A Transnational “J’Ouvert” Kòmès

Baré Yo? Baré Yo!

Screenshot of Tout Bagay Patwa Episode 3 – Annou Palé Kamboulé – Let’s Talk Camboulay (Kambulé) 2021, from https://youtu.be/Zzvf75TlIU?t=3047, presented by Nnamdi Hodge. They lyrics of Roaring Lion’s 1935 Chorus, “Jouvé, baré yo, pa lévé lamen asou yo” (“It’s J’Ouvert, block them, don’t hit them) were transcribed and translated by Nnamdi Hodge.

We do not (yet) know the origin of the idea behind the naming of “J’Ouvert Rum”, whether national or foreign or both. If it is correct that the US Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) shows that under Translations, “The wording ‘J’OUVERT’ has no meaning in a foreign language”, we are here to respond to this claim, to consider the reactions of many in Trinidad & Tobago to the new brand name, and to propose the officialisation and adoption of our own standard spellings.

Consideration 1 – What are the Languages of T&T?

Our first consideration is the actual linguistic makeup of Trinidad and Tobago, assumed to be “English-speaking” or “Anglophone”. This is not the reality, not for speakers, not for signers. We are English-official. The Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago: On Historial Principles (the DE/CTT) represents three (3) of the spoken Languages of Wider Communication (LWC) in Trinidad and Tobago, namely, the official language English, and the two national languages, Tobagonian English Creole (TobEC) and Trinidadian English Creole (TrinEC). The Dictionary includes all words that have been absorbed into these three (3) languages, including those from various other linguistic sources besides English. All three languages share a great deal of vocabulary and so can share the same dictionary (the DE/CTT), as words move freely from one language to the next (English itself being a classic example of a borrowing language). The fact is that these three spoken languages are in daily use, and two of them are not English, but live in the shadow of English because of history, education and policies. 

For a long time, speakers of these two English Creoles (and others) have denied that their own speech constitutes a language, calling them instead “bad English”. Issues of linguistic and sociolinguistic identity continue to arise in the face of formal education in English and in the face of travel overseas. (French Creole or Patois, the second language of the Caribbean, and once the Language of Wider Communication across all of Trinidad, is now distant enough for many Trinbagonians to have begun to recognise that Patois is, of course, a language. It is still often called “broken French”, but it is no more that than French is “broken Latin”.) Our languages are our intangible cultural heritage (and our intellectual property), with much to tell us about our past and present.

We have at least two polar-opposite, contradictory and conflicting approaches. Both are acts of sociolinguistic (and sometimes financial) expediency. 

One approach is the English-first/English-only reaction, which is to indignantly and insecurely deny the linguistic nature of these two Creoles. This often happens when required to do expensive English as Foreign Language (EFL) tests such as IELTS (UK) or TOEFL (US) for entry into foreign English-speaking universities, or to write the UWI English Language Proficiency Test (ELPT). This reaction is one of horror: “How dare they tell me I am not a native speaker of English when all my education has been in English?” (or some choice words).

The other approach is the English Creole-first, English-second reaction, which is to nationalistically and confidently embrace the Creoles by claiming our English Creoles as our mother tongues. To put English Creole first means that English is not rejected per se, but qualifies as a non-home, second or foreign home language for those of us who are non-native speakers of English. Some have used this approach, stating that English is foreign to them, so as to avoid having to meet “further” foreign language requirements at overseas universities. We must then logically accept those expensive EFL tests to enter university programmes overseas. 

Bilingualism is indeed the reality for many, and not all language attitudes are as polarised as described above here. Multilingualism, by the way, is normal and healthy across the globe, except that somehow competence in languages without socioeconomic prestige ridiculously doesn’t seem to count as a basis for “good” multilingualism.

The bottom line is that, with the English-first or English-only approach, a) we cannot disagree that the word J’Ouvert (which belongs to the ever-borrowing English too) has “no meaning in a foreign language”, and b) we cannot claim that J’Ouvert belongs to “our native language(s)” (English Creole and French Creole), and then turn around and say that the ways that we speak aren’t languages.

It is time for Trinbagonians to recognise the two English Creoles, not just rejoice (or even be resentful) when a foreigner appears to recognise us, or riot when another foreigner appears to “appropriate” a word/phrase that many see as a national emblem or icon or linguacultural rich point (Roland Joseph at UWI, St Augustine has been doing a fine study on T&T’s linguistic rich points).

Consideration 2: The Word J’Ouvert and Its Usage in More than Three (3) Languages

Our second consideration is the linguistic origin, meaning and use of the word(ing) J’Ouvert. This word has had meaning for over a century in two or more “foreign” languages, including BOTH English Creole and French Creole (which we know here by its autonym and proper name Patois, not “patois”). 

We note that the rum branding and blurb appear to acknowledge the word’s origins as Antillean Creole French (sic) as if that is a dead language even here. The branding seems to ignore the word’s continued usage in that living language and in English Creoles, all “foreign”, as in not English.

