Arabic in Trinidad and Tobago
The major waves of immigrants from Syria and Lebanon to the island of Trinidad took place in the 1930s. Although Arabic first appeared in Trinidad in the 19th century, with Islamicized West African Savannah peoples, Arabic as a home and vernacular language probably first came with the Middle Eastern Arabs of Syria and Lebanon. In spite of the difficulties involved in establishing precise dates, one can say that the first generation of Trinidadian-born Syrians and Lebanese appeared in the late thirties up to the late forties and early fifties.
This first Trinidadian-born generation was exposed to the simultaneous presence at home of both Arabic and English. These two languages impacted their view of the world—their perceiving, remembering, comprehending and thinking.
As a heritage language, Arabic is a language of personal connection, of family intimacy, love and solidarity. The grammatical structures and lexical items first acquired by the first generation were the present tense, the past tense and words and expressions relating to family contexts: to want, to eat, to drink, to sleep, to be sick, to bathe, to love, to kiss, and a wide array of names of food.
As for all first languages, language was acquired without formal instruction, and there were words used at home for which the children may not have known the English equivalent. The word saha comes to mind. When children ate, parents used this word repeatedly. It means ‘health’ but children may not have known this until after a few years. They, however, knew that it meant something good and that it was related to the act of eating.
Language forms acquired later were the conditional, speaking hypothetically, the future, describing family and social situations, talking about school and friends. These forms were most likely acquired by first generation Syrians and Lebanese during adolescence when English had already superseded Arabic as the dominant language at home.
The immigrant generation showed several influences of the phonological patterns of Arabic in their speech. Many aspects of the phonological system of Arabic were quickly acquired by the first born generation. When Syrian and Lebanese parents began to speak English fluently, they did so with an Arabic accent and marked Arabic syntactic structures.
We have, for example, syllable restructuring processes. One example is epenthesis, where a vowel is placed between two consonants in an English word for ease of pronunciation. The Arabic speaker may say, for example, “firidge” for ‘fridge’. There is also the placing of a consonant before a vowel in an English word. For example, the Arabic speaker may say “Marhaval” instead of Maraval.
Consonants underwent some changes, too. A /v/ can become /f/, for example: “fillage” for ‘village’. “Police” became ‘boolice’. (In most varieties of Arabic, [p] and [b] are allophones of the same phoneme and are not distinguished by Arabic speakers in English.) First generation Syrians and Lebanese were also aware that even if certain sounds did exist in Arabic, they were changed when they appeared in English, maybe owing to their proximity to certain consonants in some cases.
Additionally, there are certain combinations of consonants which exist in Arabic but no longer in Modern English, combinations such as /h/ and “r” as in hrisi (‘barley soup’), /h/ and /l/ as in hlawi (‘sesame seed dessert’; note that some varieties of Arabic have halawi), and also /m/ and /h/ as in mhuddi (‘pillow’).
The power of language to determine our perception of life can never be overstated. Beverly Clark (“First and Second Language Acquisition in Early Children“, 2008) emphasizes this:
“When we learn a new language, we are not just learning new vocabulary and grammar; we are also learning new ways of organizing concepts, new ways of thinking, and new ways of learning language.”
The first language of the first generation of Syrians and Lebanese in Trinidad was Arabic and the sound of the first Arabic words heard and acquired by them will always have an emotional value that their English equivalents can never have. The names of certain foods, items relating to the home, names that express family relationships are some words that quickly come to mind: laham (‘meat’) and salya (‘living room’) are only two among many.
Arabic is so emotion-packed, so replete with expressions of affection that children cannot help but feel loved and develop a sense of belonging to the home. This is probably the most salient and permanent way that Arabic has shaped the way Syrian and Lebanese Trinidadians and Tobagonians conceive of life and human relationships. Parents continuously use words of affection to the children. When children leave the home, they hear the Arabic for “God be with you”, “God walk with you”. Parents frequently raise their hands to heaven and invoke God. The constant presence of God through language and the submission to the will of God are salient features of life in an Arabic-speaking family.
