Column this week
My friends don’t know what tonaire means, a fact which I think is in itself deserving of my saying it. They also don’t know what malkedee, choof choof, lookanee or bassa bassa mean either. A friend of mine once told me a long and involved story of a co-worker that constantly – and obliviously – invited herself to after work limes where no one wanted her. “So she doh know that cockroach have no right in fowl party?” I’d replied. In between the belly bussing laughter and holding on to the table, chair and then the floor for support she responded, “What? But girl you real good! Just so you come up with that?” She was convinced I’d come up with the expression, right there, on the spot, such was my literary skill. No matter how much I told her it was a valid expression she didn’t believe me. She had never heard it before.
Now, I’m not speaking about my English friends or acquaintances from other countries not knowing our local parlance. And I’m not speaking of countrymen long in exile, Trinidadians and Tobagonians living in foreign countries for so long that our dialect has become their secondary language, so to speak. I’m writing about Trinbagonians – hard core, born and raised, pitch marble, suck penny cool, duck work to go beach Trinbagonians. Whenever I express disbelieve that they don’t know a word I’m using they either accuse me of a) making up the word/expression, b) say, “allyuh payol have allyuh own language, yes (maybe they’re right – a true payol would have said ‘own language, oui’) or c) say I’m from the bush and “tong people doh use dem words so”.
Now, I get this bush talk fairly regularly. I guess the purpose of this is to do what we Trinis – and I guess most people – like to do, that is, set up a them versus us scenario. We do it all the time – our little country is divided between Trinis vs. Tobagonians, South people vs. North, after the light house vs. before. It’s used to explain all sorts of differences, be they imaginary or real. I guess in my case it helps to pacify an ego that may feel as though its sense of nationality has been wounded or questioned. I don’t know. What I do know is that I didn’t grow up in no bush and that our words, expressions and sayings are a natural offshoot of our collective experience. Words like roti, nyam and j’ouvert are words that have transcended their origins to become fundamental to our vocabulary. No one thinks of them in terms of belonging to one race or sector of the country. They’re just a part of our language.
But what about words like tootoolbay, zanzifwaire and warap, approximated spellings of course. Why is it that when I call something caca poule or speak about not taking on work, school toute bagai few of my Trini friends know what I’m talking about? I’m not that old; I didn’t have that different an upbringing from everyone else. I went to a Catholic primary and secondary school; if anything, this experience should have led to me not knowing these words, the use of dialect in these institutions being frowned upon in favour of the Queen’s English.
I have an aunt who’s pretty good at understanding patois – but she was born and raised in Santa Cruz and is passionate about those things. I’m pretty sure she can transported to Martinique or St Lucia or any country where patois is spoken and would be able to carry on at least a rudimentary conversation. I don’t even know how to say good morning. I’ve always felt this to be a great fault on my part, to not know such an important part of our immediate history and I feel even worse when I think about my younger siblings and relatives who – unless for those raised in the Cruz of course – know even less than I do.
So I want to know the following. Does no one else make couyon mouth when a fellow Trini asks them to explain what toopi tambu is? Does anyone buss bamboo anymore? Am I the only one who knows what a zwill is? And am I the only one who finds this an alarming and sad indication of the state of things? Our language is so rich and unique and yet, as it is, it’s just a watered down version of what it used to be. Sure we have the Cote ci, Cote la dictionary (thanks John) but we need to do more. How about classes, radio programmes, newspaper serials even? How about a national campaign aimed at promoting an appreciation for what is essentially “we ting?” We have MTV to teach us the latest slang in the US but it seems our knowledge of our own language is dying. My word limit’s coming to an end so I guess I’d better bring the ranting to an end. Moi ca aller toute monde. And for those of you who don’t know what that means it translates, Everybody, I gone.