French Creole (Patois) is the immediate source of the word (not French, as often claimed). Jou Ouvè is a literal French Creole translation (calque) of words from several West African languages, including Wolof and Malinke, which have also given us Day Clean and Fore-Day Morning in English Creoles, meaning Dawn or Daybreak. The meaning of our Word of the Day (Break) in the DE/CTT is “The official beginning of Carnival, at daybreak on the Monday preceding Ash Wednesday” (2008:473). See also Gertrud Aub-Buscher’s online Trinidadian French Creole dictionary (in progress). 

From Winer’s 2008 DE/CTT, page 473 – every home and office should have one!

This spelling, J’Ouvert, is an etymological, now archaic and non-standard, rendition of Jouvè (also spelt Jouvert, Jourvert, Jour Ouvert, Jou Ouvert, Jou Ouvé, Jouvay, Jouvet over time). These etymological, archaic spellings are recorded over 40 times in the trilingual historical Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago, edited by Lise Winer (2008). Winer chose Jouvay above as the head word to reflect a more English Creole and English spelling and pronunciation (as in bay, day, say). (See Grenada’s Jouvay Chocolate, and also Jouvert Junkiez, and a number of J’Ouvert Bands and celebrations.)

For information’s sake, the modern standardised spellings are used in other varieties of French Creole (foreign): “Dominica jouvè, Grenada jouvé, Guadeloupe jou rouwè, Haiti jou louvri, Martinique jou ouvè, St Lucia jou ouvè (Andrei A. Avram 2020). 

So J’Ouvert came from French Creole, still belongs to French Creole, came into English Creole, and into English (see Allsopp’s 2003 Dictionary of Caribbean Usage, and Collins Online English Dictionary (2021, with an incorrect etymology and pronunciation – nobody says /ʒuːvɛət/). So J’Ouvert HAS meaning in TWO languages other than English, therefore “foreign languages” (giybf.com and giyf.com).

Trademark away, but lose that false “linguistic” claim, and fellow citizens, claim our languageS.

Consideration 3: Standardisation and Officialisation

Our third and final consideration of the word J’Ouvert and its many archaic, non-standard spellings (above) is for us to accept and learn the formal French Creole/Patois spelling(s) of this word, namely Jouvè for Patois speakers and Jouvé for non-Patois speakers.

French Creole varieties are already standardised across the entire Caribbean (including Venezuela) and French Guiana and Brazil. Haiti has made the Haitian language official for its 11.3 million people plus those in the diaspora, and St Lucia is on its way to do the same. English Creoles, besides the ones in Suriname, must follow this route.

Our Patois Alphabet (based on Standard GEREC-1, now upgraded to GEREC-3) shows us how to spell French Creole/Patois words, like kòmès (traditionally spelt commesse)

As Professor Emeritus Hubert Devonish noted, “As we loudly express our views on the matter, as exploited and culturally appropriated victims of US arrogance and dominance in our region, let us consider what we can do as authors of our own fate and captains of our own sailing, not sinking ships. We can agitate to have Tobagonian English Creole and Trinidadian English Creole recognised as official languages of this country [and other Caribbean languages for other Caribbean territories and countries], accept standard writing systems for them which should be taught in schools and used in public signage. At that point of official recognition, no one will be able to proclaim that J’Ouvert [or any other word] has “no meaning in a foreign language.” Until then, we can retaliate in another way. We can accept the standard way of writing the word, its proper spelling of Jouvè in French Creole, its language of origin, for use in public. We can leave others with something that is clearly false [namely, the antiquated, Frenchified and incorrect spelling and any sensational non-standard spellings], and inappropriate etymology of the word, to have fun with.”

Right now, Shad Seaton has an excellent proposal for a standard orthography – a great place to start. Whether Standard English Creole is to use its own spelling system or allow Standard French Creole spellings as well is a topic for future discussion.

National and CARICOM language policies are the clear way forward, guided by the 2011 Charter on Language Policy and Language Rights in the Creole-speaking Caribbean.

Roaring Lion’s J’ouvert Barrio (Jouvé Baré Yo) of 1935 – Spelling Patois right would help us see through the calypso lyrics more clearly (“Barrio” means nothing in Patois). But do English speakers outside of the Caribbean understand this trilingual song with its French Creole and English Creole lyrics? No! Foreign to them!

So, Kaiso, Kaiso! The Roaring Lion sings! It’s Jouvé – Block Them, Don’t Hit Them!

P.S. When it comes to language issues, check The Linguists. You know, like checking The Lawyers for legal issues… Legal linguists, come forth!

P.P.S. Nnamdi Hodge reminds us that ‘j’ouvert’ is the general common noun, known across the Atlantic and Antillean French Creole-speaking world, and J’Ouvert, the specific proper noun is Carnival and Kamboulay-related.

Special thank you to Hubert Devonish for invaluable feedback.

Disclaimer: This blog entry is written in English because I felt like it.

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