Speaker generation and birth order are important in Arabic language maintenance and use in the Syrian and Lebanese community in Trinidad & Tobago. Speakers of the first generation tend to possess higher degrees of linguistic proficiency than the second generation and so on. The first born also tend to be more proficient in the heritage language. Girls of the first generation tended to be more proficient in Arabic because they spent more time in the home, which is a pattern typical of virtually all immigrant heritage languages.
Some parents were sceptical about the usefulness of Arabic language proficiency in their children and prioritized knowledge of English as the road to economic success and survival in a foreign land and foreign culture. Socio-cultural factors and the question of peer pressure to be like one’s friends and to identify as a Trinidadian can never be overstated when one considers how many first generation adolescents refused to speak Arabic to their parents in the presence of their friends.
There are a multitude of variables with respect to the factors that determined the levels of proficiency in Arabic among Trinidadians and Tobagonians of Syrian and Lebanese ancestry. First generation Syrians and Lebanese who lived in middle class and lower middle class areas integrated quickly into the wider community because economic survival was, on a daily basis, a pressing and traumatizing priority. On the other hand, those who were prosperous from the early years and lived in upper class districts possessed the confidence and emotional stability to hold on to aspects of their ancestral culture.
Furthermore, the existence of a dynamic culture in Trinidad was a principal reason for the rapid assimilation of the first generation Syrians and Lebanese and for the loss of interest, among many, in speaking Arabic. Syrian and Lebanese communities in the smaller islands do not enjoy these stimuli and tend to gather together at night. They are, therefore, more proficient in Arabic and have a more immediate awareness of their cultural heritage and traditions.
There is growing evidence that children who possess a heritage language and use that language for purposes of thinking, gaining information, solving problems, expressing needs and communicating, can easily learn to use a second and a third language. Heritage languages leave a profound emotional impact on the learners and help to determine the development of cognitive faculties. Arabic opened up for first generation Syrians and Lebanese in Trinidad & Tobago—and continues to do so for subsequent generations—a unique world with its own values, ways of perceiving the world, society and others, new ways of looking at the structure of language, and new ways of communicating.
Heritage languages must be preserved and promoted in Trinidad & Tobago.
ISO language code: [apc]
(Approximate) date of arrival: 1902
Main locations: Nationwide
Approximate number of speakers: Unknown, varying levels of proficiency
Current status (linguistic vitality/health): Dying, but receiving new life because of new immigrants, and because of an increasing awareness of the importance and relevance of their heritage among younger second generation Arab-Trinbagonians
Scientific studies: Undergraduate projects by Angela Laquis-Sobrian and others, Ian Robertson and Daidrah Smith (work in progress), Zainab Mohamed on Arabic in Trinidad in general (work in progress). Also of interest: Gérard Lafleur’s Les Libanais et les Syriens de Guadeloupe
Popular and other literature:
- The Voyage of the Mediterranean Star: The Syrian Lebanese Women’s Association of Trinidad & Tobago,
- Ah’len Cookbook: A Culinary Journey through the Eyes of the Syrian Lebanese Women’s Association of Trinidad & Tobago (read more on Caribbean Beat and in the T&T Guardian);
- Also of interest: Raphaël Confiant’s La rue des Syriens
Selected vocabulary and other contributions to T&T language: pita, kibby, hummus, fatoush, tabbouleh (all reinforced by the popularity of these foods in North America and Britain). See more from a recent Caribbean Beat article.
Did you know? Most of the people of Arab origin in Trinidad are collectively referred to as “Syrians.” (This is because since the land that now collectively forms Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan used to be known as Greater Syria or Bilad el Sham.) The name of the language variety is North Levantine Spoken Arabic. There are communities throughout the Caribbean, including Haiti and Jamaica.