Mind your language

grenadaimage

The audacity of some Caribbean linguists today is simply appalling! They mindlessly campaign for the recognition of ‘creoles’ (they call them) as legitimate languages. Some even dare venture the walls of prestigious institutions with noble aspirations of studying these corrupt tongues. The abomination is inconceivable. National languages? Tokens of our identity? The lofty labels given to these languages are a cause for concern, when in fact they are just what we have known them to be all along: ‘bad talk’, ‘bad English’, ‘broken English’, ‘broken French’…they’re all just broken. If God, in his infinite wisdom, were to torment the Egyptians with an eleventh plague, he would certainly have to release the scourge of all languages – CREOLES.

It is saddening that sentiments like these often surface, and violently I might add, when one mentions the creole as a valid language or even a field of study. Among the sparsely described languages of the Anglophone Caribbean is Grenadian English Creole (GEC), spoken on the island of Grenada. With English being the official language and Grenadian French Creole (GFC) spoken in minute pockets on the island, GEC functions as the main vernacular in commutative discourse. Both creoles however, are reservoirs of Grenada’s rich culture and history. It is no secret that GEC is frowned upon by many of its speakers. In education, it is often perceived as a hindrance in learning Standard English! Bonjay!* Excuse my dialect! (I’m one of those mindless linguists). The irony that lags behind this notion is that a complete understanding of the creole itself is in fact a catalyst and not an obstacle to acquiring Standard English. Analyses of GEC grammar may very well explain why so many Grenadian students find difficulty with problematic areas such as subject verb agreement, tense and aspect. Although GEC and Standard English share a lot of the same vocabulary, their grammatical structures are quite independent of each other and therefore must be distinguished.

I love how English words are manipulated in GEC to give completely new and culturally specific meaning. So when Scholar, a notable Grenadian calypsonian, renders a social commentary in song: Dey ha dey Belly which translates to “They have their bellies”, the average Grenadian is certain he does not mean that the political leaders are physically holding their stomachs but that they are bold and audacious. Likewise, when he sings She rel hol’ him roughly;She really held him”, he doesn’t mean she has stretched out her hands and embraced this man, but that she has possibly captivated his soul through obeah “witchcraft”. Much of GEC research and literature celebrate the uniqueness of its expressions and cultural implications. The Dictionary of Grenadianisms provides a list of some of these expressions and a recent publication by Thomas and Zara Chase (2011) offers similar and even more, with historical mappings and folkloric information. Despite these, Holbrook notes that the research done in GEC so far “has only scratched the surface of this creole”.

Among the numerous areas of potential focus, of which Holbrook documents some aspects of GEC syntax, my research seeks to describe the phonetic and phonological aspects of GEC, in other words, its sound system. Why is it that many Grenadians, when speaking Standard English, find it a task to consistently pronounce “th” in words like: those, that, teeth and with? Could it be that these sounds are absent in the native tongue, the one in which they think most naturally? Why is it that many are guilty of saying likkle for “little” or bokkle for “bottle” – an occurrence which seems to mysteriously happen when the sounds ‘t-t-l-e’ come together? Many children are furiously corrected when they say plaskit instead of “plastic”. Alterations and reordering of sounds can be systematically described through phonological investigations.

The average Caribbean person can sense distinctions in various Caribbean accents, all of which may sound quite similar to the non-Caribbean native. The phonetician however, can dissect these distinctions even further, with acoustic analyses of vowel quality and consonant articulations, arriving at a more precise documentation of the sounds of the language, in my case GEC. Whenever I hear ignorant disdain for creoles, I always remember that English, now prized and prestigious, was once regarded as inferior and being in the shadow of Latin. So there is hope after all. It is therefore time to move beyond the misguided, negative associations of the creole, to embrace the beauty and novelty of its expressions and to apply rigorous linguistic investigation.

*Bonjay – an expression of shock or outrage, derived from French Bon Dieu “Good God”

*Jill Paterson [2012] is doing an MPhil in Theoretical and Applied Linguistics. Contact: jrp73@cam.ac.uk. 

Picture Credit: Haron Forteau http://www.flickr.com/photos/haronf/ 

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13 responses to “Mind your language

  1. I firmly believe studies on the Caribbean should, as much as possible, try to encapsulate the Caribbean experience as well. Will your research also seek to document the common phonetic and phonological aspects of all caribbean creoles?

  2. Interesting that you should ask…as a linguist I am constantly making comparisons between GEC and other creoles within the Caribbean. As a result, my research will definitely mention some of the phonetic and phonological similarities and differences among Caribbean English Creoles. I think these creoles are sometimes best understood when they are placed against neighbouring languages. It is also a way of combining a lot of the individual research projects undergone on various Caribbean creoles. A solely comparative study however on these creoles will not fit into the scope of my present study. But I’m glad that you consider it important since I do intend to branch of into that area eventually.

  3. Nice Article……I believe that teaching English as a foreign language will help us to understand and appreciate our GEC better. I also believe that doing this will help us get better results with Standard English in schools.

    • Definitely! The idea that Standard English and GEC are basically the same thing is a very misguided belief. The same task of learning a foreign language is presented to students when they are expected to communicate effortlessly in SE. By teaching English as a foreign language, students can more easily decipher between the two distinct systems.

  4. Great piece, Jill! I love it! Are you going to focus as well on the the self-appointed esteem given to some Caribbean vernacular over others?

    • Thanks! So glad that you mentioned that. I think the reason for other vernaculars attaining more esteem than ours per se is in part a fault of ours. We do not celebrate our language as much as we possibly could. A lot of esteem is created through publications and media. Many of the other Caribbean islands have had more extensive work done on their creoles, and they elevate it through music and so forth. I think the only way the beauty of our language can be recognised is by really describing it and putting it out there for the world to see and respect. So I am hoping that my work would indirectly help add to the esteem of GEC. We can’t truly expect the wider community to massively appreciate our language if we first, fail to so the same.

  5. this is aan excellent pice Jill, I’m glad you chose to do this. Our native tongue is very much apart of who we are as a people and is nothing to be ashamed of.
    All the best!

  6. As a native English speaker (UK born) of Grenadian parentage, with a first degree in English Language & Linguistics, and working towards CELTA, I immensely enjoyed reading your article. I love Grenadian creole. I loved the way my Mum (RIP) spoke, I loved her use of French patois borrowings, the way that certain emotions could only be truly expressed Grenadian-style. The humour. The sarcasm. Everything. I also remember her telling me that her mother didn’t teach her French patois so she gleaned what she could as little girl through eavesdropping. I remember searching vigorously for a Grenadian dictionary some years back, to no avail. Grenadian Creole should be preserved and valued. Standard English has distinct advantages but I would never claim that it is a superior language. But by all means acquire the best of both worlds.

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