An Excerpt from “Grammar for an Unwritten Language (Cape Verde, West Africa)”

Eleanor Stanford


Ellipses of sweat darkened the armpits of Madalena’s fuchsia dress. She paused, erasing a c with the side of her hand, replacing it with a k. Cape Verdean Creole is not a written language. Even for Madalena, who spoke this language before any other, the consonant combinations looked strange, their correspondence sounding cryptic and incomplete.

Past Perfect

We’d arrived in Cape Verde in July, the hottest month. A group of twenty-three Peace Corps volunteers, including Dan and me. Dan and I were twenty-two years old, had just graduated from college, and had been married for a year.

Our teacher, Madalena, had a halo of dark hair, combed close to her head but pushing out in small strands at the temples.

Madalena taught with her whole body. She told us stories about how she had a husband who drank too much, who gave her five sons, then took off with another woman.

There is no past perfect in Kriolu.

At least this is what I understood.


Madalena gave us the names of foods: marmelu, cimbrón, mandjoka, fijón. Nouns with no equivalent in the temperate places we were from; the drawings in our book were indecipherable. She took us to the market where she greeted the women by name: Lina, é modi? The large black woman cut a papaya into slices for us. Sabi? she asked. Is it good?


How could a person like me, I wondered, so tied to the written word, ever learn a language that exists only in the air?


Where was I when I was reading? I disappeared into the page, spent long swaths of time in an imaginary England, strolling through neat gardens of words. I left this dusty slope where nothing grew. I had to concentrate hard, running my tongue over my dust-coated teeth, trying to ignore the donkey braying behind our house and the neighbors calling out greetings to each other.

Infinitive: see infinite

There is no word for this activity in Creole. Bu sta studa? Naida asked when she saw me with a book. Are you studying? No, é sta ler, her mother corrected her. She’s reading. But the word ler is not Creole, it’s the Portuguese infinitive, as foreign as phlox or Queen Anne’s lace. The only species that flourish here are hardy and utilitarian: beetles, goats, sweet potatoes.

Simple Present

There are no conjugations in Creole. Just past or present. When I tried to teach my students the simple present in English, though, I discovered that it was not so simple. “I have, you have, he has . . . ” we repeated. The blackboard was feathered with erasures. Together we studied how this tense could lift above. Sentences swooped like contrails on the page: we wake up early, we draw the water, we go to school. My students whispered and folded love notes into tiny squares, oblivious to the verbs that circled these days, patient, beaked, and black.

Present Perfect

April: I have tried to create a room of my own in the old goat pen behind the house. I’ve put my desk and books out here. Bruma seca darkens the sky. Dust has covered everything, and wind bangs against the wooden window. With the tin door latched, I can see nothing; with it open, I am inviting anyone to stop by.

I leave it ajar: as though there were a fulcrum, an invisible hinge, manageable balance between isolation and companionship. Perhaps that moment in the evening, when the neighbors are busy tying up the stray ends of the day: bringing in the animals from the field, boiling rice for dinner. At this hour, the wind has died down and my stone enclosure sunk into the hillside has finally warmed. The irregular rocks of the walls glow pink, each a miniature of the landscape itself.


The English word Creole comes from the Portuguese crioulo, meaning native; it comes from the verb criar, to bring up. In Cape Verde, you can kria children or goats, corn, friendship.

Intransitively, it means to grow, to grow up: n kria li. I grew up here. Crioulo comes originally from the Latin creare, to create. And it’s true, this language is made and remade, constantly in the process being reinvented. It seemed to constantly shift on me; as soon as I mastered a certain tense, for example, I would hear someone express it differently. That’s correct, too, they would shrug, when I asked.

Subject-Verb Agreement

When I visited other towns or islands, people saw my face and assumed I didn’t speak their language. Walking down the street, I heard: Look at that white woman. Who is she? Is she the new teacher in the high school? No, I don’t think so. My white skin made me the object of scrutiny, but also invisible, immune to the rules of decorum.

Subordinate Clause

But language can trump race. Once people knew that I spoke Creole, my whiteness seemed less salient. Once, I was standing in the aisle after an airplane flight, commiserating with the man next to me about the bumpy flight. The woman behind me, who overheard us chatting in Creole, asked, are you brother and sister? She was old, but surely even with deteriorating eyesight one could see that there was no way this man with deep brown skin and black hair had a blond, hazel-eyed sister. “No,” I said laughing. Entón, she persisted. Irmón di pai? Well then, you’re half-siblings? Same father?

. . .

Read the rest of this essay in the Kenyon Review Mar/Apr 2016 issue, on sale now!

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