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Trinidad French Creole

written by Gertrud Aub-Buscher


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Trinidad is the larger of the two islands which make up the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Originally inhabited by Amerindians, chiefly Tainos, it was visited by Christopher Columbus on his third voyage in 1498 and colonized by Spain in the course of the following century. It remained a Spanish possession until 1797, when it was captured by a British expeditionary force under Sir Ralph Abercrombie, and was officially ceded to the British crown by the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. It remained a British colony until it became independent in 1962. Trinidad has hence never been French. Why then is a French-lexifier Creole among the languages spoken in the island?

The Spanish settlers do not seem to have been particularly efficient in their management of the resources available, and by the latter half of the 18th century, the population, composed of Spaniards, the few Amerindians who had survived, and some slaves imported from Africa, was decimated by disease to the point where the economy was stagnating for lack of manpower. To remedy this, in 1783 the King of Spain published a cédula de población, inviting any catholic subject of a monarch friendly to the Spanish crown to come and settle in Trinidad. The very favourable conditions set out (grants of land, exemption from taxes for 10 years etc.) attracted a large number of French colonists, who were ready to leave the French islands of the Caribbean following natural disasters and to escape from the unrest which was beginning to make itself felt. They came with their families and slaves, and the latter brought with them the language which had developed in the French possessions. Trinidad French Creole (TFC) is therefore very similar to that of the French islands, especially Martinique, though it also developed its own traits, notably in its vocabulary.

During the 19th century, TFC was in effect the lingua franca of the working population of this British colony, spoken not only by the slaves who had brought it, but also learned and used by the indentured labourers imported from Asia after the abolition of slavery in 1838, and picked up from their nannies by the children of the French planters. It maintained its position into the beginning of the 20th century, but then was superseded by Trinidad English Creole (TEC), becoming only a very minor element in the amazing mosaic of Trinidad linguistic usage, which also includes standard English, the standard French of the French Creole families, a form of Spanish imported by immigrants from Venezuela, various Indian languages and Chinese dialects. In the early part of the 20th century, there were still monolingual speakers of patois, especially in the villages of the Northern Range. However, it was stigmatized as 'broken French', even by its native speakers, and under increasing pressure from TEC. At the beginning of the 21st century there remain very few Trinidadians for whom TFC is the natural or main means of communication, and it is to be feared that, despite the efforts of those trying to revive it as an important part of their heritage, TFC may before long join the long list of languages becoming extinct. Traces of Creole are likely to survive well beyond that time, however, in the lexis of TEC (e.g. much of the vocabulary of the carnival) and in turns of phrase (e.g. it have for 'there is/are').

There is no standard orthography for TFC, as it is essentially an oral language. In the examples below, the spelling adopted is similar to the one proposed for Caribbean French-lexifier Creoles by the GERECF (Groupe d'Études et de Recherche en Espaces Créolophone et Francophone) in Martinique, in which many letters or combinations thereof have the same value as in French; however, u is used to denote the sound spelled ou in French.


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As the term 'French-lexifier Creole' implies, the vast majority of TFC words derive from French. This is not always immediately obvious, for a variety of reasons:

  • The French from which they derive was brought to the French West Indian colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, and Creole has sometimes kept both forms and meanings which have not survived in modern French; e.g.
    • balyé



      '(fish) hook'

  • The people who brought it were often from the provinces and used the words current in their particular area, which may not have come into the standard language:
    • palaviré

      'slap with the back of the hand'


      'cage, kennel'

  • The phonetic, grammatical and semantic development of TFC (see below) may have altered lexical items in such a way as to distance them from their Fr. roots:
    • djòl

      'mouth of an animal'

      cp. Fr









      'cow, ox, bull'


Contact with other languages, both in the French islands where Creole first developed and after its arrival in Trinidad, has ensured that the vocabulary also contains items from other languages:

  • from the Amerindian languages spoken by the original inhabitants of the islands (though these words have often come through the European languages of the colonizers):
    • lebiché

      'cassava sifter'


      'extra amount given in a sale'

  • from the mother tongues of the African slaves imported to work in the colonies: especially words in such areas as food, the human body, beliefs and pastimes:
    • akra





      'magic charm'



  • from the languages of the Asian people who came as indentured labourers after the end of slavery (though very few words have come from this source):
    • hosé

      'Indian festival of Hosein'


      name of an (illegal) Chinese game

  • from Iberian languages, chiefly Spanish:
    • fanega

      'measure of cocoa (100 lbs)'


      'cornmeal dish, boiled in a banana leaf'

    Some of the many loan-words from English, such as trè 'wooden tray' or bokit 'bucket', may already have featured in the language when it was imported into Trinidad, as they also occur in the French islands, but a great number have been borrowed since then, notably terms to designate modern inventions such as the motoka.


