Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Protecting the heritage languages of T&T

UWI Research In Action

 Sa ki sla-ou, sé sla-ou.  

Today, there are fewer and fewer people in Trinidad and Tobago who recognise that the previous sentence is the Patois origin of the popular saying “What is yours is yours”. A documentation project at The University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine, is seeking to increase those numbers and to document and preserve the dying languages of Trinidad and Tobago.

Most people simply categorise Trinidad and Tobago as English-speaking. However, it is estimated that there are between 1,000 to 2,000 Patois (French Creole) speakers in Trinidad and Tobago.  While English, Trinidadian English Creole and Tobagonian English Creole (both known as Dialect) are an integral part of our cultural and linguistic landscape, what most do not realise is that this country is also home to at least nine other heritage languages. In fact, in the 19th century, over 30 different languages were spoken in Trinidad and Tobago, and before that, at least 11 known Amerindian languages.

Three of these heritage languages have been selected for an interdisciplinary digital documentation project funded by The UWI Research and Development Impact Fund (RDI Fund) and led by Dr Ben Braithwaite and Dr Jo-Anne Ferreira of the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics of The UWI, St Augustine Campus. These languages are: Trinidadian Patois (Lesser Antillean French Creole or Kwéyòl), Trinidadian Hindustani (Caribbean Bhojpuri), and Trinidad and Tobago Sign Language (TTSL). All have counterparts across the region—Patois (French Creole) in 11 countries, Hindustani (Bhojpuri) in three, and related sign languages in many. 

The project aims to raise the profile of the languages and their users. “In this small country, with its own multilingual and poly-ethnic space and history, our heritage languages and their users tend to be forgotten,” Dr Jo-Anne Ferreira, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, said in a recent interview. The project includes consultations with other stakeholder organisations, including Women Working for Social Progress (Workingwomen), Village Councils, the National Council for Indian Culture (NCIC), the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Interpreters for the Deaf (TTAID), and the Deaf Empowerment Organisation of Trinidad & Tobago (DEOTT).

UNESCO estimates that 43 per cent of the world’s roughly 7,000 languages face extinction. Dr Braithwaite and Dr Ferreira describe this extinction as “a catastrophic loss of human cultural heritage, comparable in scale and significance to threats to biological diversity.” The Caribbean is both a biodiversity hotspot and a linguistic diversity hotspot.

Across the Caribbean, language loss has already happened on a huge scale, especially among scores of Amerindian languages, such as Taino (an Arawakan language) of the Bahamas and Greater Antilles, as well as West African languages, Danish in the Virgin Islands, European and Asian languages of immigrants, and Spanish and Dutch Creoles.  

More and more of the 245 languages of the greater Caribbean region are in immediate danger of disappearing, such as Kromanti of Jamaica (a Ghanaian Akan language, one of the few remaining African languages in the region), Colonia Tovar German in Venezuela (an immigrant language), and Konchri Sain (Jamaican Country Sign Language). Others are tolerated, ignored, or are unknown outside of their communities, especially Creole languages.

Throughout the Americas, there has been long-standing intolerance towards multilingualism, developed during colonial times. Kenneth Romain, a Patois speaker from Paramin recounted the taunts that came with speaking Patois: “Ou sòti an bwa. Ou sé on makak,” he said (“You’ve come out of the bush. You’re a monkey”).

Another Patois speaker from Paramin, John Constantine, said that speakers were afraid of being called a “country bookie.” “Ou hont kò-ou,” he said (“You were ashamed of yourself”). Augustine Fournillier, Paramin’s oldest living female resident, shared this view. “Yo di sa sé langaj-bèt. Yo (bèt) ka kompwann, mé yo pa ka pale” (“They said it was a language for animals. They (animals) can understand, but they can’t talk”).

UWI hopes to change this way of thinking by dispelling myths that these languages are dead and that these or any language could be useless.  Instead, it wants to promote them as rich repositories of cultural knowledge.

Dr Ferreira believes that there are ways that language documentation information can be useful outside of conservation. “Trinidadian Patois names, words, phrases and expressions make their way into our printed media ever so often,” she said, “but writers sometimes confuse meanings, try out their own spellings, guess at origins, and sometimes even use other Caribbean varieties of Patois instead of using our own as the norm and the model.” UWI can authoritatively help journalists, communication specialists, advertising companies, novelists, poets, researchers, translators and others, with issues of usage, pronunciation, etymologies, orthography and more.  

For Dr Ferreira and the members of the research team of this UWI RDI Fund project, examining language history, documenting linguistic structures and practices, raising sociolinguistic awareness, creating and transferring linguo-cultural knowledge, and becoming multilingual in heritage languages are key to “understanding our nationhood and our very identity, and to taking our place on the world stage where indigenous languages are being increasingly valued, recognised, and documented.”

For more information on this project, please contact 

Dr Ben Braithwaite at and Dr. Jo-Anne Ferreira at

For information on all UWI 

St Augustine research, please visit 



Globally, there are frameworks in place to protect and promote all languages. The  UNESCO Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights was decreed in Barcelona in 1996. 


Within the region, the Charter on Language Policy and 

Language Rights in the Creole-speaking Caribbean was signed in Kingston in early 2011.  


Here in Trinidad and Tobago, the Government ratified 

UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (CSICH) in 2010.