French Language in Grenada






Alister Hughes

Presented at Marryshow House, during "French Week" ,

11th May 1989,

We Grenadians have three ways of dealing with an enemy. If the situation is not serious, and we dont want to be too rough, we attack the person with mo-vay-lang. If the circumstances call for something stronger, then we work a mal-joe. But, if its open war, and if we really want to do damage, then we go the limit and make that enemy suffer from mal-ca-dee.

I dont know if many Grenadians believe in and make use of these practices, but these phrases are just three instances in which we have enriched our Grenadian English with borrowings from the French Creole.

Translated literally, mo-vay-lang is bad tongue, the sharp, spiteful gossip with which we can attack our enemies. The literal translation of mal-joe is the evil eye, while mal-ca-dee, literally the spoken evil, is the ultimate in bringing down a curse on somebody's head.

Some of our senior citizens still speak Creole, but they are becoming fewer and fewer because, unlike St Lucia and Dominica which lie close to the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, Grenada does not have French speaking neighbours to keep that language alive.

Nevertheless, and in spite of the fact that, a generation or two ago, the use of Grenadian-English was frowned on by teachers and parents, a look at our history gives some understanding as to why our conversations today are so liberally sprinkled with a collection of picturesque French Creole words and phrases.

Grenada was colonised successfully, for the first time, by the French in 1650 and there was an unbroken period of French administration until 1763, one hundred and thirteen years, before the island passed into British hands.

That was a long enough period within which to put the French stamp on our tongues, but even more powerful circumstances were to inoculate us with "Frenchness" and fortify Creole sufficiently to find it appearing in, and strengthening, our language today.

After the British had been in possession for about sixteen years, the French recaptured the island in 1779 after a bloody battle. St Georges was sacked and pillaged. Tensions were high. The new French occupiers made things very rough for the British settlors and French customs, French traditions and the French language were predominant.

Even when the Treaty of Versailles gave the island back to the British in 1783, and they, in turn, began to make things uncomfortable for the French settlers, the situation was not changed.

French, or French Creole, was the language of the large majority of the inhabitants, slaves and estate owners, and, though the new British administrators spoke English, French was predominant.

And the importance of French in Grenada was to be strengthened still further. Inspired by the French Revolution of 1789, the French settlers in Grenada rose up in 1795 and staged their own revolution.

It was not successful but, if that bloody time did nothing more, it emphasised the "Frenchness" of Grenada, a "Frenchness" which, after more than two centuries of British colonial rule and our own independence, is still evident in our place names, our customs and our Grenadian English.

That evidence is brought home to us soon after we come into this world. Grenadian mothers sing their babies to sleep with the lullaby of, Do-do, petit po-po. That's what French mothers sing also, because, in France, do-do is used childishly for go to sleep, while, also, in France, petit po-po means little baby.

The evidence follows us as we get older. When I was a boy, we developed play habits which succeeded in getting mud and muck all over our clothes and bodies and we would be made to take a bath. Afterwards our parents would inspect the bath tub and point out, with disgust, the scum line on the inside of the tub which indicated the need there had been for bathing.

They had a name for that scum line. La-cras, they called it, the Creole word for grease, and we were threatened with a thorough beating if we ever allowed that amount of muck to build up on our skins again. "You're going to get a good plan-arse we were told.

Whatever the sound of that word may suggest to you, you should not believe that plan-arse had anything to do with our little posteriors. It is a word which indicates the method of our promised punishment.

In Grenada, to plan arse - somebody, or an animal, only a flat instrument can be used. The flat of a cutlass, perhaps, to plan-arse a donkey, or a hand-saw used by a carpenter to plan-arse an apprentice.

Our Grenadian-English word, plan- arse, comes from the French "plan asséner" (ass-a-nay). That means, to strike with the flat of, so the beating cannot be done with a switch. In my case, my plan arse was always administered to me with the back of a hair-brush.

By the time we got to school age, although none of us spoke Creole, through the influence of that language, we had learned a few words with which to taunt our companions.

Anybody we considered to be not very bright was ba-zo-dee. We used that word also for the dazed feeling brought on by a blow to the head. We didn't know it then, but ba-zo-dee comes from the French Creole, pas solide, meaning "unstable".

The word too-tool-bay was used in a somewhat similar sense, but this was more evident when we had grown older and girls had come into our lives. Too-tool-bay is derived from the Creole, "totalement bete" and is used to describe the effect of love on a young man.

One would say, "John is too-tool-bay over Mary". I do not know whether you will agree that this is a good description of being love sick, but "totalement bete" means completely stupid.

A terrible name to be given by your school mates is that of being a maco, that is, somebody who is always spying on others, no doubt with a view to carrying tales.

Maco, I think, comes from the French "ma comite", that is, my jailer, the person who has his eye on me all the time. Maco can be used as a noun, it is also used as a verb, to maco somebody, and recently, I even heard somebody telling a woman that she was being too macosious.

Schoolboys can be very unkind in the names they call each other and any boy who showed signs of being effeminate was given the label of mac-may-fam. That's a heavy burden for a young man to carry, because the word comes from the Creole phrase, "ma commere famme" my female friend.

