Carriacou Animal Stories

The telling of tales entertains and offers lessons in life. But beware the trickster spider or mischievous goat…

People on islands of the eastern Caribbean have a long and deep connection to and knowledge of the animals and plants around them. These animals include iguanas and smaller lizards, armadillos (tatou), opossums (manikou), numerous birds, and the domesticated animals that share their lives: pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle. Stories and proverbs use these animals to entertain and also convey life lessons, such as the appreciation that sometimes a goat is not just a goat!

Carriacou is the largest of the Grenadines, a string of islands in the eastern Caribbean between Grenada and St. Vincent. Over the years, a number of researchers have reported on the language, music, and broader culture of Carriacou people, including (more or less chronologically) Elsie Clews Parsons, Andrew Pearse, Alan Lomax, Donald Hill, Lorna McDaniel, and myself. We all collected or recorded folk tales, songs, anecdotes, and proverbs involving animals. Here are a few that I collected over the years, beginning in 1971–74 as a Peace Corps Volunteer at a middle school and later as a linguistic anthropologist.

A variety of Lesser Antillean French Creole, locally called Patwa, is still spoken, although mostly by older people. Despite the introduction of English and English Creole after the island changed hands in 1763, many words from French Creole are in daily use, even by people who don’t know the language. This includes place names, the names of plants and animals, and the ubiquitous sentence tag wi? (French oui?). I present the French Creole in the official Haitian orthography and include a word-to-word correspondence as well as a gloss.

The English-lexicon offerings are more difficult. Some are in a basilectal English Creole for which there is no “official” orthography; for these I have used a phonemically based spelling explained below. People sometimes also use a mesolectal register that is a bit more accessible to Standard English users; for this I have used traditional spelling and not provided a gloss. The registers differ mostly in grammar, not in pronunciation.

Carriacou people, like many elsewhere, have had a long and uneasy relationship with snakes. The snakes of Carriacou include a small “grass snake” (genus Mastigodryas); a tree boa (genus Corallus) locally referred to as Tèt-chen; and a large snake called the Kribo (Clelia) that may be related to the indigo snake of the southeastern United States.

Snakes, especially the Tèt-chen whose French Creole name refers to the way its head resembles that of a dog, often figure in fantastical beliefs and stories. Supposedly, the Tèt-chen can fly through the air; this belief may have roots in the way the snakes launch themselves from tree branch to tree branch. It and other snakes are accused of sneaking into houses and stealing milk from nursing mothers.

In this first story, recorded in 1984, a man tells of an encounter with an unspecified snake that causes the death of a tree. He told the story in a mesolectal register, so I have used conventional spelling with some notes in brackets where appropriate.

Yes, one day my brother and I went to the hill, eh?
So we went and study [look after] some cow.
Well after we went and finish studying the cow and thing [anting = plural],
give them water and bring them back and tie them, in feeding,
we was on our way back home.
Coming down a hill in a pasture, clear [open] pasture, we saw a snake.
So me brother run with the cutlass [machete],
and try to chop the snake.
But I was in front of him I didnt see the snake.
But he saw it and he tell me “look out!”
And as I could have turn back [turned around] to look at him,
I saw when he down [brought down] the cutlass on the snake,
And I heard something pass near my ears you know,
and I saw it was a piece of snake!
We turn around and we look, it was a big tree standing,
which they call a mapou [silk cotton] tree, a large tree,
and the head of the snake, as he cut it, it went straight fly,
it fly straight on the tree and the teeth stick to the tree,
he bite the tree like, you know?
And we took the cutlass and dig the head off,
you know where he stick we try to get the head off.
But it seems as though he had- he cross the skin [bark] of the tree
and take to the wood itself you know?
So it was a little bit hard to take the head off.
Anyway we dig and when we finally get it off,
we opening the mouth and test [tes’] it,
when say test examine it, and thing like that.
Well about a week after, we see all the leaves on the tree come [turn] yellow,
and in the space of a month the tree—everything fall out,
the leaves fall and the tree start getting dry, and he die.

In discussing this story, the teller mentioned that many people from outside Carriacou do not consider these snakes “poisonous” (i.e., venomous). I told him I had been interested in snakes for many years and was pretty sure they were harmless. His response was that I had not been collecting snakes in Carriacou all those years!

***

Goats are commonly raised for food in Carriacou, but this particular goat seems to have acquired some wanga (magic). The story was told by a middle school girl in 1982; it sounds almost like an anecdote that became a folk take. She told it in a basilectal English Creole, so I have written it out approximately as I wrote it for the school children to read, in a phonemically based spelling. Read the vowels as if they were Spanish, except that <e> = [ɛ], <ie> = [e], <o> = [ɔ], and <uo> = [o]. For the linguistically inclined, this reflects the fact that in this language, the phonemes /e/ and /o/ are prepalatalized and prerounded respectively, so that they are phonetically more like [ʲe] and [ʷo].

