English is Grenada’s official language. That's what you’ll hear spoken in Parliament. That’s what you’ll hear used by the receptionist at any of our hotels. And that's what you’ll hear when you chat with the taxi man or vendor.
But English is not the national language of this island. That’s something different. To hear the national language you must associate with Grenadians when they are relaxing. Be with them when they’ve let their hair down. When they’re not careful about speaking “good” English. That is, when they are not on their best linguistic behaviour.
In the national language the people of this island have developed a special vocabulary. It falls short of being a dialect but is a picturesque collection of expressive words and phrases. Echoes of this vocabulary will heard in other Caribbean islands and its origins are intriguing.
These words and phrases mirror Grenada’s history. They trace the island’s story through the centuries and have become so entwined with standard English that the users are hardly aware of them. And so, unnoticed, something unique, something we may call “Grenadianese” has evolved.
It is unfortunate, however, that this cultural gem is not considered “respectable”. Words from this vocabulary are banned from class rooms where “proper” English is taught. And, little boys and girls get their knuckles rapped for using them. Nevertheless, the vocabulary continues to be used by all sectors of the society and Grenadianese flourishes.
The French were the first to colonize Grenada and they contributed generously to the vocabulary. The first settlement was in 1650 and, for over two centuries, the island experienced a historical see-saw existence. Grenada was owned, at one time or the another, by either France or Britain and this had its influence on Grenadianese.
The languages of the African slaves also had their impact. So did the language of the Spaniards who came from the South American mainland to trade with the colonists. A few Amerindian words have been preserved and always, there is the Grenadian faculty to coin his own words.
Grenada’s folk lore offers a fertile field for encountering Grenadianese. For instance, in the mythology of the island the la-jab-ess is a terrifying, supernatural female. Deriving her name from the French, la diablesse, a female devil, the la-jab-ess has a beautiful figure. Roaming after dark, she wears a wide-brimmed, floppy hat which masks her face. And her long skirt hides the fact that, while one of her feet is normal, the other is a cloven hoof.
Undoubtedly, lonely wives created this myth. The story goes that some half-drunk husband, staggering home late at night, is propositioned by this seductive lady. Hand in hand, they stroll to a secluded spot at the brink of a precipice where the la-jab-ess lifts the brim of her hat. This discloses a fearful skull face. Frightened out of his mind, the terrified husband falls over the precipice and dies.
Another dreaded, mythological, Grenadian figure is the lou-ga-rou. This name is derived from the French loup-garou, a werewolf, but the Grenadian version has special powers.
The lou-ga-rou is a human being who can assume the power to fly. At night, the lou-ga-rou sheds his skin. Hiding it under an inverted bowl, he sets off on his quest for human blood. And, closed doors are no barrier to this creature. To get to his victim, the lou-ga-rou can enter a room through a key-hole.
But there is a sure way of protecting one’s self. The trick is to spread a cupful of sand on your doorstep. No lou-ga-rou can get past that without counting every grain. The counting certainly will take until daylight and, at that time, all lou-ga-rous must re-enter their skins.
By the way, should you ever find a skin under an inverted bowl, rub it well with salt. And, in the morning, keep a sharp look out. Should you notice anyone unusually scratching, you’ve identified a lou-ga-rou.
Another Grenadianese word derived from the French is jamet. This is an euphemism for a prostitute. Jamet is a word adopted from Trinidad where, about a hundred years ago, the French aristocracy in that island propounded the theory of the diamèter or diameter of society.
The theory was that the aristocracy occupied the upper section of the diamèter. Then, there were descending grades of society, the lower orders being confined to to the lower section of the diamèter. With time, the word diamèter became used as a label for what was regarded as the lowest class, the prostitutes, and it was easy phonetic step from this to the Grenadianese jamet.
Travo, a contraction of travaux, the French creole word for work, is the name Grenadians give to persons who do grueling work on the roads. And bun-jay, said with emphasis, is derived from the French Bon Dieu!!, that is, in English, Good God!!
If, goodness forbid, a Grenadian should accuse you of being “quel bay”, he has insulted you. This Grenadianese word comes from the French quel bête which, loosely translated, is “How stupid you are!” Meaning much the same thing is too-tool-bay, from the French, totalement bête, that is, completely foolish.
An accident which sometimes befalls Grenadians is a fallen boo-chet. The boo-chet is located somewhere in the chest and is likely to “fall” when one attempts to lift too heavy a weight. The derivation comes from the French, brechet, the breast-bone and there is a recommended cure if you should happen to suffer a “fall”.
Carefully tie two pegs of garlic in a knot of hair at the top of your head and wait. This is one hundred percent guaranteed to lift the boo-chet back into place.
The bark of a tree, bor-ban-day, is reputed to be a powerful aphrodisiac. The word is derived from two French words, bois, a tree, and bander, to be stretched.
A Grenadianese word in wide use is maco. Its derivation is uncertain but this noun describes a person who delights in ferreting out people’s business. And, an adjective has been derived from maco. A nosey person is said to be macotious.
Two other widely used words whose derivations are uncertain are dan-dan and lime. Dan-dan refers to the clothes someone is wearing and usually is said of a child. One would say, "I like your dan~dan.”
Lime first appeared in the early 1940s. At that time, it was the practice of young people to congregate outside some fête, heckling the guests as they arrived. These young people were called limers and they were said to be liming the fête. The word has evolved considerably since then. The original meaning remains but, additionally today, to lime is just to enjoy leisure time.
