The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar (1969; 1869)

The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar provided the first overview of French-inflected Creole in the Caribbean. It considers Creole as a language in its own right marrying French and African forms, rather than “only mispronounced French” (iv). New Beacon’s reprint of John Jacob Thomas’s ground-breaking book was based on a facsimile reprint of the original 1869 text published by Chronicle Publishing, Port of Spain.
John Jacob Thomas was a school teacher who benefited from the first wave of free secular education reforms in Trinidad in the 1850s. He worked as a ward teacher in Savonetta and in rural elementary schools for twelve years in total, during which time he learned French, Spanish, and extended his knowledge of Creole by collecting proverbs and songs. He subsequently worked as a civil servant and was active in Trinidad’s first literary journal: The Trinidad Monthly and an early organised literary society, The Trinidad Athenaeum. He knew Greek and Latin and continued to teach these subjects while writing on education policy in Trinidad (Smith, 2002).
The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar (1969; 1869) by John Jacob Thomas. 135pp.


Creole, for Thomas, is “a dialect framed by Africans from a European tongue” (1). His practical reasons for compiling and publishing the book are the problems caused by language difference in:
Two cardinal agencies in our social system; namely Law and Religion. I might have added Education; but as I mean to treat separately of the nullifying effects of the patois on English instruction among us, I shall say no more on the matter here” (IV).
He hoped that providing a manual to the Creole language would aid everyday communication in a multilingual society. The book is based on Thomas’s knowledge of Creole in Trinidad. It is composed of four sections: Othoepy and othography (a description of Creole alphabet and phonetics); Etymology; Syntax; Interpretation-idioms. The last section includes fifteen pages of proverbs and translations into Creole, including fables by Perrin, Aesop and La Fontaine (such translations were a popular pastime for French Creole speakers) and an abstract from the Haitian songwriter François-Romain Lhérisson (1798-1858). The blurb notes the significance of Thomas’s inclusion of translations of Creole, suggesting it formed a starting point for the later work of Jean-Price Mars in Haiti and Fernando Ortiz in Cuba. The blurb also alludes to the Senegalese historian and scientist, Cheikh Anta Diop, and his “translation, in our own time, of scientific and philosophic writings into the Wolof of Senegal, in his Nations Nègres et Culture” (back cover). The status of indigeneous languages in colonial and postcolonial literatures and the limited number of books written or translated in those languages continues as a source of much debate in the twenty-first century.
Beyond its practical use, the book remains a key text in Creole linguistics, despite the limitations Thomas faced while writing it “under circumstances the most disadvantageous, having no other materials than a collection which I had made of bellairs, calendas, joubas, idioms, odd sayings, in fact everything that I could get in Creole” (V). In terms of linguistic tools, he was equipped with “but a few school-grammars and two third-rate dictionaries” (V). Thomas intended to publish a substantially revised second edition in the late 1880s, but died before the project reached completion.
The New Beacon edition contained an introduction by Gertrud Buscher, lecturer in French at the University of the West Indies. She offers a brief biographical sketch, some background information on French Creole in Trinidad. She reminds the reader that the Grammar is “not the dry work that such a treatise might be” (vi) owing to Thomas’s skill as a teacher and practical sense of language in use (as evidenced by his references to Creole proverbs). He was particularly attuned to the problems faced by French Creole speakers in the largely English-speaking education and legal system in Trinidad in the late nineteenth century. She notes that “few modern linguists see the relationship between French and Creole quite as close and simple Thomas implies” (vii), while the book is “the most exhaustive grammar of any French-based Creole to have appeared until thirty years ago” (xiii).


La Rose first read Creole Grammar in a typescript copy circulated among friends in Trinidad in the 1950s. His long-term aim was to produce a cheap paperback edition of the book with an appropriately pitched introduction and in time for the centenary of its first publication. La Rose undertook the project despite the fact that another scholarly edition of the Grammar was apparently in production (under editorship of Albert Valdman at the University of Indiana). Valdman’s revised edition was to contain a 50 page introduction cost $5, so it was not seen as a significant barrier to the more affordable New Beacon publication.
It took some effort to find a copy of the book in adequate condition to produce a facsimile. La Rose wrote to an old friend, Hugh Skinner, about this in 1966, when Skinner was due to visit London:
There is one thing I would like you to bring with you when you are coming; it is your copy of the patois grammar by Jacob Thomas. I think I mentioned in my last letter the publishing venture on which I have embarked and this is one of the things that I would like to see published. Please try to remember it so that I can estimate what will be involved in its publications” (26.6.66 JLR to HS, LRA/01/0732).
Eventually a copy was found at the West Indian Reference Library, but this contained mould spots and 48 loose pages. After some more searching another copy was located at the Cambridge Univeristy Library and La Rose wrote excitedly to Buscher after viewing this copy: “It is in perfect condition except for a few spots here and there on some of the pages” (20.11.67, NBB/1/7). The Library were co-operative with the project and charged a fee of £68 for the photographic reproduction: a technique using photolithographic plates which retained the aura of the original text. It is a reminder of Trinidad’s own long printing history, though as Buscher notes in her introduction: “the work […] retains not only the attractive type of the original edition, but also, unfortunately, the number of misprints which subsist without having been recorded in Thomas’s Errata” (fn28, xvii).
Gertrud Buscher and John La Rose corresponded throughout 1969 about the project as Buscher worked on her introduction from Jamaica. Buscher was born in Augsberg, Germany and had moved to Jamaica aged 12. She studied French and German at the University of Edinburgh and completed a doctorate on the rural language of Ranrupt, in the Bas-Rhin region of France (NBB/1/7). She taught at UWI, Jamaica, then at the University of Hull and remained a personal friend of La Rose and Sarah White. As a result, La Rose’s mention of royalties is almost out of place:
Our usual arrangement for Introductions as we explained, is to give the author a 2 ½ % interest in the published price of the book, and a small advance against this royalty is paid on receipt of the manuscript. I’m indeed sorry to embarrass you with this information but it is one of these details that has to be taken care of in order to continue publishing. (JLR to GB, 20.11.67, NBB/1/7) 
Letter from John La Rose to Gertrud Buscher, dated 20 November 1967. Archive ref: GB2904 NBB/1/7 (uncatalogued)
Such personal relationships, as shown throughout the New Beacon archive were central to building up the network surrounding New Beacon’s radical publishing work.