But, whether you were a Mac-may -fam or not, we were always warned not to dre-vay after school. That is, to come home directly and not wander from place to place around town. And sometimes we were told that, if we disobeyed, if we did dre-vay and nightfall caught us outside, there was the danger of encountering a lou-garu or a la-ja-bless.

Dre-vay is derived from the word used in the French islands to describe what happens to a ship when it loses its anchor, when it goes adrift, and it aptly describes what we were likely to do in the afternoon after school and before getting home.

But you may be sure that we kept a close watch on the time. We had to get home before dark because the danger of dre-vay-ing until nightfall carries the risk of encountering two of the most fearful characters in Grenada's folk lore, the lou-garou and the la-ja-bless.

Lou-garou, from the French "loup garou", a were wolf is, in Grenada, a person who can shed his skin, assume the ability to fly and even pass through a key-hole in his quest for the blood of his victim.

The la-ja-bless is no more attractive. From the French ,"la diablesse", a female devil, this supernatural creature has a beautiful, voluptuous figure but wears a long dress to hide the fact that one of her feet is normal while the other is a cloven hoof.

But that's not the worst. Seducing married men who stay out too late at night is what the la-ja-bless is up to. She lures them to the edge of a precipice where she lifts the wide, floppy brim of her hat to disclose a skull face. Terrified, the frightened man falls over the precipice and dies.

I remember that one of the popular games at school was "pac-ra". It is played when two or more persons make an agreement that, at all times, they will have a certain thing in their pockets. It might be a green leaf, a stone, a needle, a marble or whatever is decided.

If one of the persons in the agreement meets another and, on demand to see, that person cannot show the agreed thing, then the person making the demand has the right to take everything the defaulter has in his pockets.

This word too, is a borrowing from the French. The last two words in the French phrase, "faire un pacte avec", are contracted into pac-ra, and "faire un pacte avec" means to make an agreement with, which is exactly what the game is all about.

Anything seized from somebody's pockets in this way is said to have been obtained poor-yen. Also, if you got something without having to pay for it, say as a gift, that too would have been said to be poor-yen. The pronunciation may be slightly different but this is almost exactly what a Frenchman would say when he got something "pour rien", that is, for nothing.

It wasn't every day that you could get something poor-yen, but, if you had something you did not want, you could always tro-shay, that is, you could barter, or make an exchange for something you did want.

And that's another straight borrow from the French with a slight twist in the prononunciation, because "troquer" (tro-kay) in that language means to barter, exchange or swap.

In other sorts of games, kite flying was as popular with us as it is with the present generation but I dont know if boys still introduce the variation we had to lend a little spice to the occasion. We called it coo-pay and this is the way it worked.

At a given signal, everybody who had a kite in the air would cut the kite-thread, allowing the kite to blow away. From that moment, it would be a race to see who could find his kite and get back to the starting point first.

We didn't know that we were being influenced by French Creole, but the name of that game, coo-pay comes from the French verb, "couper" (coo-pay), to cut, and refers to what we did to the kite-thread to start the race.

That verb crops up, too, in a more sinister connection. Close to where we lived was an area which bore the name coo-pay-cou. A gruesome murder had taken place there when the victim's throat had been cut. The place was said to be haunted, and we never lingered at that spot. Coo-pay-cou is, of course, the Creole for cut neck.

The word coo-pay-coo still gives me something of a frightened, sick feeling in my stomach, but there are many other more pleasant Grenadian-English words I learned from my mother and grand- mother.

For instance, I remember that whenever my grandmother sent someone to buy peas for her, she always instructed that the purchase was to be ho-toe-toe.

This was before the days of supermarkets and peas was sold then in the marketplace by the heap. The instruction to buy ho-toe-toe was to ensure that she got a lot of peas for her money. The French word for "high" is "h-a-u-t" (O), and ho-toe-toe is a corruption of "haut, haut, haut". When my grandmother said to buy the peas ho-toe-toe, what she was really saying was that the purchaser should make sure it was a high, high, high heap.

Learning these words sometimes produced amusing moments, such as the time I took my mother a present of a lovely snapper I had caught. Presenting it to her, I called the fish by the name by which that type of snapper, which is of a delicate brown colour, is known in Grenada.

It was a bunda-malatwess, but, when my mother heard the name, she was visably shocked. Pressed for the reason for her reaction, Mum translated the name for me and then I understood why she had been shocked. Bunda-malatwess, she said, is Creole for the backside of a mulatress.

At that time, I did not tell Mum that there is another snapper called estom-malatwess, and I thanked my lucky stars that this was not the fish I had brought her. Bunda-malatwess was bad enough, but estom-malatwess, the breast of a mulatress, I think would have been too much for the Old Lady.

It was through my Mum, too, that I became conscious of two other phrases we have borrowed from the Creole for use in our Grenadian-English . These are phrases I heard her use and they were both in connection with a maid with whose services she was not at all satisfied.

"This girl", she said, "is much too co-tay-see, co-tay-la, and when I do get her to do something, she does it vi-key-vy".

