The Creole of Expedition: Part One, Setting the Stage and Asking the Question (Spiritwalker Monday 23)

When I began writing volume two in the Spiritwalker Trilogy, Cold Fire, I knew the plot would take my protagonist, Cat Barahal, to the Caribbean. Because the Spiritwalker books are a version of alternate history, I also knew that the 19th century Caribbean in this universe would have a different power dynamic from the 19th century Caribbean in our own world.

For one thing, in the Spiritwalker world the Americas were not colonized by the European powers. (As it happens, the European powers as we know them do not exist.) Among many other consequences, this meant that the Taino and other peoples who populated the Greater Antilles were *not* devastated by disease, forced labor, slavery, and various attempts to erase and subsume their cultures. They continued to expand and thrive.

I had already established (if not explicitly in book one then in my own notes) that a fleet from the beleaguered Empire of Mali had reached the Caribbean two centuries before the main story begins and founded up a settlement. With these refugees from Mali came also Phoenician sailors and merchants, and later they were joined by Roman sailors and merchants and immigrants as well as by Celtic immigrants, Iberian immigrants, and other people who had left Europa for one reason or another to make a new life elsewhere. Clutches of trolls, the feathered people, had migrated south from their ancestral homelands in North America.

Together these settlers had established Expedition Territory as a small autonomous territory within (and with the permission of and through a treaty with) the greater Taino empire, which I decided had by this time absorbed all the islands greater and lesser of the Caribbean.

In the Spiritwalker world, Europans refer to the area as the Antilles rather than the Caribbean. I used Antilles in preference to Caribbean because I felt it would be more clear to readers that the cultures they would meet here would not be the same as the cultures many in the USA and elsewhere most often refer to as “the Caribbean.” The word Antilles has its own long history, and with a Latin (Romance language) based etymology and what is possibly an origination in old Iberia, it fit well enough the altered history.

However, it also made sense to me that, given the several centuries’ separation and with the slow sea travel of the time and with a different blend of languages present within Expedition, the speech of the people in Expedition would be noticeably different than the speech Cat had grown up with in her own home city of Adurnam.

I don’t talk about this in the text (and I realize that it is contradiction regardless because I am writing in English), but in Adurnam *theoretically* the basic Latin foundation of the common language is heavily influenced by local Celtic and Bambara dialects with elements of Phoenician blended in. Cat also speaks a modern version of the Punic dialect that would have developed in Qart Hadast (Carthage) and later adapted to Gadir (Cadiz) where the Hassi Barahal family has made its base for many generations, but I never had time to deal with her multi-lingual capabilities because it doesn’t really come up in the story. She would also have studied a “schoolbook” form of Latin which would be known among all literate people and which would be in general use for correspondence. This “formal Latin” is the foundation for the common trade language.

My assumption had to be that many people who live in cities speak more than one language and understand multiple dialects as a matter of course, and that villages who are governed by legal clientage to a mage House or princely clan will have at least some members of the village who can speak their masters’ language as well as communicate with outsiders and people passing through in a local pidgin version of the trade language. Only in the most isolated villages would you find monolingual people, and even then there would surely be peddlers who came through periodically bringing with them goods, stories, and bits and pieces of the outside world in the form of scraps of a more cosmopolitan language.

Regardless, once Cat reached Expedition it was clear she would hear a language that she could partly understand but which would sound very different to her ear. Even if I presupposed (as I did) that in the Antilles Latin had retained its place as the basis for the common trade language with a strong Phoenician secondary influence, the other secondary influencing languages would be present in different proportions. In Expedition, Celtic dialects would be weak while a variant of what is Bambara in our world would be strong. Additionally, because the dominant culture in the region is the Taino Empire, the language of the Taino would certainly have made its mark on the language that developed in Expedition even if it did not replace it, and many people would speak both the creole and “standard Taino” as a matter of necessity.

As I worked on Cold Fire, I had to face this crucial 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?

Using a creole would create several significant problems.

One, of course, is simply the extra effort for a reader who is not familiar with the creole to read and parse (for example) “dat is di way dem chat” as opposed to “that is the way they talk.” There is a certain amount of learning curve to get comfortable with the vocabulary, grammar, and rhythm of a creole, and that is a lot to ask of a reader.

Second, writing dialogue in a dialect or creole that one is not intimately familiar with is difficult to pull off and easy to do poorly. It may come across as insulting and appropriative, as awkward or demeaning. It may seem to some readers that the speakers of the creole are being made to look ignorant and ill-educated because they are not using grammar “correctly” (although they are in fact using a streamlined grammar rather than standard grammar because a creole has a functional grammar and is not a marker of ignorance or stupidity).

For these reasons, I was extremely hesitant to try to use a creole for the local speech in Expedition. 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 could I possibly write a creole that would feel authentic within the text and would not be disrespectful to indigenous speakers of creoles?

Set against those objections there rose answering responses.

Cat is a visitor to Expedition, not a local. What she hears will sound different to her ear. If I simply wrote people talking the same way she did, the story and her experience would lose much of the sense of being a truly different place from where she grew up. Instead of a foreign city, it would just be her city with a different backdrop. While that would be the safe choice, it would also be the blandest and weakest choice. And it would be disrespectful in a different way.

The actual historical presence and importance to literature, music, culture, religion, and history of the many Caribbean creoles must not be ignored. The Caribbean is a vibrant and vital cultural sea. To not even give a nod to the reality of the Caribbean we know in our world simply because it would be hard to do so seemed wrong to me. As disrespectful and appropriative as it can be to hamfootedly write clunky bad dialogue with precious dialect-isms, it seemed more disrespectful to me to erase the existence of creole altogether.

I knew that, regardless, Cat’s experiences in Expedition would be filtered through her point of view, her limited knowledge, and her presence there as a foreigner. That gave me a little leeway.

In the end, I decided I had to use *a* creole.

My answer was to use not an extant creole–which I could not pull off–but to create a creole for the Antilles of the Spiritwalker world that would echo and draw from the English-dominant creoles of our Caribbean but would have its own blend of borrowed words, rhythms, and grammar and one furthermore influenced by the Taino language and empire that surrounds Expedition Territory.

Does the creole in Cold Fire work? I don’t believe that is my question to answer. For some readers it will work; others will find it problematic or annoying. I did my best, that’s all I can say for sure.

In retrospect, looking back, I would do it again the same way. Not because I think I did it well (or not well) or even necessarily right but because I did what I felt I had to do to make the culture of Expedition feel like a real place with its own history and set of traditions, a culture that has developed over time because of the particular circumstances of its founding, setting, and development.


Link to the second part of The Creole of Expedition: Part Two, Defining and Creating a Creole (Spiritwalker Monday 13).