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May - August,  2006

 Reading Wendell DeRiggs's "Recollections":

 Some Notes on the Origins of the Grenadian "Nation Language" and an Electronic Exchange Wid de Man 'Eself. 

Caldwell Taylor

"The noise that [nation language ] makes is part of the meaning, and if you ignore the noise (or what you think of as noise, shall I say ) then you lose part of the meaning"

Kamau Brathwaite
History of the Voice, 1984 

"The Grenadian, they's the worst of all Hear they talk: Me not goin back at all"

From "Small Island Go Home", a 1938 calypso by Lord Invader (Rupert Westmore Grant),1914-1961

"They [Grenadians] could read and spell But they cyah pronounce at all"

-From "Send Them Back", a 1960 calypso by Lord Blaikie (Carlton Joseph), 1933-2005

The Grenadian "nation language" was born on the noisy sugar plantation where a conference of subordinate African "dialects" met the overseer's super ordinate European tongue. This historical fact inscribes itself on the lexicon, phonology, cadence, and syntactical structure of Grenadian, the language of the Grenadian people.

How much years you have?" is a very literal  translation of the French "Quel age avez vous?"  So French,  one of two "overseer"  languages in Grenada's history, has left its mark. The French mark is also evident in words like "bragette" (trouser fly) , "chut" (hush), "mal joe", (evil eyes), "mama pool" (mother hen/ woman man), "soolah"(drunkard), "zootie" (stinging nettle)  and mooshaflay (firefly) 

And French, well, Grenadian French, "Patwa", survives in the "Death Notices" delivered by announcers to this day in some rural Grenadian communities:

"Sa key tan parlay lutte " , who hear tell de others, these announcers will holler into the Grenadian night.

Patwa (Patois), which was the language of consciousness of the Grenadian folk until the 1940s, was derided by a nineteenth century British colonial official in Grenada, Hesketh Bell (1864-1952) , as "a  most barbarous lingo... formed of a jumble of French most vilely corrupted, mixed up with a few words of broken English." 

See Hesketh J. Bell, Obeah: Witchcraft in the West Indies, London, 1889, p.46

Bell, who arrived in Grenada in 1883, also tells us that the Roman Catholic priests in Grenada in the 1880s were mostly Frenchmen or Spaniards [Pyolls] "who treat[ed] their humble congregations to homely lessons in the Creole patois of the island".

H. Bell, p.46

The French, the first Europeans to plant a colony in Grenada, held the island for one hundred and seventeen years (1650-1763 and 1779-1783). During their tenure, the French colonists imported thousands of Africans to toil as slave workers on cotton, tobacco and sugar estates. They eventually ceded the island to the British (1783), who in turn imported many thousands more Africans, the majority of these coming from areas spanning the national territories of modern-day Senegal, Gambia, Liberia, Sierra Leone , Ghana, Benin, Nigeria , and further along the Guinea Coast to northern Angola, Congo Brazzaville and Kinshasha. The bulk of the Africans captives brought to Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique came from places like the Gold Coast ( modern-day Ghana)the Slave Coast ( Benin, Nigeria, Togo) and the sprawling area covering northern Angola and the two Congos.

Grenada took in just under 70,000 Africans between 1703 and 1808,according to historian Philip D. Curtin. More Africans, "Liberated Africans", came as indentured servants between the 1830s and the 1860s. All of these Africans came  from various ethnic groups, including Coromantee, Arada (Rada), Wolof, Ga, Ewe, Ibo,Temne , Vai, Kru, Chamba, Kongo, Mbundu, Ovimbundu, Yoruba Pawpaw,Mandingo (Mandingue), Efik, Tiv, Ijaw, Ibibio, Temne ,Moko.  

Significantly, the Carriacou Big Drum Nation consists of the following "Nations": Arada, Banda, Chamba,Coromantee ( Ashanti and Fanti), Mandingue (Mandingo), Moko, Ibo, Temne and Kongo. Many of these nations have their marks on the  forms of "English" spoken in Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique.  

Take the Congoes (Kongos), for instance. They are remembered in words like "totie" *(penis) "lota" * ( liver spots), "bumbo" ( hole or cavity) "kufoom" ( injury), badjohn *(aggressive person). The Kongo brought the kalenda, the bele (belair) and the bongo dances and the practice of making music on bamboo tubes, tamboo bamboo; they were also the bearers of the musical bow that Grenadians call the cocoa lute.

* See Warner Lewis's Guinea's Other Suns  

The word "Kongo" is of course a catchall term for the Bantu-speaking captives from West Central Africa. The word is derived from "Bakongo", the name of one of the great kingdoms to have emerged in West Central Africa in the course of thirteenth century. Kongo  is the language of Kumina,a Jamaican folk religion- as Yoruba is the language of Orisha Shango. From Jamaica has come the word "Kaya", a Kongo word for marijuana: "Got to have kaya now, sings the immortal Robert Nesta Marley.
It ought to be said that the Grenadian nation language bears testimony to a strong anti-Kongo prejudice. Indeed, a similar anti-Kongo prejudice has been observed in Cuba and in nearby Trinidad and Tobago. Commenting on the Trinidadian version of this prejudice Professor Maureen Warner- Lewis says, " the Trinidad Yoruba considered the Kongos unclean hygienically and spiritually".

Esteban on Kongo

See Warner -Lewis's Central Africa in the Caribbean , UWI Press, 2003, p.159.

n Grenada, the word "Kongo" is used as a synonym for blackness and always in a negative and derogatory way.  And there is that ugly term "Kongo prapra", Grenadian for "nonsense" or "stupid talk”. The word "prapra"  is Twi ( from Ghana) for meeting ,conference or palaver.

