As I worked on Cold Fire, I asked myself this question: Do I use a creole to represent the local language of Expedition or do I write people’s speech to be indistinguishable from Cat’s own?
There’s a lot more about how and why I asked and answered the question in Part One, which you can find here.
Ultimately I decided to use a creole to represent the speech of Expedition. At this point I had to ask myself a second question: Given that I am not a native speaker of nor intimately familiar with any of the actual Caribbean creoles spoken today or in historical times, how do I write a creole that will seem authentic within the text without being a clumsy imitation or offensive parody of actual creoles?
Let me first give a couple of quick definitions.
Oxford Dictionaries defines a pidgin as “a grammatically simplified form of a language, used for communication between people not sharing a common language. Pidgins have a limited vocabulary, some elements of which are taken from local languages, and are not native languages, but arise out of language contact between speakers of other languages.”
A creole, on the other hand, is “a mother tongue formed from the contact of two languages through an earlier pidgin stage.” (I would add “two or more” because that was certainly the case in Hawaii. Lest you wonder, Hawaiian Pidgin is a creole.)
A dominant culture: Taino.
My friend and fellow writer Katharine Kerr has done a great deal of research in linguistics (her Deverry epic fantasy series is a superb example of what you can do with language in a fantasy sequence that spans hundreds of years), so I asked for her advice. We both knew I could not possibly replicate any of the existing or historical Caribbean creoles and, in any case, given that the Spiritwalker Trilogy posits an extremely alternate history, the actual historical creoles would not fit regardless.
She suggested that I devise a creole unique to Expedition
Kerr wrote, “The dominant language in any creole is that of the dominant culture. What is your dominant culture?”
The city of Expedition was founded by a Malian fleet supplemented by Phoenician navigators and sailors. The fleet’s chief language would be a variant of modern day Bambara with some Punic loan words. But any trans-Atlantic trade and intercourse with Europa would be heavily influenced by the presence of Latin as the lingua franca (trade language) of continental Europa. However, because Expedition is a small territory on the island of Kiskeya (Hispaniola), the regional dominant culture in which it exists would that of the Taino because the Antilles (Caribbean) in this alternate universe is ruled by the Taino.
Therefore the first thing I decided was that a number of Taino words and phrases would be present as part of the every day language. These would be reinforced (insofar as I could) with elements of Taino culture that would have become part of the society of Expedition in that way cultures adapt, adopt, and blend to become something unique to a specific place. I could only pick a couple of things to give Taino names lest the plethora of new words become overwhelming for the reader, so besides words we already use in English that are of Taino derivation such as hurricane, hammock, and papaya, I highlighted Taino elements which would matter to the plot.
Taino words that are part of Expedition’s creole include:
opia (spirit of an ancestor)
areito (dance, song, or festival)
batey (ceremonial plaza often associated with a local version of the ball game that was known throughout the Caribbean and Central American region). As an historical note I should mention that in the Dominican Republic the word batey came to mean the company towns associated with sugar cane fields and processing.
cemi (a sacred object)
behique/behica (shaman)(also used as meaning a fire mage)
cacique/cacica (chief; ruler; king/ female king of the same)
cobo (queen conch)
Some fish: pargo, cachicata, cajaya, anolis, carite, guinchos, barracudas
Bahama is a Taino place name. So possibly (likely) is Cuba (a shortened form of an older name), Habana, Boriken (Puerto Rico), and Kiskeya itself (the island we know as Hispaniola divided now into Haiti (from the Taino Ayiti) and the Dominican Republic).
The creole continuum.
However, the creole could not just be a peppering of words foreign to the English I was writing in. The creole as Cat heard it would have not just differences in vocabulary but differences in grammar, in word choice, and in the rhythms of its speech.
Fortunately through the miracle of the internet I had previously made the acquaintance of Dr. Fragano Ledgister, a professor at Clark Atlanta University and himself Anglo-Jamaican. In a similar way to Dr. Kustis Nishimura allowing me to pick his brains about the physics of cold magic and fire magic, Dr. Ledgister was exceedingly generous in answering my questions, offering insight both into language and into the Caribbean as he knows it, and it is really through his offices that I was able to develop the creole as it appears on the page.
As well, many details of the Caribbean are present because of things he shared with me, and while that is a subject for another post I will briefly mention that he introduced me to the many varieties of fruit commonly enjoyed on the islands that are not as well known elsewhere and which play such an important role in Andevai’s courtship of Cat.
Dr. Ledgister discussed the work of Mervyn Alleyne.
Alleyne’s classification of Jamaican English is that it operates at three levels: the hierolect, Standard Jamaican English, that differs from the international (British or American) standard primarily in terms of minor differences of vocabulary and usage. The mesolect, or generally understood creole, spoken by most people and heavily influenced by the standard language. The basilect, “di real raw-chaw Patwa” as my friend Hugh Martin put it, spoken by rural people and the less educated. Each level of language is going to be used in different social contexts.
Therefore there are three versions of the creole, an acrolect (the term that has replaced Alleyne’s hierolect), a mesolect, and a basilect.
Abby, on Salt Island, is a country gal. She speaks the basilect. She (and her brother, met on the airship) are the only people Cat encounters who speak the basilect. It is characterized by having a simpler grammar and more archaic elements. Besides including all the features of the mesolect, it drops linking verbs (except ‘shall’) and drops the “th” sound to “dat” and “di” and so on. Also, basilect speakers do not use past tense, only present tense (more on verb use below).
Almost all the people of Expedition speak the mesolect, the most common form that Cat hears. I’ll elaborate on its development below.