These expressions are some of the most descriptive in Grenadian-English. Co-tay-see, co-ta-la, is straight from the French, and means this side, that side, a perfect description of someone who turns and twists and gets little or no work done.

Vi-key-vi is also straight from the French, ("vaille que vaille") where it has the meaning of doing something for better or for worse without too much consideration for how well it is done. How better to describe housework which is done carelessly ?

Apart from these direct borrowings, a hidden influence of French on Grenadian-English is the difference between the English vowel sounds and the French vowel sounds and how this affects the way we pronounce ordinary English words.

In English, the vowel sounds are A,E,I,O U,. In French, they are Ah, A, E, O, Ou. This means that an "I" in English, is pronounced like an "E" in French.

At school, we are taught to pronounce the word s-h-i-p, using the English vowel sounds, as "ship". But, if we're not careful, and with those who have not been thoroughly schooled, that word can come out the French way as "sheep".

And this can happen to many other words with the vowel "I". So you find that i-n is pronounced "een", h-i-s comes out as "hees" and i-t sounds like "eat"

Carnival, too, has contributed a great many words to Grenadian-English.

For example, the first part of the first day of Carnival is called jou-vay and it is clear that this word is a corruption of the French Creole words. "jour ouvert", the dawning, or the opening of the day.

And one of the principal masquerading figures you will see at jou-vay is certain to be the jab-jab. Dressed in a loin cloth only, covered with black grease, with two horns on his head and with a tail, this character is easily recognised as a devil, and jab-jab is readily seen as originating from the French Creole word for a devil, "diable".

A feature of Grenadian Carnival, which has disappeared, is the stick fight, but that bloody, brutal sport has left us a word which is still current. The stick fight ritual was that, when the drums started, the bravest fighter went to the centre of the ring. There, he danced around and assumed defiant postures of bravado, daring the other fighters to attack him.

As the stick-fighter danced, his stick poised for attack, he was said to kar-ray. I suggest that this word came, possibly, from the French, "se carrer" (ka-ra), meaning to strut or to pose, and kar-ray is still used, figuratively, of anyone taking a defiant posture.

Indirectly, the stick fight has given us another word which we still use today. It was the standard boast of the stick fighter that he beat an opponent until that opponent shouted, or more colloquially, bawled "am-way". And, today, figuratively forced into a corner by difficult circumstances, the Grenadian will say, "This is more than I can take, I must bawl am-way".

Whether in the context of a stick fight or figuratively, am-way is a call of distress, and is a corruption of the words a Frenchman might use when he is in difficulty, "A moi", that is, come to me, help !

Another area which contributes to our Grenadian-English is the field of agriculture, and you will notice that Grenadians seldom refer to a "bunch" of coconuts. Most times, its a grap of coconuts, and that is the straight use of the French Creole word for a bunch.

We have extended the use of that word and often use grap, figuratively, for anything in quantity. A rich may may be said to have money by the grap, or a woman to have a grap of clothes in her wardrobe.

Another word comes from a weed in Grenada which is special in that the seeds of the plant are not in the usual place. The seeds are under the leaf. Grenadians call this weed, gwen-amber fwaile. Like many other Grenadian-English words which we use, many of us have no idea what this word means, but it is a direct use of the French Creole phrase describing the plant, "graine a bas feuille", meaning, seeds under the leaf.

Then, there's the word ah-fus which I remember most as having to do with mangoes. We have all sorts of mangoes in Grenada. Some are nice, others are hardly worth eating while still others are excellent. Ah-fus proclaims the ultimate in approval of a good mango. For someone to say of a mango, "Ah fus it sweet", is the highest praise.

But ah fus can be used also to express the ultimate in most circumstances. For instance, at the end of a long day, you could flop down in your favourite chair and say, "Ah fus I'm tired". Or, it would also be very appropriate to say, "Ah Fus Alliance Francaise is doing a good job in Grenada".

My guess is that the derivation of this interesting Grenadian-English word is from the French, "a force", which means extremely.

Then, there's a Grenadian expression which is used to express financial difficulty and which demonstrates how much our Grenadian-English has been influenced by French. When there isn't enough money and times are tough, the Grenadian will say, "I"m living at my aunt"

In French slang, a pawnbroker is referred to as "ma tante", that is my aunt, so that, without appreciating exactly what he is saying, when the Grenadian complains that he is "living at aunt his ", he really means that he is pawning everything he has so he can keep going.

In this talk, I have scratched only the surface of the study of Grenadian-English but I am sure I have said enough to indicate the influence which French continues to have .

It is now over two centuries since the last Frenchman packed his bags and sailed away, and we do not have a Martinique or a Guadeloupe next door to keep the language alive and, as a result, Creole, as a spoken language, has almost completely disappeared

Nevertheless, ah fus Creole influence is strong, words derived from that language still appear by the grap in Grenadian-English. In fact, like my grandmother's peas, our vocabulary is ho-toe-toe with them.

Let me say how honoured I feel to have been asked to talk to you on this subject. Perhaps you have questions that I can answer now and I would be glad to try to do so , provided, of course, that I can be assured that, if I fail to answer satisfactorily, there will be no attack on me of either mal-jo or mal-ca-dee..

Alister Hughes