Where Patois Words Come From

Where Patois Words Come From


If Patois is another name for French-lexicon Creole, then French gave Patois all its vocabulary (lexicon), right? Well, let’s do some digging and find out. First, let’s look at French.

French, a Romance or Italic language, has a vocabulary mostly derived from Latin (from 2 BC). French has also been influenced by Gaulish, a Celtic language (and other languages of France) and by Germanic languages (what was Gaul became known as France because of the Franks, a Germanic tribe).

There are over 15 other languages that have had an input into French vocabulary. These include over 9 Indo-European languages (including English, Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish, other Celtic languages besides Gaulish, Farsi, Sanskrit and others), Amerindian languages, Arabic and other Semitic languages, and Asian languages and others, making the vocabulary of French about 14% “foreign” (almost 9,000 words), and 86% Latin-derived, according to some estimates.


Source: http://thaloe.free.fr/francais/historic1.html

European Languages

Since Patois is a French Creole (and therefore a Romance or Italic Creole), the majority of its words do come from French, and ultimately from Latin, plus the 15 and more languages (above) that influenced French itself. See a previous blog for the dialects of French that had an input into French Creole.

In French Creole, many words of French origin underwent many interesting processes, as words do, over space and time in a language contact situation. Two of these processes are the phonological process of vowel unrounding and the morphophonological process of agglutination (or fusion, usually of an article or its liaison consonant with the following noun).

An example of vowel unrounding in French Creole is /y/ > /i/. All French words with the /y/ pronunciation (spelt <u>) have the corresponding /i/ in French Creole, such as

  • /diwi/ diwi ‘rice’ in Patois, from /dyRi/ (du riz ‘some rice’ in French),
  • /lawi/ lawi ‘street’ in Patois, from /laRy/ (la rue ‘the street’ in French), and
  • /bjẽvini/ byen vini ‘welcome’ in Patois, from /bjẽvəny/ (bienvenue ‘welcome’ in French).


French oral vowels (where vowels appear in pairs, the vowel to the right is pronounced with rounded lips – like English, Patois has rounded vowels near the back of the mouth only, like /u, o, ɔ/, but not /y, ø, œ/)

Examples of agglutination include all the words in French Creole beginning with <z>, as in zabokazafé, zami, zanana and zandoli. The /z/ sound is a leftover from the ending sound of the plural before a vowel as in /lezami/ les amis ‘the friends’ in French, which is the root of /zami/ zami (‘friend’ or ‘lesbian’ in Patois). This is also the case with of the words beginning with la in French as in /laRy/ (la rue ‘the street’) which is the root of /lawi/ lawi (‘street’ in Patois) . For an excellent overview, see Anthony P. Grant, and see also Ferreira and Alleyne on Brazilian French Creole.

(Examples of agglutination in English include newt, nickname and alligator, and a few more.)

In the Americas where it was born, French Creole also came into contact directly with English (with its own many source languages), Spanish and Portuguese (also Romance or Italic languages of the Indo-European family with 445 languages in 9 sub-families).

Among many other Spanish lexical contributions, Spanish words used by Patois speakers and given a Patois pronunciation include:

  • alpagat ‘sandal’
  • arep ‘arepa’
  • bonite ‘a type of fish’
  • boy ‘bun or roll’
  • burrokeet ‘little donkey’
  • caimite ‘star apple’
  • cascadou ‘a fresh water fish’
  • dwen ‘spirit of a deceased, unbaptised child’
  • lagwazi ‘police’
  • mamaguy ‘to make fun of’
  • parang (Spanish Christmas carols)
  • picoplat ‘a type of bird’
  • planasse ‘a beating using a cutlass’
  • pok-a-pok ‘little by little’
  • poncha crème ‘a Christmas milk-based drink’
  • sancoche ‘soup’
  • sapat ‘shoe’

These words have all have undergone phonological changes because of the widespread influence of French and Patois speakers. Apocope or word-final vowel deletion is probably the most common process in words of Spanish origin, since Patois generally appears to favour closed syllables. (In a few cases, there is also final consonant deletion.) Sometimes, entire syllables are deleted word-finally.

Spanish itself was influenced by French and Patois phonology – see Lise Winer’s and Edith Lily Aguiar’s article on Spanish influence in the lexicon of Trinidadian English Creole.  See also the discussion on the spelling of lagniappe and pastelle below.

English continues to have input into French Creole in Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia and Trinidad, Spanish continues to have input into French Creole in Venezuela, and Portuguese continues to have input into French Creole in Brazil.

