Growing up as a Trinidadian-American wasn’t always easy, even in a diverse city like New York.
Although I was born in the United States, I didn’t realize how much the way my family and I spoke stood out until elementary school. I would write sentences, mostly in English but every now and then I’d use a Trinidadian word. I began to realize certain words I used at home with my family had no place in the classroom.
Sometimes I was told some of my words were not real words, leaving me confused. People were curious and wanted to know why my family “looked Indian” yet spoke only English and why our English was so strange, a question I had no idea how to begin answering. I heard others say that Trinidad’s dialect was actually ‘broken English,’ which made me want to speak in an acceptable way.
Why would anyone want to speak a language that others referred to as broken anyway? My parents explained that I needed to refrain from using Trinidadian terms and phrases outside of our home because it just wasn’t appropriate or proper. I started to feel embarrassed whenever I did speak the dialect of my culture, and so I avoided speaking Trinidadian most of the time eventually dropping my accent and forgetting terms and words that were once so familiar to me. For years that followed, whenever someone asked why my family members spoke that way, I’d explain it away as ‘broken English.’ And I never thought much about it. It wasn’t until I started to explore Trinidad’s history on my own that I came to realize, writing off Trinidadians as a group of people who incorrectly spoke English was a disservice to them and myself, and also completely wrong.
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Here’s a little history for you, Trinidad and Tobago changed many hands over the years. It was owned by the French, Spanish, and British before becoming fully Independent in 1962. Because of this, Trinidad is diverse and is even referred to as the “Rainbow Island.”
Unfortunately, diversity is mostly due to slavery and indentured servants. African slaves were brought to Trinidad over the centuries. Slavery was abolished in 1833 and slaves were fully emancipated in 1838. As a result, shortly after, Indian indentured workers were brought over in 1845 to solve plantation owners’ need for cheap labor. Indian indentured servants among other laborers from around the world were brought to Trinidad over the years thereafter. African and Indian descendants still make up a huge part of the population today, while the island boasts a wide range of ethnicities, religions and cultures and its language is a reflection of that.
Although Trinidadian English is the official language, Trinidadian Creole is what is mostly spoken. It’s a combination of African, Indian, and English. It also has influences from the French. Trinidadian culture is also influenced by Chinese and Venezuelan immigrants who make up a small percentage of the population. So as it turns out, Trinidad’s language isn’t broken English, it’s a unique language with a complex story behind it. If we just dig a little deeper, it’s apparent. For example, the word ‘Fete’ used in Trinidad to describe a party is from the French term. And the word ‘vex’ to describe feeling frustrated is from the British language. African inspired terms like ‘Jumbi’ to describe a ghost or entity of some kind, is commonly used in Trinidad as well.
With further research, I discovered that my ancestors were from India. Indian customs, culture, and food have a huge influence on Trinidad and its language. Although my parents and the rest of my family are not familiar with the language of our ancestors, a lot of the phrases and words in Hindi survived and are apart of the Trinidadian language. Words like ‘aloo’ (potato), ‘Nani’ (Grandmother), and ‘Dulahin’ (new bride/wife).
Today when someone asks about my culture—our food, music, or the way we speak—I now have a lot more to say. Although for so long I felt left out of the Asian narrative, knowing that my descendants are Indian and a part of the story of Trinidad, makes me feel more connected and open to learning about my roots both in Trinidad and India. I feel like I finally have the missing piece to the puzzle. Although a lot of people describe the way Trini’s speak as very “sing-songy” or speaking English incorrectly, there is a lot more behind it.
I personally no longer use the term “broken English” to describe anyone’s language, instead, I take a moment to appreciate how much history may be behind their words, phrases, and sayings. And now that I’m a mother, I often hear my daughter say phrases she has learned from my father. I do not ask her to refrain, instead, I simply explain that we speak both English and Trinidadian. Eventually, I will have to explain that in school she will be asked to speak and write in English, but it’s not because speaking Trinidadian is wrong. Passing down Trinidadian customs, food, and culture is important because it is a representation of all of the many people that make up Trinidad and it’s evolution. But our language gets overlooked as an important part of our history. When slaves, indentured servants, and laborers were brought to Trinidad, they left a lot behind. A lot was lost including the language of many. A new language was a result of that, and it’s not broken, it’s how we put ourselves back together. It’s how we combined many cultures and ethnicities during some very difficult times and transitions. With every phrase or word, a story is being told. “Rainbow Island” has a colorful and important story to tell.
Although most of my family now lives in the United States, knowing everything that I have learned now makes me appreciate all that my family and ancestors had to overcome.