Cobo Cyar Eat Sponge Cake

"Patience", by Malika Green, 2020.


During my recent lockdown trip to Toco, I noticed that the cobos there always chose, when they had a choice, to perch on a dead tree. Weeks later at Las Cuevas I spotted them doing the same thing. Why?

Because cobo cyar eat sponge cake.

It reminded me of an anecdote an architect once told me. He had designed a house on a large plot of hilly forested land on which stood a beautiful poui tree. Or maybe it was an immortelle, I can’t remember the precise species, just that it was a beautiful flowering tree.

So he designed this house in such a way that it would have a view of, and be seen against the background of the tree. Perhaps the driveway would be flecked with yellow splashes.

"Yellow Flower Road", by Kim Johnson 2020.


And the first thing the crew hired to construct the house did, before anything else, before laying foundations, was to chop down the poui tree. Those men are the best illustration of the saying: cobo cyar eat sponge cake.

That’s where I must take objection to Lise Winer's massive dictionary of our language.

Make no mistake, that book is arguably the most important work on the culture of Trinidad & Tobago. It’s our Encyclopedia Britanica (or Trini-wiki-pedia). And if both Encyclopedia Britanica and Wikipedia have been shown to have errors (the former a few less than the latter), so Ms. Winer’s very rare slip-up does not detract from the overall importance of her monumental work.

The Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad & Tobago: On Historical Principles is the greatest dictionary of a Caribbean language ever written, over 12,000 entries, with examples of their usage, spelling, pronunciation and origins in Caribbean English, Creole, Hindi, Bhojpuri, French, Spanish, Yoruba and Amerindian, among others.

How important is that to a young nation trying to find its way in a world continuously eroding its culture? Let me answer with another anecdote, one reaching back to the time just before Europe launched its war against the peoples of the Caribbean and Americas.

In 1492 the Spanish, after hundreds of years of warfare, conquered the last Moorish city in Spain, Granada. Their momentum of violence and warfare sailed on with Columbus into the Atlantic and into the Americas, where they landed that same year to launch the New World holocaust.

The third world-changing event of that year transpired when the scholar Elio Antonio de Nebrija presented a book he’d written to Queen Isabella of Castille.

Nebrija was bright and knowledgable. He had studied mathematics, philosophy, law and theology at university before moving to Italy, where he learned several languages. He returned home to teach Latin at the University of Salamanca in 1473, the year the printing press was introduced to Spain.

He was a philologist, historian, pedagogue, grammarian, astronomer, and poet and his first book, the Introductiones Latinae (Introduction to Latin), a very successful textbook on Latin grammar and literature, was published in 1481.

He left the university in 1487 to work for Juan de Zúñiga, master of the Order of Alcántara, and wrote several other books, including the one he presented to the Catholic Queen in 1492: a grammar of the Castillian dialect, the first such study of a modern European language.

¿Para qué es esto? asks Queen Isabella: “Wha dis good for?”

Su Majestad, the Bishop replied on Nebrija’s behalf: El lenguaje es el mejor instrumento del imperio.

That is: “Language is the best instrument of empire.”

So my answer is: Winer’s dictionary is our greatest shield against the foreign cultural domination that started 500 years ago and continues to this day. Indeed, I consider that product Winer's 30-year labour of love so important that I recommended the author for a national award. Of course the recommendation was rejected, because, well, cobo cyar eat sponge cake.

"A Wake in Sans Souci" by Malika Green, 2020.


Which is ironically one of the book's few errors.

It explains that aphorism as “a low class person has difficulty relating to a high-class situation”. Winer arrived at that interpretation by way of Rhona Baptiste’s book Trini Talk.

Alas, Mrs. Baptiste is quite incorrect. The profound snippet of folk wisdom is not a vilification of “low class” people. Rather, it speaks to a sort of pearls-before-swine situation, which has nothing to do with class. High-class people are as capable as anyone else of not appreciating offerings of beauty, intelligence or even common sense, sometimes more so. Metaphoric cobos can be found anywhere.

Their scientific name, Coragyps atratus, is a contraction of the Greek corax, meaning raven, gyps, meaning vulture, and atratus, means "clothed in black”.

These "raven vultures" swathed in black, not unlike the lawyers that stride in and out of the so-called Hall of Justice, were originally from La Brea, according to our First People. That's what they explained to Catholic priest Bertrand Cothonay in 1893, who was told that good folk, after death, they re-emerged, or at least their souls did, as humming birds. It's not clear where the resurrection occurred. On the other hand, the more unsavoury people  resurrected inside the Pitch Lake, from which they emerged as cobos.


Fr. Cothonay's opinion on what he'd been told was that the Trinidad landscape appeared to host fewer humming birds than cobos.

So how can this be a “corbeau”, as some claim, which is merely a French crow? No. The T&T Coragyps atratus are not French crows. A gathering of crows is called a murder; no Trini cobo has killed a thing in its life. Rather they patiently wait for some poor creature to die so its flesh to putrefy into a feast.

Why would you even think of offering one sponge cake?


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