Now for a look at African and Amerindian languages, and others too

Many of the following African-origin and Amerindian-origin words in focus here are also found in Trinidadian English and in Trinidadian English Creole. See the Lise Winer-edited Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad & Tobago for a historical and etymological treatment of each word, including the original etyma (the words or parts of words from which our Patois words are derived).


In this dictionary of 12,200 entries, Patois words account for 10% of Trinbagonian English and English Creole words, many of them related to everyday life and to flora and fauna.

French Creole also came into contact with Bhojpuri (also an Indo-European language, but of the Indo-Iranian sub-family), and possibly other languages.

African Languages

These include the huge Niger-Congo family (in red and orange below) with 1,545 languages in 4 sub-families.  The largest of the 4 is the Atlantic-Congo sub-family with 1,448 languages. Another sub-family is Mande to which Mende and Mande (also known as Mandinka or Mandingo) belong.


Here is an even more wonderful map.

Atlantic-Congo may be further sub-divided into the Atlantic, Ijoid and Volta-Congo groups. The Atlantic group has 64 languages, including Fulfulde/Fulani.

The Volta-Congo group is the biggest of the three with 1,374 languages in 5 sub-groups, including the Benue-Congo and Kwa sub-groups.

The following languages all belong to the Benue-Congo family which has 980 languages, most Bantoid:

  • Efik (Cross River)
  • Ibibio (Cross River)
  • Igbo (Igboid)
  • Yoruba (Defoid) and
  • Koongo/Kikongo (Bantoid), from the Democratic Republic of Congo

The Benue-Congo languages are spread out over 17 countries. The above are mainly in modern-day Nigeria which has 522 living languages belonging to a number of  language families.

The following languages all belong to the Kwa family (which has 80 languages):

  • Akan Twi
  • Éwé
  • Fon
  • Ga and
  • Gbe

The Kwa languages are spoken in 4 countries. Akan Twi, Éwé and Ga are spoken in modern-day Ghana, Fon in Benin, and Gbe and related languages are spoken in modern-day Benin, Ghana and Togo. Others Kwa languages are spoken in Ivory Coast.

Click on the image below for more details from Ethnologue.com.

Ethnologue Africa

According to Winer and others, some of the following words might come from one or more of these languages. Some are certain; some are not.

Some might have converged from two different sources, for example, belair (thought to be French and/or Koongo). Some have Euro-Afro combinations of French + Fon, such as baton (French) lele (Fon), and Bambara + French, as in bonda (Bambara) poule (French). There is also the case of English + a word of unknown (possible West African) origin, such as big belly (English) doun-doun (etymology uncertain).

Note: The spellings in parentheses below are from the modern standardised GEREC-1 French Creole orthography.

Atlantic-Congo > Volta-Congo > Benue-Congo and Kwa

Benue-Congo languages

  • accra (akwa) ‘saltfish fritter’ (Yoruba; the same Yoruba word gave Portuguese the word acarajé)
  • belair (bèlè) ‘a folk dance’ (possibly Koongo)
  • bobolee (boboli) ‘stupid person’ (Koongo, also possibly Bamanankan/Bambara)
  • bonda ‘buttocks’ (Bambara)
  • congoree (kongori) ‘millipede’ (Koongo, Bangi, Kimbundu and Duala)
  • macaque (makak) ‘monkey’ (Koongo)
  • mook (mouk) ‘stupid person’ (Koongo, Bangi and Kenyang/Banyangi)
  • nennen ‘godmother’ (Efik, Ibibio and Igbo)
  • shakal (chakal) ‘untidy’ (Koongo)
  • sousou ‘a social banking system’ (Yoruba)
  • tabanca (tabanka) ‘unrequited love’ (Koongo)
  • toolum (touloum) ‘a molasses sweet’ (Koongo)
  • toti ‘penis’ (Koongo)
  • zombie (used in Haitian and in English) and jumbie are both Kimbundu in origin (meaning ‘corpse’ and ‘spirit of a dead person’, respectively)

The word locho (lotjo) ‘a good-for-nothing’ may come from either Hindi or Koongo.

