Mauritian words in J.M.G. Le Clézio’s La quarantaine

I recently finished J.M.G. Le Clézio’s 1994 novel La quarantaine, about two Mauritius-born brothers returning to their native land but stranded for two months on a neighbouring smaller island used as a quarantine station. Le Clézio’s French prose is straightforward, maybe disappointingly so if one has read other authors with a great flair for language.

The dialogue is also in standard French, with the exception of the single creole sentence Pour faire la guerre licien, napa bisoin fizi, bisoin coup de roce. I initially imagined that this sentence, while opaque to me, would be readily decipherable by native French speakers, as why else would Le Clézio dare to present it without any gloss in Standard French? In fact, the several French people I have presented this passage to stumbled on fizi, and only from the unexpected source of the Dictionnaire pratique du créole de Guadeloupe did I learn that this creole word goes back to fusil. The same French people also couldn’t identify licien, but several sources on the internet (e.g. here) show that the word means ‘dog’, originating in le chien. Thus I suppose the full sentence in the novel would be ‘To fight a dog, one doesn’t need a firearm, one just needs to hit it with a stone.’

There are several individual Mauritian words that pop up throughout the book, however. Three refer to Indians who were employed by the colonial authorities as recruiters or overseers of coolie labour: arkottie and sirdar, encountered often in the book, and duffadar. A Google search for arkottie and duffadar shows that they are found mainly in 19th-century English publications and must have entered Mauritian French or Mauritian Creole from English, which makes sense considering that the labour was sourced from British India. The title sirdar was widely used through the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent as a military or aristocratic rank.

Le Clézio’s main Indian character refers to Europeans as les grands mounes. This is presumably ‘the big people’, as in the creole of Réunion, (dë)moune ?< monde is frequently used as a replacement for Standard French hommes or gens.

There is also longaniste, a native sorcerer and healer, comparable to the sangoma of South Africa, and laffe-la-bou, a name for a venomous stonefish.

Finally, Le Clézio mentions astère used as a creole equivalent of maintenant. In an interesting comment thread on a blog about mauricianisms, the French Canadian linguist Marie-Lucie Tarpent notes that the word is ultimately a contraction of à cette heure, and present in Canada, too, as asteur(e), but the origin must have been a west France dialect where the phrase was no longer analyzable.

In addition, Le Clézio mentions in passing that a dialect of the North Indian language Bhojpuri is still spoken on the island.

When I stayed in Madagascar in the company of the Russian hitchhiking club Academy of Free Travel several years ago, I was jealous that several people had got to see Mauritius on the way to Madagascar, and after reading La quarantaine I’m again intrigued by this island and its unusual cultural mix.

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