The expression "congo eeyabba" conveys a gross insult . It is usually used in the following way: "You stupid like a Kongo EEyabba".The word "eeyabba" is very likely derived from "iwayo",the Yoruba word for wife.  Therefore, the insult says, "You stupid like ah Kongo man's wife"-- Ethnic and male chauvinism at one go?

Kongo could also be a byword for filthy or nasty, especially for spititual nastiness. Grenadian Kongos were known for their "high science". In Hesketh Bell's book, noted above,we meet Mokombo, a Grenadian wanga man (obeah man) of Kongo origin, who is retained by a white planter to fix a plantain patch to prevent thievery. Asked by the planter whether he was ready to fix the garden, Makombo answers:

"Oh, yes, Massa, me hear all de people tell how dey tiefing all your plantain , but me go set strong strong Obeah for dem and dey nebber go tief your plantain again".

Hesketh Bell, p.3


Akan- speaking "Coromantee" (Ashanti, Fanti people from the Gold Coast ( Ghana) left behind words like "sensay" (ruffled/ frizzled), "cocobay" (leprosy), "asham"(a treat made of parched corn beaten in mortar and then  mixed with sugar), "congosah" ( unreliable),  "shoo-shoo" ( badmouth),"chaka chaka" ( dirty, disorganized) "mumu" (stupid) and "ananse" (spider). 


Grenadian practioners of Shango (Orisha) sing songs in a what is today a phonologically decrepit Yoruba. Some of these Yoruba songs were recorded by Alan Lomax in 1962 and were recently issued on CD ( "Yoruba and Creole Voices From Grenada") by Rounder Records.  A popular rotating savings and credit association in Grenada is called "susu" after the Yoruba word, esusu. "Rara"( noise) is another Yoruba word that is heard.  The Ibo (Igbo) people of southeastern Nigeria have given us the word "backra", white man. 


Wolof speakers from the Senegambia region have left us the word "nyam", eat. 

From Africa has come the practice of associating abstract concepts with various parts of the human body. A coveteous person is said to have "big eyes"; the glutton has a "long belly"; and the indiscreet is a "long tongue" person. Africa is also the source of our many reduplications. In his History of Jamaica (1774)the Jamaican planter-historian Edward Long observed:

"The Negroes are very fond of reduplications, to express a greater or less quantity of anthing; as a walky-walky,  talky-talky, washy-washy, happy-happy..."


Africanisms have also been retained in mimed and gestural Grenadian speech and also in symbolic sounds. In the latter category, the best known is the "stroops";  an echoism  that describes a "rude" sucking of the teeth: stroops is probably the most eloquent Grenadian expression of disgust or displeasure.  Children never stroopsed in the hearing of adults, for if they did they got what "Paddy gave the drum". Children who strooped at their peers got the retort: "stroops in you fryin' pan;
the stroops gave off the sound of hot oil! 


 A few Spanish words have insinuated themselves in Grenadian . According to Alister Hughes (1919-2005), Grenadians picked up some Spanish from  Venezuelans and other Hispanics who came to the island to trade in the latter years of the eighteenth century and early years of nineteeth century when St George's was a free port, catering especially to Trinidad and Spanish America. Other "Pyoll" (Espanol) words came via the Grenadians who returned to the country after working in places like  Cuba , Panama, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Costa Rica: Words like "hayfay" (jefe), "parasol", "mataburro", cassian" ( Castillian), poco poco, and "cuenta" bear witness.

See Hughes's 1966 article "Non-Standard English In Grenada".


India is another source of words that are heard in Grenadian speech. These "Hindi"-  really Bhojpuri- words came with the Indian indentured servants who began arriving here in 1857; a little more than 3,000 were landed between 1857 and 1888."Indian words" in regular rotation include, "daal", "daal bhat" "korryelee", "babu" (bapu) "bhaji", " dougla", and "ganja". The expression, "Georgie bundle", is a corruption of "jhajahi bundle", a reference to the slight packages Indian indentureds carried with them from Calcutta across the "kali pani" ( black water) to the West Indies. Jhajahi means shipmate. Indians who arrived here on the same ship became "family" in the same way the Africans did; African shipmates became "malongues".    


Our nation language also bears faint echoes of the first Grenadians, the Kalinagoes("Caribs"), who bequeathed  words like "mabbooyah" ( evil spirit), "ajoupa" ( hut),"teeteeree" ( small fish) and "pwi pwi" (river raft).


And let us not forget the words that we've invented: "sazzinate", a word that describes a brutal crime, rape, comes to mind. It is a Grenadian invention ; its root being "saizir ", the  French verb meaning to seize or hold down.  

"Squandermania" is another Grenadian invention. It was coined in 1962 in the wake of the dissolution of the Gairy government on charges of misappropriation. And then there are Standard English words that have  been redeployed. In Grenada, we say fold to mean wrap. For example, "Fold up this fish for me".And we say scratch to when we mean itch. "Ay, ay, how me hand scratching me so?"

Now all these things are better left to the linguists, historical sociologists and other specialists, but I
must confess to having felt compelled to mull over them while reading Anthony Wendell De Riggs's "Recollections of an Island Man". De Riggs's book is a celebration of the Grenadian language and the Grenadian voice and this is no small achievement, especially as both language and voice have endured so many years of ridicule and persecution. De Riggs has a good ear for the Grenadian voice. Besides, he knows that language is a means of social identity.

 Anthony W DeRiggs - Recollections

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