Tag Archive | "West Indies"

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.”

Posted in Featured Stories, Print StoriesComments (8)

From the West Indies to Queens, Cricket Carries On

by Stephen Jiwanmall, Trinidadian Beat Reporter — 

Ralph Tamesh looked at the sky and shook his head. Rain had squashed his plans for the day – literally. As he surveyed a small cricket field in Queens last month, he knew the game would have to be rescheduled, but he held out hope that the rains would let up. They never did.

Tamesh is the president of the Indo-Caribbean Federation, a New York-based organization that hosts an annual cricket match between teams representing Trinidad and Guyana. The game brings together hundreds of West Indians and cricket fans from all over the city and carries on a love for the sport that goes back nearly 175 years on the shores of the Caribbean.

When slaves from colonial India came to Trinidad in 1838, they brought with them the game of cricket – a British sport that resembles baseball. Since that time, Trinidadians – Trinis, for short – have embraced cricket as an unofficial national sport.

Yesterday, the West Indian men’s cricket team won the World T-20 Championship. For Tamesh, this recent success comes from a natural love for the sport.

“At a very young age, you’ve got a ball and bat in your hands,” he said. “It’s part of the culture. They grew up with it, and they look up to older players. They want to mold themselves into that.”

Ozone Park resident Glen Lorick is the captain of the Trinidad team that plays in the tournament, which is now in its 22nd year. When he was 19, he came to the United States with a desire to play cricket.

In the United States, cricket fades in comparison to baseball in terms of popularity, Lorick said, but in Trinidad, it’s considered their national pastime.

“While growing up, all of us, neighbors, that’s all we do,” he said. “We got a passion and a love for it. That’s our main sport.”

Many Trinis like Lorick who have come to America have carried on that passion for the game, and New York City in particular has transformed into a cricket mecca for this community and for West Indians in general.

Eight cricket leagues spread out across the city, six hardball and two softball, also known among Trinis as “winball.” Lorick said Trinis don’t have a specific league or club, but it isn’t hard to find them.

“Most of us play in different clubs,” said Lorick, who plays for the Staten Island Cricket Club in the Metropolitan League. “Trinidad’s team [for the tournament] would be based on guys playing in about seven or eight clubs in the area. We don’t play for the same club, but we play for the same country together.”

Lorick, along with Tamesh and Guyana’s captain Karan Ganesh, selected their national squads after evaluating players’ statistics and performances in their leagues. Both teams narrowed their rosters to a starting 11 lineup and a few alternates. Tamesh said the quality of players in this tournament has always been top-notch.

“The spectators, the cricket fans in the New York area know this is one of the biggest games of the year, and they look forward to it because of the competitiveness,” he said.

The rivalry between Trinidad and Guyana at the annual tournament has always been feisty, Lorick said. He has been a part of the event since its first game in 1989. During the first few years, fights would break out in the stands between fans of the two countries, he said. He couldn’t put his finger on why fans got hostile, but tension eased as time passed. Lorick said the mood changed once the fans saw that players from both countries respected each other and the game.

“Right now, it’s just bragging rights, and we get along really well,” he said. “When we come to the ground, we have fun with it. It’s just a day of cricket.”

Nevertheless, the tournament has brought out the best in both nations. Guyana has the edge in victories, winning 15 of the 22 yearly matches.

“Everybody looks forward to seeing the game,” Tamesh said. “They’re rooting for their own country. They want to see their country win. The cricket is very competitive, but at the end of the day – the camaraderie between the players and the spectators – they all have a good time.”

The competitiveness of the match has roots in each country’s desire to be a cricket power, especially in the Caribbean. In prominent international tournaments, neither country has its own team. Rather, a team is formed with players from the countries and territories in the region.

“The level of cricket is very high in the Caribbean,” Tamesh said. “The nature of the selection of the West Indies team, you have about seven countries that are vying for a player to get into that team, so they all have to play at their best.”

In New York, cricket is well established within the West Indian communities, but Lorick said that the future of the sport depends on whether or not the new generation picks up the passion from the older one.

“Competitively, cricket is here, but we’re having a problem in New York,” he said. “I’ve been around a long time, and I thought 20 years ago, we’d have introduced cricket into the school system. Fortunately, we did it about five or six years ago.”

The Public Schools Athletic League was created in 2008 with 14 schools in the city. Now, 26 schools form five mini-leagues, compete for an annual championship, and play in the Mayor’s Cup all-star game at the end of the school year.

Though Lorick said he enjoys the rivalry and driven nature of cricket, he emphasized that the sport shouldn’t be taken so seriously.

“In life, when we leave here, we don’t know what tomorrow brings,” he said. “In any sport you’re going to play, please just enjoy it for the game, for the fun of it. Enjoy it like when you were a kid. Just enjoy whatsoever you’re doing today.”

Note: The tournament was played on Saturday, September 15. Guyana won the match in front of nearly 400 spectators at Baisley Pond Park.

Posted in Featured Stories, Print StoriesComments (1)

Slideshow: West Indians Celebrate Trinidad’s 50 Years of Independence

by Stephen Jiwanmall, Trinidadian Beat Reporter —

The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago turned 50 on August 31, and festivities in Brooklyn marked the occasion.

In addition, Labor Day Weekend was full of events celebrating West Indian culture. The main event was the West Indian American Day Carnival, the 45th annual Labor Day parade down Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.

Check out this photo slideshow for coverage of three of the weekend’s events:

  • Labor Day Carnival: More than two million people came to Brooklyn to be part of the biggest parade in New York City.
  • Steel Band Panorama: Steel band music originated in Trinidad, and local steel band orchestras competed in an annual “battle of the bands.”
  • Brass Fest: Musicians from all around the Caribbean celebrated Trinidad’s Independence Day with an unforgettable concert.
The events were organized by the West Indian American Day Carnival Association (WIADCA).

Created with flickr slideshow.

Posted in Featured Stories, Photo SlideshowsComments (0)


Torch on Twitter