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The languages of the Caribbean

The development of the modern Caribbean nations within the context of slavery, colonialism and foreign domination have left many cultural problems facing Caribbean people today. One of the most pressing of these is the question of the Caribbean languages and their proper position in today's world, especially in the Caribbean and among Caribbean communities internationally.

Rich heritage

EVEN the simple statement that there is such a thing as Caribbean languages is still one which generates controversy and many Caribbean people find it difficult to view the languages they speak as "proper languages". Under the pressure of the colonial outlook, many people refer to these forms of speech as "dialects", "broken English", "broken French" and so on. These terms themselves negate the process of Caribbean national development of which these languages are an integral part, and reinforce the stereotype of the Caribbean as an extension of some other region, whether Europe or more recently, the United States of America. This idea of Caribbean cultural dependency and inferiority is linked to and serves the foreign political domination of the region. The facts are, however, that as the Caribbean nations developed, so too did their languages. Today these languages represent part of the rich heritage of Caribbean culture.

Many of the existing prejudices about Caribbean languages are based on a lack of knowledge about the nature of language in general. For example, the fact that language exists as a continuum of different varieties which change from region to region and between social classes is one which is not often taken account of. Yet, this is a reality which everyone is very aware of. Differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar can all be noticed between speakers from different regions and of different social backgrounds. This is a feature of all languages. However, when a language is standardised, one variety from this continuum is chosen as the "official language" of the community of speakers.

Historically the variety of language chosen has been the version spoken by the rich and powerful within the community
Historically the variety of language chosen has been the version spoken by the rich and powerful within the community.

It is this variety which is usually written and which is presented as the "grammatically correct version of the language". In order to reinforce the superiority of this version of a language and the social superiority of its speakers, the other varieties of the language are now described as dialects and as examples of "bad usage of language". The relationship between standard English, so-called Received Pronunciation, and other varieties of English within Britain such as Cockney and Brummie illustrates this reality.

Birth of new languages

Another important fact which needs to be kept in mind is how new languages come into being and develop and the part that contact between speakers of different languages can play in this process. For example, many of the world's languages have themselves developed out of older languages in conditions of extensive contact with speakers of other languages brought about by major political upheavals.

Modern English emerged from Anglo-Saxon in conditions of major contact with speakers of Latin, Norse and Norman. These elements in the birth of English are reflected in its grammar, vocabulary and phonology, which is the way that the words and sentences are pronounced. The birth and development of the Caribbean languages has followed a similar pattern. In the conditions of slavery during which most Caribbean languages were born, Caribbean societies were made up of large numbers of African slaves - mainly speaking West African languages such as Yoruba, Twi, and Igbo - and a small minority of slave masters and other Europeans speaking the languages associated with the main slave-owning countries such as English, French and Spanish. The peculiar social relationships associated with plantation society and the specific social make-up of the population of each country are reflected in the structure of individual Caribbean languages.

For example the large numbers of Fon speakers in Haiti and Akan language speakers in Jamaica have both left their mark on the languages of these two countries.

New meanings

Although most Caribbean languages drew their vocabulary from the languages of the slavemasters which were socially dominant, they relied heavily on the mother tongues of the captured Africans in determining the new meanings of many of these words and in constructing the grammar of the new languages.

For example, in many Caribbean languages, the word "foot" is equivalent to the words "leg" and "foot" in English. New expressions were coined using words from the European languages but combining them in ways which the slaves were familiar with from their African mother tongues. The Bajan word '"hardears" and its Kweyol equivalent "zowey-li wed" which translate as the standard almost direct translation of an Igbo word and reflects the African influence on the formation of Caribbean languages.

Independent languages

Other expressions from a range of Caribbean languages like "cut eye" or "koupe zie" in Kweyol and "suk teet" are further evidence of this process. There are also a smaller number of African words which have passed directly into Caribbean languages. Words like 'jook', 'nyam' and 'unu' are common in a number of Caribbean languages.

Caribbean languages are independent languages in their own right

Not only do Caribbean languages have their own vocabulary, but their grammatical structures also reflect the fact that they are in fact independent languages in their own right. Serial verb constructions such as 'carry go bring come' in Jamaican, the absence of auxiliary verbs in expressions like 'he wukkin in Trinidad' and the absence of verbs in expressions like 'he ugly' are only a few of the distinctive grammatical features of Caribbean languages.

Interestingly, the expression of the negative through the use of double negatives as in "I din do nuttin" is a grammatical feature which Caribbean languages share with some non-standard varieties of English such as Cockney.

Rightful place

New languages like Jamaican, Trinidadian and Kweyol, which draws its vocabulary primarily developed. However, they have so far been unable to occupy their appropriate place in the life of the Caribbean people. This problem is linked to the foreign domination of the region and the pressure it generates to deny even the existence of these languages.

Consequently, their use has been looked down upon socially, and there has been enormous pressure from the forces of the status quo in the Caribbean through the education system and mass media to discourage their use in favour of language varieties from North America and Europe.

Major challenge

Until recently, very little work had been done on developing writing systems for these languages and on promoting them through the mass media.

Recently in Dominica and St. Lucia some work has been done on agreeing a writing system for Kweyol and there has been an increase in public broadcasting in this language, although the issue of its use in the education system is still outstanding.

However, in those countries where the languages have developed by using mostly vocabulary from English, this process has still not got off the ground.

The Caribbean languages are part of the cultural heritage of the Caribbean people linked to the national identities of the different Caribbean nations.

Their cultivation and development is a major challenge facing Caribbean people around the world.

Contributed by the African Caribbean Progressive Study Group

Website: www.aispg.org

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