A Plug for Patois (Part 1)

by Guest Blogger/Blagger

Ever so often, Trini Patois* names, words, phrases and expressions make their way into our printed media.

Writers may or may not confuse meanings, try out their own spellings, guess at origins, and sometimes even use other Caribbean varieties of Patois. 


Sometimes, Patois words or phrases are not used quite correctly. Sometimes they are. Let’s look at Billboard 1 vs Billboard 2.

A very visible, recent example of incorrect usage was seen in Billboard 1. Below, bmobile’s use of Toute Bagai  (‘everything’, standard spelling being Tout Bagay) instead of Tout Moun (‘everyone’) amounts to saying “one rate to call everything”, instead of “one rate to call everyone”. This is probably because of the expression ‘tout moun, tout bagay‘, meaning ‘everything and everyone’. They got the Tout(e) (meaning “all”) right, but they didn’t get it all right.


In Billboard 2, below, Iere Express Couriers Ltd., however, gets it right. Their billboard and advertising slogan is “We Purchase, Pack, Ship, Deliver . . . Toute Bagai!” Good thing they didn’t do it the other way around and put Tout Moun!


Yes, language change is normal (normel?)—meanings change, pronunciations change, and words are lost and words are created. But rather than having a free-for-all, writers can and should check on what is current and accepted usage, for any language, starting with their own and especially someone else’s. Language authorities for Patois do exist, just as they do for English and French. Maybe Patois needs a little or a whole lot of PR, hence our plugging and blagging.


Many times, Patois words show up with individualised spellings. Often, authors model these spellings on some knowledge of French, with which Patois shares the majority of its vocabulary. Other times, authors use already existing words as their references and/or create their own spellings.

One such example is “J’arime” in reference to the new Mayor of Arima, George Hadeed, in the Trinidad Express. It means “Arima people” or “people from Arima”. This spelling is obviously based on J’ouvert (both look like the J’ for for “I” in French J’aime (“I like/love”), but neither J’ in J’ouvert or “J’arime” means the first person “I” of French).


The traditional options recorded by lexicographer Lise Winer (click on the above) are Gens Arime (more common, with a silent <e>, based on etymology) or Jarim (less common, but closer to actual pronunciation and to the Express writer’s spelling). We have even seen Gens d’Arime, which is more French than Patois. The modern option is Jan Awim (standardised spelling, dispensing with silent and unused letters, based on pronunciation).


Other times, writers try to guess at etymologies. While word origins are fascinating for any language, interestingly enough, our writers almost never delve into the history of French and Spanish words by referring to Latin and their other source languages. That’s probably because French and Spanish are seen as complete languages in and of themselves. The respect is great, the curiosity is less—no need to check into where French and Spanish words came from, because they are “real” words from “real” languages.

Writers using Patois words who regularly refer to French (which is not the only language influencing Patois) almost seem to be trying to justify the existence of Patois—to give it some credibility. Patois is, of course, a relatively newer kid on the block than French. French has been part of our education and international cultural awareness for a long time. People learn French at school and can find French in easily accessible dictionaries, print and online. But do newer and younger mean inferior? Or are there other reasons for this language insecurity?

The real reason for constantly holding French up as a reference point for Patois does not seem to be mere curiosity. The reason for this is language attitudes—there are people who have been told for generations that Patois is not really a language, but that French is; that Patois is “broken” and that French is “whole” and “complete”; and that Patois is some kind of aberration vis-à-vis French, but that French is pure and pristine. (No one ever says or thinks that French words are corruptions of Latin words.)

There are, of course, dangers in referring to 21st century standard Parisian French as a reference point, the subject of a future blag. The word blag, by the way, came to English from French, ultimately from blague, which is not from Latin, but from Dutch.

One such example of trying to get Patois right by referring to French, but getting it wrong, is the following: “And they would sing lavways [from the Trini patois (sic) expression “le vral” (sic) —“the truth”—a form of old-time calypso] when they were dancing” (Trinidad & Tobago Guardian).

Lavway (pronounced /lavwe/), however, comes from French la voix (pronounced /lavwa/, ‘the voice’), which in turn comes from Old French voiz, the root of ‘voice’ in English. Let us now refer to Latin: the Old French form came from Latin vōcem (the nominative being vox). That’s not corruption—it’s change. And it’s normal.

Maybe getting “wrong” Patois “right” by referring to “good” French is kind of like saying a sikyé fig should be a plantain?

Outside Influence

And more recently, Haiti, the biggest Patois-speaking country in the region and indeed, the world, has caught and captured the artistic and literary imaginations of people around the world. It is even becoming a reference point here, instead of our very own Patois, which is indeed alive. Examples include the title of an article, Anba Limye; the title of an exhibition on Haiti, Jan limye a rantre, and a J(‘)ouvert band called Jouvay Ayiti “directed at… increasing public awareness of Haitian culture in Trinidad and Tobago”.

That band spells its name Jouvay. It’s not a Haitian word, but Haitian spelling and pronunciation would be closer to Jouvè. (They got the Ayiti part right.) The “Jouvay” spelling is for English speakers, based on words like baymay, say, etc., and it looks a little less French (moving away from the wannabe French-looking J’ouvert with two silent consonant letters <r> and <t>). That <ay> spelling in the phonemic, modern standard Patois orthography is pronounced like <ai> in Benjai, so a literate Patois speaker would actually read Jouvay to rhyme with Benjai.

In Part 2 of this blag, we offer a list of 7 tips on using Trini Patois for editors, authors, readers and language lovers.

P.S. Other media have challenges too. Check out RemBunction’s Macafouchette (pronounced “ma-ka-foo-shet”), which he pronounces “ma-ka-foo-shay”…).

P.P.S. The latest misspelling appears here, “coverte pochambre” for “co(u)vetie pocham” or “kouvèti pocham” and another misspelling, “zephapeak”, for the traditional spelling “zebapique” or the modern one “zèbapik”.

 *A.k.a. Creole, Créole,Kwéyòl, Kréyol, French Creole, Creole French, French-lexicon Creole (Patois in Patois is spelt Patwa—English kept the French spelling of Patois).

3 thoughts on “A Plug for Patois (Part 1)

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