Kwa languages

  • baton lele (baton lélé) ‘swizzle stick’ (lele is from Fon)
  • callaloo (kalalou) ‘soup made from dasheen leaves and ochro’ (Gbe, but could also be from Tupi via Portuguese)
  • chaka-chaka ‘untidy’ (Éwé and Gbe)
  • lengay (lengé) ‘thin’ (Éwé and Ga)
  • moomoo (moumou) ‘dumb’ (Éwé, Duala, Akan Twi and from Mande)
  • yampi ‘eye mucus’ (probably Akan Twi); also kaka-zyé in Patois

Atlantic-Congo >  Atlantic > Northern > Senegambian > Fula-Wolof > Fula > Fulfulde/Fulani (in some 8 countries) and Mande > Mande, Mende and Soninke (mostly in Sierra Leone, Senegal and Mali)

  • jook (djouké) ‘to poke’ (probably from several sources, including Fulfulde, Mende and Tsonga of Benue-Congo)
  • soucouyant (soukouyan) ‘a female vampire who turns into a ball of fire’ (Fulfulde and Soninke)

Some other possibilities are:

  • big belly doun-doun
  • gangan ‘grandmother’ (exact origin uncertain, possibly Koongo)
  • kalinda ‘a dance’

The origin of poom ‘flatulence’ is unknown (it is also used in Brazilian Portuguese).

Read more from Gertrud Aub-Buscher in “African Survivals in the Lexicon of Trinidad French-based Creole” (SCL OP No.23, Apr 1989), and Maureen Warner-Lewis on Yoruba in Trinidad and Tobago.

Amerindian languages

These include Kalina (Cariban), Lokono (Maipurean or Arawakan) and other Maipurean/Arawakan languages (like Taino), and Tupi. These are three distinct and separate language families, most of which are in Brazil.

For an overview, based on a corpus of French Creole from modern French West Indian (FWI) literature, read more from Teodor-Florin Zanoaga. Here are a few:


  • agouti (Dasyprocta) ‘a long-legged rodent’
  • bachac ‘leaf-cutter ant’ (via Spanish)
  • canari (kannawi) ‘a cooking pot’


  • caimite (kaymit) (Chrysophyllum cainito) ‘star apple’, and many other fruits and vegetables

Origin uncertain

  • ajoupa (adjoupa) ‘a type of hut’
  • boucan (boukan) ‘barbecue grill’
  • manicou (mannikou) (Didelphis marsupialis) ‘opossum’
  • zanana ‘pineapple’ (probably Tupi)
  • zandoli (anolis in the FWI, possibly Carib) ‘a lizard’

See Fr Raymond Breton’s Dictionnaire caraïbe-français.


See also Mervyn C. Alleyne, “Indigenous Languages of the Caribbean” SCL PP No. 3, June 2004, for two family trees below –  Maipurean or Arawakan with 60 known languages (including a few extinct ones), and Cariban with 29 known languages.



False Etymologies and Spelling

The word lagniappe, ‘a little extra’, came to French Creole from Quechua via Spanish la ñapa. French Creole words and names of Spanish origin usually drop the last vowel (as also seen in alpagat and others mentioned above).

The words lagniappe and pastelle both took on a French-type spelling. Pastelle (pastèl) ‘corn cake in banana leaves’, from Spanish pastel, ‘pastry’, not ‘cake’ (also pastel in Puerto Rico, but hallaca in Venezuela) adopted a French spelling, and is the main spelling in the country today.

This is much like some English words, for example, island and scissors. In both cases, scribes and writers thought they knew. In both cases, the spellings are likely to stay, and reflect the history of language contact in Trinidad.

(English words of French origin like debt, doubt, indict, receipt and salmon also have extra, unpronounced letters, because they took on a Latin-based derivational spelling. But, unlike island, these words did come ultimately from Latin, via French, where the “silent letters” were no longer relevant and had long been dropped. See MentalFloss.com for lots of fun articles on English spelling.)

More Information on Sources of Patois Lexicon

For fuller discussions on this topic, go to the creoles.free.fr website and to David Frank’s St Lucian French Creole pages. (See discussions on our Facebook group, Annou Palé Patwa and also here.) David Frank also did a count of his dictionary of St Lucian and concluded that St Lucian is at least 95% French-derived. Other studies have been done for other varieties. An analytical count needs to be done for all the varieties of the language, and this could well be a future project.

So, no; Patois did not get all of its words from French which did not get all of its words from Latin. Languages in contact produce all kinds of exciting exchanges and changes – lexical, lexico-semantic, phonological, morphonological, syntactic and more!

Speaking of Syntax, Let’s Not Forget Grammar

After all of this, let’s not forget grammar. French Creole is not merely a by-product of French, lexical or otherwise. To paraphrase Ian E. Robertson, French Creole may be lexically “dependent” on French, historically-speaking, but it is grammatically “independent” of French. Western Europe has been the main lexical influence on French Creole, and West Africa provided the sources of some distinctive grammatical influences on French Creole.

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