As for Froudacity, the initial print run was 2000 copies (1700 softback, 300 hardback). Though reception in the Caribbean was positive, distribution again caused some hiccups, as Buscher wrote:
Grammar is available in Trinidad and doing well, according to reports. Is there any reason why Jamaica is at such a disadvantage in that respect? I have just been to Sangster’s and could not find any copies there; and I myself still only have the copy you sent me in February and a paper-back one kindly passed on by Eddie (11.8.70 GB to JLR, LRA/01/0160)
The book also sold well at the main bookshop, Sangsters, despite its inflated price (reflecting perhaps the positive reviews of the book):
I gather that sales are going quite well in Trinidad (a friend told me she had to go to three different bookshops for the three copies she wanted, getting the last copy in each) and at least some are being sold here. The price at Sangster’s has now gone down to a reasonable level, since I had a little chat with Mr. Sangster and made him see the error of his ways.” (17.10.70 GB to JLR, LRA/01/0160)
Robert Le Page, then tutor in linguistics at the University of York, recommended a number of journals for reviews. As a result the book was well-reviewed in specialist academic journals. Johanna Nichols from Berkeley, wrote:
It will continue to be of more than merely historical interest, for its broad data base, its warm and human tone, its keen insight into semantic and grammatical distinctions, its compilation of proverbs and idioms, and, not least, the gradual extinction of Trinidad Creole, assure it a position of lasting value among creole studies. (Romance Philology 27, 1974: 534)
Elsewhere, Le Page praised the role of the publisher:
It was a very good idea on the part of New Beacon Books to celebrate the centenary of Thomas’s book by reprinting it. It would be most helpful if they could similarly make available some other little-known early works on Creoles, now that the subject is in fashion.” (Journal of African Language, 8.1, 1969).
Another interesting response was that from a Martinican student of linguistics based in Aix-en-Provence by the name of Raphaël Confiant:
I have been extremely interested by your publication of John Jacob Thomas’s “Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar” which I think is of the utmost importance for anyone studying the evolution of the Creole language [….] I would like to have informations about the present state of Creole in Trinidad, Grenada, St Vincent and above all Dominica and St Lucia. (RC to JLR 13.3.74, Mixed correspondence, LRA/01/237/27)
Sheet 1 of letter to John La Rose from Raphael Confiant. Archive Ref: GB2904 LRA/01/237/27
Confiant would go on to be a leading literary figure in the francophone créolité movement. Together with Martinican writers Patrick Chamoiseau and Jean Bernabé, Confiant wrote a landmark manifesto, Eloge de la créolité (Gallimard, 1989; bilingual English-French edition, 1993) which argued for greater recognition of the intertwining strands of Caribbean identity. He has also published several novels in Creole and in French, one of which has been translated into English (Eau de Café, Faber & Faber, 2000). His letter to La Rose is a modest example of New Beacon’s growing reputation as a recognised source of knowledge about the Caribbean, and of La Rose’s status as a connecting figure (Confiant asks for the addresses of people speaking Creole in Trinidad and others studying Creole in England).
Within the Marxist framework of his introduction to Froudacity, C.L.R. James picks up on Thomas’s work as part of a genealogy of black thought (a perspective shared by La Rose). Writing in 2009, Martin Munro describes the particularity of French Creoles in Trinidad, focusing instead on how the history of French Creole was part of a more complex set of discourses on the island’s space and identity. For Munro, these were necessarily discordant rather than fitting into the celebratory narrative of an overarching political project. This suggests another possible way in which Thomas’s work might be read in the twenty-first century as an intellectual landmark and a vital perspective on cultural formations in nineteenth century Trinidad.

Further reading

Munro, Martin. “The French Creoles of Trinidad and the Limits of the
Francophone” French Studies 63.2, 2009: 174 -188.
Smith, Faith. Creole Recitations: John Jacob Thomas and Colonial Formation in the
Late Nineteenth-Century Caribbean. New World Studies, Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2002.