Dominica fights to save the language forged by slaves in Caribbean

Celebrating Kwéyòl Culture

The elementary school student stood up, pulled down her face mask and leaned into the microphone. She swallowed hard before trying to spell the word “discover” in French Creole.

“D-E-K-O-V-I” she tried as she clasped her hands behind her back while standing in front of a row of gleaming trophies.

Seconds later, the teacher announced: “Sorry, that’s incorrect.” The word, she said, is “dékouvè.”

Dominica is trying to preserve and promote that centuries-old creation by Africans who melded their original tongues with those of the European plantation owners who held them in slavery.

Kwéyòl, as it’s known in Dominica, is one of many Creole variants spoken on more than a dozen Caribbean islands — complex cultural creations that were long considered informal, inferior and broken languages spoken by uneducated people.

“Your ability to use the European language, be it English, French or Dutch, is seen as an indicator of educational attainment,” said Clive Forrester, a linguistics professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo and secretary of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics. “The attitudes have improved, but the underlying feeling is still there. Almost everything related to African culture is seen not as prestigious as European culture.”

Officials in Dominica, an island of some 75,000 people, hope to change that perception: They’ve started teaching Kwéyòl in 16 of the island’s 56 primary schools this year in brief snippets: “A five-minute pause for the Creole cause.” They say a lack of Kwéyòl-speaking teachers holds back a broader program.

Students learn the language’s roots and simple words and phrases and some compete in a spelling bee introduced 11 years ago, said Charlene White-Christian, modern language coordinator for Dominica’s Ministry of Education.

She herself is still learning more of the language since her parents never spoke it with her: She learned via friends and from studying linguistics.

“We don’t want to lose it,” she said. “We view the language as part of our culture. It’s nothing without the language.”

To help preserve the language, Dominican scholars have published two Kwéyòl dictionaries — the newest 150 pages long — and are working on a third as they debate how to say words like “computer” or “flash drive,” which never had a Creole equivalent.

Pride in local Creole languages has grown in recent years, though only a handful of Caribbean nations so far have declared them official, including Haiti, Aruba and Curacao. Only a few offer regular classes, and experts say they don’t know of any place where it’s the main language of education.

The version spoken in Dominica and nearby Saint Lucia originally mingled African languages with the French spoken by the first colonists and occasionally a bit of the Indigenous language. Dominica was a French colony for 48 years and then a British one for 215 years, which also led to the rise of English Creole on that island.

The most widely spoken French Creole is in Haiti, a country of more than 11 million inhabitants. A few thousand also speak the Kouri-Vini creole of Louisiana, also once a French colony. Linguists say that some people in very rural areas of nations including Haiti and Jamaica speak only Creole languages, often because they did not go to school.

Papiamento, a Portuguese-based Creole, is used in Aruba and Curacao, where it was adopted by a local Sephardic Jewish community, said Hubert Devonish, a Jamaican linguistics professor and member of the International Center for Caribbean Language Research.

English-based Creoles range from the Gullah of coastal North Carolina to the Patois of Jamaica that echoes through that nation’s music.

English Creole may have developed in Barbados in the late 1640s after a local population of African slaves grew larger than that of white people, Devonish said. He added that French Creole might have first developed in St. Kitts, the first French plantation colony.

The languages then evolved across the centuries, affected by education, migration and the island’s’ relationship with their former colonial powers.