Notes on the Origins of the Grenadian "Nation Language" and
an Electronic Exchange Wid de Man 'Eself.
"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"
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
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
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.
In 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
"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
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
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..."
STROOP IN YOU FRYIN' PAN
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!
GRENADIAN CONTAINS SOME SPANISH.
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
See Hughes's 1966 article "Non-Standard English In
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".
THE FIRST GRENADIANS
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.
AN ELECTRONIC EXCHANGE WITH
A. WENDELL DERIGGS