Creole identity and language

What does 'Creole' mean?

The term Creole has a range of different meanings:

A Creole people

The word originally defined white people of British and European descent who were born in the Caribbean. When Antoinette says of Mason and the other new incoming English planters that none of them understand the Creole situation, she is using the word in this sense.

It also referred to other peoples, animals and plants originally imported into the Caribbean and then naturalised there:

  • The term black Creoles described people who were the descendants of black Africans but born in the West Indies
  • White people born in the West Indies became White Creoles
  • Indigenous peoples, like the Caribs, would not be described as Creoles.

During the nineteenth century the word ‘Creole' became increasingly associated with black West Indians and the distinct culture they created. In this sense, it could also be used as an adjective describing their food, music, customs etc.

Racist overtones

When used by Europeans, the word Creole may also hint at the intermixing of white and black (many white plantation owners fathered children by their black female slaves) and not just a cultural distinction. Rochester describes Antoinette's eyes as showing traces of a non white / European influence and by so doing, voices his racist suspicions that her ancestry may include black people.

A Creole language

The word Creole can be used to describe language in the West Indies.

  • Initially, black Africans arrived in the islands as slaves and could not understand the languages of their colonial masters. They were often separated from people from their own home in Africa who spoke the same language
  • Since they had no common vocabulary, they developed a ‘pidgin' form of language, stripped down, restricted to essentials
  • ‘Pidgin English' became established in British colonies where the slave owners spoke English. On other islands, the pidgin language would reflect the particular language of the colonial masters, French or Spanish
  • Pidgin is a restricted form of language and eventually those who use it develop it so that it becomes richer and more capable of expressing their humanity in all its variety and range
  • At this stage, and as it becomes a mother tongue for those born in the islands, it is called a Creole language. It will differ from the European language and develop characteristics of its own.

Styles of speech

When Jean Rhys gives Christophine and Godfrey their styles of speech, she replicates the vitality of a language which often:

  • Omits words
  • Moves them around
  • Otherwise uses them differently from standard English.

For example, Christophine re-orders the usual sentence sequence ‘I don't know how to read and write'.


Patois is a word related to Creole. Originally a French word meaning a local dialect, it is used in English to refer to any dialect that develops out of contact between colonisers and those they colonise. So, in the West Indies, the colonisers include English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch, the colonised West Africans.

The linguistic variety and richness of the Caribbean is reflected in Wide Sargasso Sea in the speech of servants, black workers and white Creoles, as well as in place names and songs.

Language and race

Originally, the term Creole was used to denote Anglo-Europeans and signified their racial purity. It developed to include a range of other meanings and ironically came to be associated more with black West Indians than with white people. However, the association with racial issues continued. It was often used to mean mixed race and takes its place with a range of other words used in the time the novel is set to define degrees of racial mixture.

‘Coloured' people, those of mixed Anglo-European and African racial origins, could be classified into one of 128 different gradations. The gradations were defined by such terms as mulatto, quadroon, quintroon and octoroon. This obsession with racial difference permeates Wide Sargasso Sea. For example, it is one of the factors used by Daniel Cosway to manipulate Rochester's suspicions of Antoinette.

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