Creole: Just Another Patois?
Reflections on French Patois and Caribbean
(and other) Creoles

Jean-Samuel Sahaï

Port Mathurin
Port Mathurin, Rodrigues, July 2006. Photo F.P.

On the islands under French influence like Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Lucia, Dominica, St. Martin, St. Barts, Marie-Galante, Les Saintes, Désirade, French Guiana... or Mauritius, Seychelles, Reunion Island... nearly all the population speaks a form of French-based Creole as their first language... All these people can understand each other! In countries under English influence, Creole has less standing, although there are Creolized forms of English...

A person cannot be called a patois. But you can be a creole, no matter your racial origin.

Patois is a French word meaning a regional or very local language. A French synonym of 'un patois' is 'un parler'.

All French regions like Picardie, Jura, Savoie, Provence, or Aveyron just to cite a few, have their patois or parler, sometimes disappearing, sometimes being revived. The people of Québec in Canada have kept the language and accents of the time they left France, as have the Louisiana Cajun descendents.

Their old French is a preciously preserved ancestral tongue like Sanskrit in Bali, remote Tamil Nadu village speech in the French West Indies, or Bhojpuri in Guyana. It is not just "bad language".

Creole and its many varieties, also evolved as a patois on the overseas plantations of Europe. It is the common language emanating from the culture of people who have evolved in a Creole environment when French masters living far from France adopted their life style during the time they had African slaves and later indentured Indians and Chinese laborers.

Many Creole phrases can be retrieved by creolist linguists from old parlers of various French regions. This is one of the reasons why when a Guadeloupean meets a Reunionese or Mauritian person they soon manage to understand each other totally, all the while being charmed by the inflexions of each other and enjoying it profusely...

Incredible indeed, when you realize they live a whole piece of the planet apart!

This is a unique, universal, amazing phenomenon.

International Creole conferences will take place anywhere between Seychelles, Reunion, or Martinique and Guadelooupe, St Lucia or Dominica could take part in such conferences, they should. The Creole heritage of these two formerly French islands is also incommensurable.

As for Haiti, one of the biggest Creole speaking countries of the planet, it has always maintained Creole as an institution.

It is not wrong to call the people's language of the Anglophone islands their patois. It is our creole patois that has made it possible for so many Dominicans to make a living in Guadeloupe and so many St. Lucians in Martinique.

Through this procedure many of them eventually became French citizens...

It's just the patois-speaking people cannot be called patois, but instead Patois-speaking, or Creole, in reference to the precise Patois we are dealing with here.

Yes, the word creole has carried many meanings in the course of time. It still keeps some of them, like a white person born in the islands, or their descendents...

Again, Creole is not a black African culture, Creole living is not a life style of Black people in Trinidad & Tobago or Guyana as some may think, although part of its grammatical originality, for instance, is definitely African.

Besides many varieties of French, the creativity of Creole also stems from words, grammar forms or inflexions taken or adapted from Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Tamil, English and many other languages. This too, has to be emphasized.

Creole deserves some exploration and a lot can be done on the internet through search engines like Google.

Creole literature - essays, poetry or novels alike - both in French and Creole, is penned by people of all colors and bloods, it is outstanding.

Many foreign residents learn Creole while staying in the islands, because it takes them from broomstick strictness and stiffness to sharing the swinging, enjoyable, easy-going lifestyle of the islands. It is most regrettable that a large number of West Indians who left the islands to live in other countries like continental France gave up the language and will not transmit it to their offspring.

One reason for this may be because for long time the Creole patois was considered a handicap to proper education à la Française - an obstacle to learning good French, and bad manners of uneducated “country” people, moun la kanpangn.


Fortunately, just when you thought it would have disappeared, Creole is making a come back in force. Its grammatical structures and vocabulary has been standardized - although its creativity continues to challenge any permanent codification - and is being taught in schools as a means of preserving its rich heritage.

How can you separate a culture from the language its thrives in!

Nowadays in Guadeloupe and Martinique, Creole can be heard freely during any program on radio and television channels, official or not, along with perfect French, and not as a separate entity. In St. Lucia and Dominica, entire programs, speeches, and books have been produced in this language. This indeed is the best reflection of real life in our islands.

When Indian indentured laborers, the jahajis (people of the ship) as they are called in some places like Trinidad - or coolies as they were called not without disdain in the French West Indies - arrived to Guadeloupe from so many parts of India and they spoke a variety of languages and village vernaculars, they quickly resorted to grabbing the language spoken by the masters and former slaves to communicate.

The impact of this flexibility on the harmony of our population today has been no less than precious.

In the same vein, in the culinary domain, the Colombo dish itself, considered the "national" dish of Guadeloupe and Martinique by Indians and non-Indians alike is a Creole production born of the encounter of peoples from diverse areas of India each contributing their kolbu (a tamil word), curries, medicinal plants, culinary secrets..., and freely given it to the whole: sharing being indeed a basic trait of Creole culture.

One cannot ignore Creole.

Especially if you are a strict Anglophone and haven't been able to access the huge mass of documentation on Creole available in French or Creole, you deserve to browse through this treasure cove.

So go for it! Lafcadio Hearn, among many other bright people, did so before you... and left the Indies so much the happier for it.

Jean-Samuel Sahai, August 2006.
Port Louis
Port Louis, Mauritius, July 2006. Photo F.P.


  • The internet offers dictionaries of hundreds of a variety of French patois, see -
  • Some French Creole dictionaries can be found here -
  • Some English Creole dictionaries here -
  • Raphael Confiant's interactive Creole-French dictionary is here -
  • Dictionnaire Kreol Renyoné / Français: Le Premier Traducteur Créole/Francais Francais/créole en Ligne sur Internet ! Base de données: Franswa Sintomer (spécialiste des traductions).