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The inventory of sounds in TFC is quite similar to that of French, but it lacks the front rounded vowels of French (cp. Fr. puce / TFC pis; Fr. peut / TFC ; Fr. peur / TFC ) as well as the e muet (cp. Fr. cheval / TFC chuval). It has three nasal vowels similar to those of modern French, i.e. nasalized a as in Fr. blanc (represented by an in the examples below -- i.e. the n does not represent a separate sound), nasalized e as in Fr. vin (represented below by en), and nasalized o as in Fr. bon (represented by on). (They are rather more frequent in TFC than in French, as they occur both before and after nasal consonants.) This makes a total of 10 vowels:


as in pa

'not; through'

vowel similar to that in Fr.



as in




as in

'can; quiet'



as in pi




as in




as in po




as in pu

'for; louse'



as in ban



as in ben



as in bon


TFC has all the consonants of the Fr. system apart from the semi-consonant found at the beginning of Fr. huit, and three that French lacks, viz. tch (as in English church), dj (as in English judge) and h; e.g.






'to pull'

The articulation of the 23 consonants is similar to that in French, except for the sound represented by the letter r, which is pronounced more weakly than its French counterpart and becomes w in certain circumstances, e.g. before the vowel u in wuj 'red'.

Differences between French words and their TFC equivalents are often the result of phonetic developments in TFC (e.g. the tendency towards a typical 'consonant + vowel' syllable structure, which leads to the loss of consonants at the end of syllables, as in maché from Fr. marcher), and the result of the forms in use when French was brought to the West Indies (e.g. the pronunciation of what in modern French is spelled oi and pronounced 'wa', hence TFC mwen 'I, me, my' where French has moi).

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TFC grammar is very different from that of French. Here are some examples of this.

Nouns are not marked for number:

yon chuval

'a/one horse'

dé chuval

'two horses'

The plural may be (but is no necessarily) indicated by the article:

bagay la

'the thing'

sé bagay la

'the things'

There is no grammatical gender:

While there are some pairs of nouns distinguishing the sex of human beings, e.g.


'man with fair complexion and frizzy hair'


'woman with fair complexion and frizzy hair'

there is no such lexical distinction for animals: bef is the term for a cow, a bull or an ox, and chat can be a male or a female cat. It is possible to indicate the sex of an animal by adding manman or fimèl to indicate the female of the species, papa or mal the male, but nouns referring to things, ideas etc. have no gender. As a result of this, and of the lack of grammatical marking of number, -

Adjectives are invariable, e.g.

yon bon ripa

'a good meal'

yon bon listwè

'a good story'

anpil bon listwè

'a lot of good stories'

yon bel nonm

'a handsome man'

yon bèl fanm

'a beautiful woman'

Articles behave rather differently from French.

There are two basic forms:

1. yon/on 'a, one', placed before the noun, e.g.

yon tab   'a table'

2. la 'the', placed after the noun, e.g.

tab la    'the table'

The plural may be indicated by combining la with placed before the noun, e.g.

sé tab la    'the tables'.

There is a large number of examples in TFC which, to anyone who knows French, seem to consist of a noun preceded by the definite article, but are in fact cases of what is known as agglutination, where what looks like the definite article has become an integral part of the noun, e.g.



lajan la

'the money'



laklé la

'the key'

Personal pronouns are as follows:


'I, me, my'


'we, us, our'


'you (sing.), your'


'you (plur.), your'


'he, him, his, she, her, it, its'


'they, them, their

As is evident from this list, pronouns do not vary according to the function they fulfil in the sentence, e.g.

mwen chanté

'I sing'

u enmen mwen

'you love me'

papa mwen

'my father'

Verbs are invariable, i.e. do not have endings to indicate person or tense, e.g.

mwen chanté

'I sing, sang'

zòt chanté

'you (plur.) sing, sang'

li ké chanté

'he/she will sing'

There is, however, a complex system of particles which precede the verb to indicate tense and aspect:

li ka jwé

'he/she is playing'

li té jwé

'he/she (had) played'

li té ka jwé

'he/she was playing'

li ké/kae jwé

'he/she will play'

li sé jwé

'he/she would play'

Word order is fixed: e.g.

  • There is no inversion for questions, which are signalled only by a change in intonation: u las with falling intonation is equivalent to 'you are tired', whereas with a rising intonation it is 'are you tired?'.

  • The negative particle pa appears before the verb, e.g.
    • u pa vlé alé lekòl    'you don't want to go to school'
  • The verbal particles listed above also precede the verb. Moreover, if they are combined, as in one of the examples, the order is fixed: té ka, never *ka té.


Most of the features described seem to imply that the grammar of TFC is simpler than that of French. However, the verbal system outlined above is not simpler, it is just different; and there are aspects of TFC grammar which are more complex than French. For example, where French and English have only one verb 'to be', TFC has three, distinguishing three different functions: e.g.

Nonm la vyé. (no overt verb)

'The man is old'

Tig sé yon bèt fewòs.

'Tiger is a fierce animal.'

Sa sa yé?

'What is that?'



and their (fairly literal) translations

Ravèt pa ni rezon duvan pul.
'Cockroach is not in the right before the fowl.'

Krab ki pa ka maché pa ka vini gra.
'A crab who doesn't walk doesn't get fat.'

Tan chat pa la, rat ka bay bal.
'When Cat isn't there, the rats have a party.'

Tan bab kamarad u pwi difé, wuzé sla u.
'When your friend's beard catches fire, put water on yours.'

Sé pa pu palé larivyè mal, wòch anba ka tann.
'One mustn't speak ill of the river, the stones below [can] hear.'

Sé mizè ki fè makak manjé piman.
'It's poverty that makes Monkey eat hot peppers.'