Trinidad Yoruba - From Mother Tongue to Memory
(University of Alabama Press, 1996)
By Maureen Warner-Lewis
Maureen Warner-Lewis sets out to describe the West African
language of Yoruba as it it used in Trinidad.
The Yoruba nation represents one of the largest ethnicities in
sub-Saharan Africa. More than 10 million Yoruba people live in
south-eastern Nigeria today and some 400,000 also live in Benin and Togo.
Trinidad Yoruba is divided into three parts. Part One gives the reader
the historical background and socioliguistic behaviour of the Yoruba
of Trinidad. In doing so, an outline is made of the Yoruba people/language
and transatlantic slavery, as well as an intergenerational assessment of
attitudes towards the language.
This section also details the names of places and rituals which carry
Yoruba titles - The Mafumbo stickyard in Belmont, and the female
name Ayegboro, for example.
Warner-Lewis asserts that many of the Africans who landed in Trinidad
between 1840 and 1867 came not as slaves but as immigrant indentured
laborers, a fact supported by oral as well as documentary evidence.
In a sense, they represented an exiled community not unlike immigrants
who were capable of retaining aspects of their culture and language.
Many studies of Caribbean social history labour too heavily under the
misconception that Africans in the region were deprived of their
language/culture by slave laws and the plantation system.
Warner-Lewis argues that these inimical conditions might well have
led to the retention of this African language. Her study occupies a
unique position. Apart from George Simpson's "The Shango Cult in Trinidad",
little or no attention has been paid to Yoruba language and its survival in Trinidad.
Her work is similar to that of an archaeologist; instead of picks and
brushes though, Warner-Lewis employs sociolinguistic techniques
to unearth a language which still exists in the somewhat fossilized
form of Shango songs and rituals.
In fact, Orisha worship - part of a spiritual belief system combining
Catholicism with Yoruba deities - still contains a large vocabulary of
Yoruba phrases and words.
In Part Two,a detailed examination is made of the Linguistic structures
of Trinidad Yoruba such as its phonology, syntax and lexicon.
The most contentious aspect of the work appears to be in Part 3
which is entitled The Dialectics of Obsolescence and
Creolization". Here, she revisits the themes of the "radical death" of
a language as opposed to its (preferred) "linguistic obsolescence" - the state
into which Trinidad Yoruba is alleged to have fallen.
Apart from its heavy sociolinguistic jargon, Trinidad Yoruba is both pioneering and courageous.
It takes courage to proclaim anything of an Afro-centric nature,
besieged as we are by Satellite TV, CNN, and a culture which is
allergic to things African.
Thanks to the life-support machine of Shango rituals and songs
Yoruba still lives on.
To those performing premature autopsies: beware!
Language and premature autopsies