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The word "fe" is used three times in the Nalo Hopkinson short story "Shift":

When my mother who wasn’t my mother yet approach the man who wasn’t my father yet, when she ask him, “Man, you eat salt, or you eat fresh?” him did know what fe say.

That was the right answer. For them that does eat fresh, them going to be fresh with your business. But this man show her that he know how fe have respect.

“At least me nah try fe chat like something out of some Englishman book.” I make the wind howl it back at him: “At least me remember is which boat me come off from!”

In context, and backed by the Dialect Dictionary (that I've never used before and have no idea how accurate it is), it looks like it's a Jamaican dialect word for "to".

My confusion arises from the fact that this isn't used consistently for "to". For instance, right after the first quote, there's this:

After his tutors teach him courtly ways from since he was small. After his father teach him how to woo. After his own mother teach him how to address the Wata Lady with respect.

Here we see "to", as opposed to the immediately preceding "fe".

What's the reasoning behind where "fe" is used? Does this imply something about the state of the character at that time?

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Most likely, "fe" is Hopkinson's or Ariel's version of "fi" in Jamaican Patois. "Shift" does not use pure Jamaican Patois, since that would make the story to hard to read.

The Wikipedia article on Jamaican Patois lists a number of usages of "fi" but not the one used in the story. The Jamaican Patwah dictionary gives three definitions of "fi": "for" (twice) and "to". It gives the following example for "to":

Patois: Mi realli waah dem fi know seh mi deh here
English: I want them to know that I am here

Donald Winford's paper The Syntax of Fi Complements in Caribbean English Creole (Language, September 1985) contains more examples, e.g.:

mi waan fi go "I want to go."
a jan mi waan fi go "It's John I want to go."
im don fiil fi go ... "He didn't want to go ..."
jan trai fi kraas di riba "John tried to cross the river."

The article spends more than thirty pages on how to analyse and parse this type of sentences, but that discussion goes beyond the scope of the question about "fe" in "Shift".

"Fe" also exists in Haitian Creole, which is a French-based creole. Omniglot's article Useful phrases in Haitian Creole contains two examples:

Long time no see: Sa fè lontan / Sa fe lon temps nou pa we
Pleased to meet you: (...) M'kontan fè konesans ou / Mwe kontan fe konesana ou

"Fe" is obviously derived from the French verb "faire" (English: "do" or "make"); in some cases, it can be translated to "fait" (third person singular, present tense):

"Sa fè lontan" from French "Ça fait longtemps"
"Mwe kontan fe konesana ou" from "Moi content faire connaissance vous" (non-standard French)

However, "Shift" does not use a French-based creole and the meaning "faire" does not fit into the examples from Ariel's sentences.

  • This gives some useful background info on the use of "fe", but the OP also asks about when to use "fe" as opposed to "to" itself, since both words appear in the story: "fe" means "to", but it doesn't always replace "to". – Rand al'Thor Aug 31 '18 at 12:38
  • @Randal'Thor I don't see any consistency in Ariel's use of "fe" versus "to"; not a a grammatical level, not on a semantic level, nor on an emotional level. – user800 Aug 31 '18 at 12:49

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