The Polyglossic Situation in French Guiana

How Standard French, Creoles & Many Other Languages Interact in One Society

By Brandon Sambrano

French Guiana, located on the north Atlantic coast of South America in the Guyanas, is an overseas department of France renowned for its linguistic diversity. The many different languages contributing to this said diversity can be separated into three major groupings: an official language, used in administration and teaching; local, regional or indigenous languages; and languages of immigration, brought to the geographical area by immigrants of a wide variety of countries. The first of these categories comprises and is restricted to standard French which serves as the official language and is spoken by a vast majority of the department, either as a first or second language. The second includes French Guianese Creole (a creole language of French base); Amerinidian languages such as Arawak/Lokono, Emerillon/Teco, Kali’na, Palikúr, Wayana and Wayampi (the first two of which are endangered); and creole languages of English base such as Eastern Maroon Creoles, Saamáka and Sranan Tongo (all of which are native to the neighbouring Suriname). The third includes a wide range of languages such as Hakka and Cantonese (varieties of Chinese), Haitian, Martinican, Guadeloupean and St Lucian Creoles (all creole languages of French base), Hmong (from Laos and Vietnam), Portuguese (from Brazil), English (from Guyana), Dutch (from Suriname) and Spanish (from Latin America) which all suggest the waves of immigration which have taken place in the history of French Guiana and the department’s subsequent racial and cultural diversity.

Sunday Market in Cayenne, French Guiana

The interaction between this plethora of languages and language varieties, however, is what is truly exciting as we will see. Firstly, to understand in general linguistic terms how languages interact with one another we will have to define some terms. On a whole, we are looking at sociolinguistics, the study of language in relation to social factors, and discussing a polyglossia, which is similar to diglossia (two languages or varieties of a language existing side by side, each having a determined role to fill (Puerto)) but refers to multiple different languages or language varieties; not just two. In the case of French Guiana, as in many other socio-linguistic cases, different languages are used in different contexts or under different circumstances (this changing of languages is known as code alteration). One specified language is often seen as the “prestige language”, being generally regarded as “correct” or superior to other languages by the majority of society. This language, which happens to be standard French in French Guiana, is therefore used in more formal contexts by its speakers who may use one or more than one of the many other languages listed in the first paragraph in more informal contexts or perhaps on a more day-to-day basis. Take for instance this explanation from Bettina Migge and Isabelle Léglise’s “Assessing the sociolinguistic situation of the Maroon creoles” on the use of standard French in relation to Eastern Maroon Creoles (EMC) and Sranan Tongo by Maroon professionals living in urban contexts in French Guiana: “Maroon professionals living in the urban context often compartmentalize languages according to social activity: professional communication is carried out in the official language (French)…while the Maroon Creole or rather code-mixing and code-switching between the Maroon Creole and Sranantongo and/or the official language is reserved for informal interactions such as joking and everyday talk.” As we can see here, the official language, French, can also be incorporated into or have an influence on non-prestige languages.

This takes us to the next topic of code-switching in French Guiana. Due to the linguistic diversity of the department and multilingualism of many of its inhabitants, code-switching is often a reality in their everyday lives. But what exactly is code-switching? Code-switching, according to Sarah G. Thomason in “Language Contact: An Introduction”, is the use of material from two (or more) languages by a single speaker in the same conversation. As you can imagine, this often occurs in societies such as that of French Guiana where many different languages co-exist side by side. Here I will look at two interesting real-life examples of code-switching from “Pratiques et représentations linguistiques en Guyane” by Isabelle Léglise and Bettina Migge which demonstrate the natural speech of multilingual individuals in French Guiana:

Oh Dalaf na’a! Ça sent la bouche de Dalaf maintenant!

Oh, again Dalaf! It smells like Dalaf’s mouth now! (English Translation)

(Kali’na [bold] and French [underlined])

In code-switching, as we can see in the example above, multilingual speakers sometimes switch languages between sentences.

Akisi ensefi omeni yari.

Ask her how old [she is]. (English Translation)

(EMC [bold] and Sranan Tongo [underlined])

However, they may also switch languages within the sentence itself as demonstrated here.

Reasons for code-switching are varied and include but are not restricted to: amplifying and emphasising a point, adding expression and personality, habitual expressions, showing identity, phatic expressions and quoting other people (Esen).

All in all, French Guiana is home to an extremely linguistically rich and diverse society in which languages and language varieties have unique interactions with one another. Most notably through interactions such as code alteration and code switching, these languages influence and oftentimes blend with one another due to the natural mixing of cultures and societies. If you are interested in finding out more about French Guiana and the fascinating polyglossic situation present there, make sure to take a look at the references listed below.

Special thanks to the Richard & Jeannette Allsopp Centre for Caribbean Lexicography at The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados for supplying resources and advice invaluably helpful in the writing of this blog.


Cléry, Bruno, et al. Lavantir Mèt Doko. Ibis Rouge Ed., 1998.

Esen, Seçkin. “Code Switching: Definition, Types, and Examples.” Owlcation, 2 Jan. 2019,

Migge, Bettina, and Isabelle Léglise. Pratiques et Représentations Linguistiques en Guyane: Regards Croisés. IRD Éditions, 2008.

Migge, Bettina, and Isabelle Léglise. “Assessing the Sociolinguistic Situation of the Maroon Creoles.” Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, vol. 30, no. 1, 2015, pp. 63–115., doi:10.1075/jpcl.30.1.03mig.

Puerto, Juan. ​Français et Créole Dans La Caraïbe.​ Fort-De-France, Centre D’etudes Regionales Antilles-Guyane, 1971.

Thomason, Sarah Grey. Language Contact: An Introduction. Edinburgh University Press, 2013.

Winford, Donald. An Introduction to Contact Linguistics. Blackwell, 2008.