Many Grenadianese words came in slave ships from Africa. One is ko-ko-bay, an African word for the disease of leprosy. Coupled with the word “yaws”, a skin disease which is standard English, ko-ko-bay is preserved in an old Grenadian saying. Used to indicate that things couldn’t be any worse with the speaker, the saying is, “If you have ko-ko-bay, you can't get yaws”. That is, my problems are already so great (leprosy), that any additional problems (yaws) won't make a difference.
Grenadianese is indebted to Africa for another word, kata, to cover and protect. When they carry loads on their heads, Grenadian women protect their scalps with a pad of straw or cloth. In Grenadianese, that pad has the same African name, kata.
A word with wide currency in Grenadianese is jook, to prick or pierce. Probably derived from the West African jukka, to poke, jook is found in many combinations. To step on a nail is to get a nail-jook. Figuratively, to jook ants-nest is to stir up trouble, and spoiling fish which generates a pricking sensation in the mouth is said to be jooking-tongue.
Adoptions from English are found in the unusual use of the words hand and foot. A local newspaper once reported that a man had been charged in the Magistrate's court with wounding someone in the foot, "six inches above the knee". But, that charge sounds totally impossible. As everyone knows, the foot is not above the knee - it is that part of the leg below the ankle. But this seemingly ridiculous charge didn't surprise the Magistrate or anybody else. In Grenadianese, you see, the foot is the whole limb from the hip to the toes. Hand, too, is the whole limb from the shoulder to the fingers.
These are Old English meanings. Three hundred years ago, when Britain was carving out her empire, English colonists in Grenada used the words hand and foot with exactly the same meanings as these words have in Grenadianese today.
Should you visit our Post Office today, if you wish to collect registered mail, you will be struck by a sign which instructs you to walk with your identification. This instruction merely means to “bring” your identification. But the use of the word walk in Grenadianese can puzzle a non-Grenadian. He would be quite confused if he is advised that in case of rain, he should walk with a change of clothes.
The Spaniards have left us the expression we use when two horses (or politicians) are running neck and neck. We say they are running mano-mano. This comes from the Spanish, mano a mano, meaning together. And the Amerindians have left us canerie and mab-boo-yah. The first is an earthenware cooking pot. The second is a dangerous looking, but quite harmless, house lizard which the Amerindians believed embodied an evil spirit.
Grenadianese is a national gem. It should be recognized and preserved. And efforts should be made to eradicate from the minds of Grenadians the undeserved label of poor respectability with which they have been taught to regard their national language.
Further, just as an English speaking visitor to France would be facilitated by a pamphlet setting out, in French, common words and phrases he may find useful, so too, in Grenada, visitors would be facilitated by a pamphlet on Grenadianese.
Recently, the need for this was brought home to me
Walking one day in St.George’s town
A tourist I happened to see,
“Kind sir” he said, “will you please help me,
I'm puzzled as puzzled can be."
I paused and asked how could I assist,
His problem he then did unfold,
His mind, it seemed, was turned upside down
By some things that he had been told.
“I’ve met”, he said, ”some really nice folks,
But their words are so very queer,
They talk, they chat, they all understand,
But nothing makes sense that I hear”
“I heard a woman called a “jamet”
And she, in surprise, said, “bun-jay"
It’s hard to know just what they do mean,
Please tell me what is “bour-ban-day"?
“And then,“ he said, “a man told his friend.
Of something that never can be,
He said he had a pain in his “foot”,
Located high over the knee”
If that was bad, then worse was to come
With something he heard loud and clear,
“My tyres are good”, a taximan said.
“But I always “walk” with a spare.
He then heard them speak. of “ma boo-yah"
Of “dan-dan” and “travo” and all,
Clutching his chest, a man said to him,
“You must know, me “boochet” just fall”
Two men a heated argument had
Said one, you're “quelle bay” for so.
The other said, “You’re real “too-tool-bay”
Besides, you’re a blasted “maco”
My friend, confused, in desperation
Just wanted to have a good time
Got more confused when somebody asked
If he was enjoying the “lime”
I tried my best to explain these things
And thought I had made a good try,
But when I asked if he would return,
He gave me a funny reply.
“I will be back for certain”, he said,
But my legs cannot take the strain
My wife and I refuse to “walk” back
We’re taking the bloody airplane”
Al-pa-gat: Slipper with leather sole & coarse woven top. (Spanish: alpagata, a sandal made of hemp)
Tai-che: Large iron container for boiling sugar (Spanish : tacho, a sugar-boiler)
Ash-urn: Pounded parched corn mixed with sugar (African: orsiam, pounded parched corn mixed with sugar)
Doe-gla: Person of mixed East Indian and Negro blood.
Ko-pa-set-ic : First class/excellent (US Negro slang: kopasetee, first class/excellent)
Doctor Shop: Pharmacy
Peg: Segment of a citrus fruit
Soul Case: The human body "I work out me soul case today"
Frup-se: To drink noisily (especially of soup)
Zutt: Cigarette butt
Sankey: Religious song (After Rev. Ira David Sankey)
Straw cork: Illicitly distilled rum
Sa-ven: Childs’ game (French se venter to plume onself)
Set: Large number/quantity. “A whole set of kids”
Next: Another. "Give me a next hat"
Am-way: Help! French A moi help!
Day clean: Dawn
© Alister Hughes, 2004.
HTML last revised 30th August, 2004.
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