The acrolect is spoken by the most high status families in the old city of Expedition; technically, the Taino nobles speak the acrolect since they speak what might be termed “formal Latin”–that is, Taino who are not Expeditioners never speak in the creole. For instance, at the dinner party at townhouse in Expedition where General Camjiata is staying, the son of a Keita merchant house speaks mostly with “correct english” but ‘yee’ and ‘shall’ are still present in his speech.
People of Taino ancestry who are Expeditioners speak the creole the same as any other Expeditioners.
“Maku” (foreigners) are usually distinguished by not speaking the creole, although I allowed a few usages to creep into the speech of foreign-born residents of Expedition, most commonly the use of “gal” for “girl” or “woman,” the use of “yee” for “you,” and the generic use of “shall” as an all purpose verb (more on those below).
The building blocks.
I wanted to write a simplified creole that would not be too difficult for readers to parse or too distracting.
Dr. Ledgister pointed out that
A creole has a streamlined grammar because it starts out as a pidgin or lingua franca before becoming a birth tongue. (Pidgins combining a language of rule and vocabulary and grammar elements from several subordinate languages encourages simplicity.) It’s also liable to contain archaisms because it will retain terms from when it was first formed (Jamaican speech still has words last used in standard English in the 17th century, like peradventure).
With his help I focused on four elements (besides the presence of Taino words) to highlight which would thus distinguish the Expedition creole (in its mesolect form) from the language Cat speaks:
1. verbs and verb tenses
3. word choice (substitute words and archaisms)
4. speech rhythms
Simplifying grammar meant simplifying verb tenses. I need to emphasize that a simplified grammar used in a creole does not mean that the speakers of creole are ignorant, stupid, ill-educated, or demeaned; it is an element of the creole.
Dr. Ledgister: “One example of this is that verbs don’t decline. You have Abby say [in an early draft] “I does not like it that this man Drake, this maku, decides so quickly to make yee his sweet” where a Jamaican would say “Me doh like it dat dis man Drake decide so fas/ to make you his gyal” and a Trinidadian would say “Ah don’ like it dat dis man Drake decide so quick dat you his sweet girl.” My point here is that the verbs don’t decline.”
In the final published draft, Abby says, “I don’ like dat dis man Drake decide so quick to make yee he sweet gal.”
I came up with a simplified set of rules for myself to follow as I wrote:
1. Present tense should use the infinitive in all cases (without the “to” unless the “to” is called for). So: “we have” “he have” “you have”
2. While technically it should be “we be” and “you be,” I use “is” (because it is easier for speakers of standard English to read).
“I am” becomes “I’s.” “You are” becomes “you’s.”
We and they “is” depends but is often “We’s” or “they’s.”
“It is” and “It was” are contracted into “’tis” and “’twas”
3. Simple past works pretty much as in English.
I could have done more with the verbs but I figured that was enough.
Originally I had this challenging and exciting idea that the basilect (as spoken by Abby) would use Bambara pronouns to reflect the Malian ancestry of the majority of the early settlers in Expedition. But when I tried to write it, it just became impenetrable.
Instead I adapted the Bambara ‘you’–rendered as “i” (ee) in English transcription–by turning “you” into “yee.” Yee is used throughout all forms of the creole, my one hat tip to Bambara pronouns. I left all other subject pronouns the same as they are in American English.
Object pronouns I left generally the same, although on a case by case basis and depending on the rhythm of the sentence, the object pronoun could be replaced with the subject pronoun.
The possessive is generally replaced by the subject pronoun — “his book” becomes “he book” except in the case of “I” in which the object pronoun “me book” is used.
Word Choice (replacement words & archaisms):
Replacements words (words commonly used differently than we might use them):
GAL: “girl” (as in old enough to have sex) or “young woman” is always replaced by “gal” which becomes the local equivalent of an all-purpose term for girls/women in the general ages of 15 – late 20s.
Older people will usually refer to young adult males (ages circa 15 – 25, depending on the age of the older person) as “lad.” Young men refer to other young men as “men” and to young women their own age as “gals.” Young women, the same.
SHALL: this is an all purpose verb used where appropriate and often in place of verbs like “would” “ought” and so on.
DON’ : replaces “don’t” or “do not”
In general I tried to avoid “do” (and Abby, using the basilect, never uses “do”) but sometimes I left it in because it got too convoluted or hard to understand or choppy to take it out.
Instead of THINK people generally use RECKON
People use some older locutions and/or regional words like “peradventure” and “arseness.”
In case you are wondering where “arseness” comes from, here a quote from our correspondence: “I just grabbed my copy of (Richard) Allsopp and was struck as I opened it by the Trinidadian term “arseness” for “stupidity” (or as most West Indians would say “stupidness”), that’s worth using!” And indeed it was!
When I had all these things in place, the rhythm took care of itself.
The grammatical patterns, the pronouns, and the adapted words themselves began to structure how people spoke. Once that happened, the rhythm of their speech took on a distinctive flavor and inflection. By the time I had finished writing Cold Fire, the people of Expedition had a way of speaking that sounded “natural” to my ear and that, more importantly, did not have the same rhythm as the speech used by Cat and other Europans.
There is a lot more detail I could go into but this post is already quite long. One of the best parts about corresponding with Fragano Ledgister was getting to read his anecdotes. [If you ever get a chance, ask him about meeting C. L. R. James.]
Not everyone will agree that the creole in Cold Fire works, nor need they do so. But for my part, considering it as an experiment and as a challenge for me as a writer, I felt good about the final result. Whatever else and no matter how it holds up, I am glad to have pushed myself past what I was comfortable attempting to write. In certain ways, making the effort was its own reward.