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The first part of Jean Rhys' novel Wide Sargasso Sea is set in Jamaica, but the main character's mother is from Martinique, where French and the French-based Martiniquan Creole are spoken. The family's parrot can speak a few words that are based either on French or Martiniquan Creole.

For example, on page 25 of the Norton Critical Edition of the novel:

Our parrot was called Coco, a green parrot. He didn't talk very well, he could say Qui est là? Qui est là? and answer himself Ché Coco, Ché Coco.

Judith L. Raiskin, who edited the Norton Critical Edition, explains Coco's words as "Who's there?" and "Dear Coco." The first translation is fine, but the second does not appear to make sense. It assumes that "ché" is a mispronunciation of "cher/chère", turning the French è into é and dropping the guttural R. However, the normal answer to, "Who's there?" would be, "It's Coco" (since the parrot answers himself) or, in French, "C'est Coco". "Ché Coco" can be interpreted as a mispronunciation (or perhaps an eggcorn) of "C'est Coco", which sounds more plausible than Judith Raiskin's explanation.

In part two, Prof. Raiskin annotates another phrase in (presumably) Martiniquan Creole:

"Doudou, ché cocotte," the elderly woman said to Antoinette.

(The elderly woman is Christophine, who used to be Antoinette's nurse. The word "doudou" is also used in Nalo Hopkinson's novel Midnight Robber, which uses many elements from Caribbean culture.) According to Prof. Raiskin, the phrase is

An endearment, "darling little ducky".

Wiktionary tells us that doudou comes from a duplication of the French word "doux" (literally "soft"), so the first part of the translation is fine. However, since the phrase is a greeting, it would make more sense to translate the second part as "it's cocotte" instead of "little ducky" (assuming that "cocotte" refers to the elderly woman and isn't used in its current meaning).

However, much later (page 90 in the Norton Critical Edition), Christophine uses the phrase "doudou ché", which Judith Raiskin translates as "darling dear". Based on word order, the translation "it's doudou" does not appear to make sense.

My question therefore is what "ché" in the above examples means. Does it always mean the same thing? If it comes from "c'est", how it is possible to make sense of the last example? (Does Martiniquan Creole use a different word order than French?) If it comes from "cher/chère", how does that make sense in the first two examples?

  • Who's there? Darling Dolly, would work fine in English. I don't see why Qui est là? Ché Coco, shouldn't work in Martinique Creole, even if ché means something like cher. Dear isn't quite an exact translation of the French word cher, and we don't know the exact connotation and usage of ché in Martinique Creole, even if it means something like cher. – Peter Shor Aug 10 at 0:36
  • Are you assuming parrots to have perfect grammar? :) – Spagirl Aug 12 at 10:12
  • @Spagirl I'm only assuming that they're good imitators of speech. They may be more likely to copy grammatical mistakes they hear. Of course, if they only imitate part of a sentence, the remaining part may not be grammatical. – IkWeetHetOokNiet Aug 12 at 15:50
  • While I'm sort of funning with you, I'm also sort of not. Parrots will replicate not just the speech they hear most often, but the speech that is directed at them. People don't speak to parrots like they speak to people. 'pretty Polly' isn't a parrot's name, it is what people say to parrots called 'Polly'. So I'm suggesting that any evidence from a parrot's speech needs to be taken with a small piece of eight. – Spagirl Aug 12 at 16:13
  • @Spagirl I was aware of the joke. But did you notice that only the first quote comes from the parrot? – IkWeetHetOokNiet Aug 12 at 16:24
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Confiant has the following entries under ‘chè’ (and nothing under ‘che’ or ‘ché’):

chè 1 cher, coûteux

chè 2 cher(e), chéri(e), mon (ma) cher(e)

Raphaël Confiant (2007). Dictionnaire du créole martiniquais. Ibis Rouge.

Confiant gives ‘sé’ as the Martiniquian for ‘c’est’, which casts doubt on the theory in the post that ‘ché’ might mean ‘c’est’.

As pointed out by Peter Shor in comments, there does not seem to be any difficulty in the parrot saying ‘Ché Coco’. Parrot repeat sounds made by humans in their vicinity, and ‘who’s there? dear Coco’ is plausibly something an owner might say to their parrot.

As for ‘Doudou ché cocotte’, Confiant gives:

doudou 1 chéri(e); amoureux(se)

kòkot 2 cocotte, chérie

so this phrase is a triplicate endearment as glossed by Judith Raiskin.

The creole spoken in Martinique belongs to the Antillean Creole family. Accordingly, I also looked at dictionaries of other members of the family:

chè 1 cher, coûteux; mon cher, ma chère

chè 2 viande ou poisson

Henry Tourneux and Maurice Barbotin (2008). Dictionnaire pratique du créole de Guadeloupe, p. 80. Karthala.

che, 1. n., pulpit, tribune

che, 2. n., choir

che, 3. a., dear, beloved; precious; costly, expensive

Jones E. Mondesir (1992). Dictionary of St. Lucian Creole, p. 40. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

(The French origins must be ‘chair’, flesh; ‘chaire’, pulpit; ‘chœur’, choir.)

  • Thanks, but ché and chè aren't pronounced the same. In addition, "cher/chère" always stands before the noun when used attributively in French. Is this different in Creole? – IkWeetHetOokNiet Aug 12 at 15:46
  • @ChristopheStrobbe: I'm not inclined to make a fuss about the difference between 'ché' and 'chè' because there's clearly vowel merging going on, for example in St Lucia, 'chaire', 'chœur', 'chère' and 'chérie' all ended up as 'che'. – Gareth Rees Aug 12 at 17:05

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