area. He said enclaves in Richmond Hill and Ozone Park speak it in places of worship, restaurants and libraries – places in the community where Trinidadians and the Guyanese often gather.

References to Patois in recent pop culture are “very scant,” Henry said, but West Indian artists like Trinidad’s Machel Montano and Guadeloupe’s Admiral T incorporate the language in “Vibes Cyah Done,” a remix of one of last year’s most popular songs in the West Indies.

In any case, Henry hopes his blog encourages not just New Yorkers but people from anywhere in the world to learn Patois. He relaunched the site on Facebook last month with links to Patois music and a YouTube channel with audio and video lessons. In addition, he is working on creating a dictionary in Patois that he hopes to complete some time this year.

Though he said he enjoys teaching others from anywhere in the world, he wants to start actual classes in New York this year. Starting in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Henry said he hopes that the demand to learn Patois helps keep it alive.

“I was not going to let this language die,” he said. “It contains a lot of our history.”

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