Wan die Dievid an Estel kom-owt in skul in Leste.
One day David and Estelle got out of L’Esterre school.

An di wie huom die pas an di bich an pik grieps.
On the way home they went on the beach to pick grapes

Wen die mit bay di grieps-tri die mit a big guot.
When they got to the grape trees they met a big goat.

Di guot sie: Du yu si lang byedz layk diz? Du yu si lang byedz layk diz?
The goat said: Do you see long beards like these? Do you see long beards like these?

Wen a kot am die guo wangaya. Wen a kot am die guo wangaya.
When I show them they’ll enchant you. When I show them they’ll enchant you.

Die ron ontil die mit in di kras in tong.
They ran until they got to the crossroads in town.

Den die mit di siem guot agen.
Then they ran into the same goat.

I sie: Du yu si big tit layk diz? Du yu si big tit layk diz?
He said: Do you see big teeth like these? Do you see big teeth like these?

Wen a kot am die guo wangaya. Wen a kot am die guo wangaya.
When I show them they’ll enchant you. When I show them they’ll enchant you.

Den die ron ontil die mit huom. Die fal-dong spichles in front di duo.
Then they ran until they got home. They fell down speechless before the door.

Den di granmoda rob dem dong wit spirit an laym
Then the grandmother rubbed them down with spirits and lime

an die tel shi wat apn.
and they told her what happened.

***

One animal that shows up in many folk tales from Carriacou and other parts of the West Indies is Anansi the trickster spider, hero of Ashanti folktales . Anansi is also known as Bre Nansi and, in French Creole, Konpè Zayn (from French araignée). The storyteller, a 12-year-old boy recorded in 1983, uses the formulaic “once upon a time.” See the notes for the preceding story for pronunciation of the vowels <e ie o uo>.

Wansopanetaym,
Once upon a time,

Anansi an a man di guo an tif in a man shap.
Anansi and a man went shoplifting in a man’s store.

An Anansi di av a strechin bag,
And Anansi had a stretching bag,

an di man di av a farin bag.
and the man had a flour sack.

An di man pik-op i bag ful, an i guo.
The man filled up his bag and left.

An di mo Anansi pik-op, di mo i bag strech.
And the more Anansi picked up, the more his bag stretched.

An di man kom an i kech im.
And the man came and caught him.

An di man tel im i guo tay im wit chien,
And the man told him he’d tie him up with a chain,

an Anansi tel im nuo, i guo kot di chien.
and Anansi said no, he would cut the chain.

Den di man tel im i guo tay im wit a ruop,
Then the man said he would tie him up with rope,

an Anansi tel im no nat tu tay im wi a ruop
and Anansi told him no don’t tie him up with rope

i guo kot di ruop.
(because) he would cut through the rope.

I tel im tay im wit a chred.
He told him to tie him up with thread.

An di man tay im wit a chred
And the man tied him up with thread

an Anansi kot di chred an i ron.
and Anansi cut the thread and ran.

An di man pelt di bag bihayn im,
And the man threw the bag after him,

an Anansi tiek di bag an i guo.
and Anansi took the bag and left.

Stori finish.
The story is finished.

***

Finally, here are some proverbs featuring animals. The first four are in French Creole; the rest are in English Creole.

Makak    konnen ki       pyebwa i ka-    monte.
monkey  know    which tree       it PROG climb
Monkeys know which tree to climb.

Sa   fòmi   tini, i   bay  bèlmè                -i.
what ant   has he give mother-in-law -his
The ant gives his mother-in-law whatever he has (mothers-in-law are demanding!).

Chen pa   ka-       fè      chat.
dog  NEG PROG- make cat
Dogs dont give birth to cats (like parent, like child).

Wavèt       pa     ni      wezon duvan poul.
cockroach NEG have right     before chicken
Cockroaches have no rights before chickens (dont be where you don’t belong).

The previous one has an English Creole form as well:

Kakruoch av no rayt in fowl pati.
Cockroaches have no right to attend the chickens’ party.

Si fowl-shit wayt an sie iz eg.
See chicken shit white and say it’s egg (things are not always what they seem).

If krab en wak krab en guo gyet fat.
If crab doesn’t walk crab won’t get fat (its good to see the wider world).

Duo kal aligieta lang-mowt ontil yu kras di riva.
Don’t call alligator long-mouth until you cross the river (respect authority).

***

Ronald Kephart is an associate professor at the University of North Florida, where he teaches linguistic and biological anthropology, sociolinguistics, and general anthropology courses. His research focuses on the structure and use of creole languages in educational settings. He is especially interested in demolishing the disrespect that these languages frequently suffer.

Sean Myers is a middle school student who practices origami to develop his creativity and ability to see beyond the next fold. Inspired by the work of physicist and artist Robert J. Lang, he is currently at work on a series of large origami creatures that involve multiple entangled folds.

Cite as: Kephart, Ronald. 2019. “Carriacou Animal Stories.” Anthropology News website, May 16, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1169

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