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Attitudes to “Guyanese”

(written by Alim A. Hosein)

Guyanese need to change our attitude towards the language that we speak. Most of us live in a kind of linguistic schizophrenia as far as our attitude to our language is concerned. We conduct our entire lives in it, from the moment we awake to the time we go to bed; from childhood to the grave; from nursery school to the university; from parliament to the market to the minibus to the playfield, to church, and so on. We acquire education, wealth, friends, spouses, services, entertainment through it. We use it to think, plan, dream, build, remember, organise, direct, play, express ourselves, and more. Yet, it is a sure bet that most Guyanese have a dim view of this language.

Even the names that we call it – “Creole”, “Creolese”, “Guyanese Creole English” – betray a lack of ownership of the language. These names are descriptive rather than possessive.

The language of the English is called English; the language of the French is called French; that of the Germans, German and so on. Why don’t we call our language Guyanese? The answer is because we do not think of it as a language in its own right. We see it as a makeshift creation, a derivative of other languages, a poor form of English, a mongrel, bastardised, corrupt, broken, ungrammatical something.

But no language is intrinsically better or worse than, or superior or inferior to, others. All languages are systems which allow their users to communicate with each other and so carry on the businesses of life and living.

Notions of linguistic “superiority” and “inferiority” – like notions about “superior” or “inferior” race – are attitudes which people have, and these attitudes in turn are the products of ideological indoctrination. Therefore, it is within the context of history that we must locate our discussion to come to an understanding of our attitude to Guyanese.

Guyanese was created during a particularly exploitative and brutal period of history. Between the 15th and 20th centuries, the Western Europeans rivaled each other in a blatant campaign of global exploitation.

Driven by the ideologies of power, wealth-creation and nationalism, they ruthlessly plundered countries and tore people from their homelands to use as mere tools of production. One significant result of this forced movement of people was that new forms of language emerged as people came into contact with languages that they had never heard before, yet had to find the means to communicate with. These kinds of languages are called “pidgin” and “creole” languages, and they are the products of tremendous human endeavour and creativity. Guyanese is one of them.

Pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-religious and blatantly racist justifications were used to condone and perpetuate slavery and colonialism. Enslaved and colonised peoples were indoctrinated to believe that their own cultures, religions, histories and languages were worthless, while those of the Europeans were right, proper, correct, superior, and civilised. The pidgin and creole languages were derided as “broken-down” and “corrupted” versions of European languages.

Many so-called “scholars” and “intellectuals” set out to “prove” that the enslaved peoples had lower intelligence which prevented them from acquiring the European languages. Some even “proved” that the shapes of heads, noses, and lips caused the enslaved people to fail to master the “perfection” of English, French, Dutch and other “superior” languages. Others “scientifically” compared the languages of the enslaved to the European languages to show that because the language of the enslaved did not contain the same features as the European languages, they were “proven” to be inferior.

Few took time to notice that these “intellectual” and “scholarly” “proofs” were short-sighted, one-sided, and very short of being “scientific”. Within the intellectual and social climate of those times, these ideas found root and thrived, and became accepted as “truth”.

West Europeans were eager to embrace these “truths”, since among other things, slavery and colonisation helped them to attain the heights reached by the great civilisations of Rome, Greece and Egypt which they regarded as high points of human culture. They had codified these civilisations as “antiquity” and “classicism”, and borrowed heavily from them. Now, slavery and colonialism generated the wealth and gave Europe the scope to attain the status of “high cultures”.

For the enslaved and colonised peoples, however, the effect was alienation from their original cultures, devaluation of their history, and loss of sense of self. These have been replaced by the values of the European masters. Thus, when we continue our negative attitude to Guyanese, we are really perpetuating colonialist myths and reinforcing racist, anti-human ideologies.

Our attitude to Guyanese is a reflection of our attitude to our self, our environment, our culture, our history and therefore, to our future. Therefore, it is important that Guyanese understand not only our language and our attitude to it, but also where that attitude comes from. As Brother Bob advised “if you analyse your history, then you would know where you’re coming from/then you wouldn’t have to ask me, who the hell do I think I am.”

Comments

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4 comments

  1. I am pretty sure in Guyana we speak English. The language of the French is Francais and of the German is Deutsch. If someone tells you they are speaking French or German, they are merely translating their native language into English. Therefore if we want to make a claim that Guyanese is a separate we should not make the English argument for other languages. Make the Guyanese argument. We should come up with our own words or better yet use the native words to describe any language.

    Guyanese does not speak Creole. Creole is a whole different language. I have seen people who speak Creole (Haiti) who cannot communicate with someone who speak French (France). I have seen people who speak Spanish communicate with people who only speak Portuguese. The people of the Romance languages communicate well with each other. Not so much for the Germanic languages, which English is a part.

    Guyanese is not a language. Changing a few words of a language does not constitute a brand new language. New words are being added to the English dictionaries every year, we don’t speak English 2.0 … Language evolve in every corner of the globe. Different people say the same words differently. It’s called an accent. “De” still means “The” and “yuh” still means “you”. The people of Boston does not speak Bostonian and the people of Texas does not speak Texan, in the end they speak English… don’t matter how badly they botch the language.

    In the end, we do not have a separate language. If you want to get super technical, we speak English with a Guyanese accent. By the way, I will continue to say tree anytime I want to say three. ☺

  2. Oh you really think there’s no language that is culturally specific to Guyanese? Try this [English translation below]: And after you struggle with it, ask yourself if you would want to erase this language from the landscape and keep English only.

    Extract from a Rice farmer’s story–
    Lang taim, wen wi a plaant rais, wen awi a plaant rais, awi das wiid a biizi an awi mek meer. Den awi a tek hoo an nak di dotii an le I kom saaf. Wel wen i kom saaf wen awi mek biiya plees biiya groo. Awi a haal dis biiya an awi a de gu plaant am. Wel, iif di dotii haad yu ga tu kot som stik an mek. . . am a grong an mek hool den yu tek di plaant an yu put am dong de an yu mool di ruut. Wel adawaiz huu get wud plou an dem get kou. Dem plou di plees. Wen yu don wiid it an it kom saaf an den tek kotlish ar de, tel tshipa an dem tshipa. . . ram an bring am saaf.

    English as best we could translate:
    Long ago , when we planted rice, when we planted rice, we used to weed the ‘biizi’ (a kind of grass) and make a ‘meer’ ( a narrow earth dam which encircles the rice field ahdn helps it retain water or keep out water). Then we would take a hoe and beat the dirt until it became soft. . When it becomes soft, we make a place (biiya) for the seedlings so the seedlings can grow. We would fetch the seedlings and we would plant them. Well, if the earth is hard you have to cut sticks and make. . . in the ground and make holes and then you would take the plant and you would put it down there and put manure around the root. Well, otherwise, those who have wooden ploughs and cows would plough the place. When you are finished with it and it becomes soft, then you take the chipper and chip the dirt to make if soft.

    Background to text: From Bickerton’s data collection (1975).
    The original interviews were done by Arnold Persaud (AP) and transcribed by him for Derek Bickerton. The text came to us via Dhanaiswary Jaganauth who previously received them from George Cave, former Lecturer, Department of English, UG, who was a part of the Bikerton project, in the period around 1970.

  3. Kevin

    To say Guyanese is its own Language, I feel, would be a bit of a stretch. I don’t know where in the spectrum from and accent to a pidgin or a creole it may stand. But I do believe we have a unique flavor to our medium of communication. I had the opportunity, at work, to speak to many of the peoples from Caricom. I can hear the variations in the way english is spoken from Island to Island. You can tell a trini distinctly from a Bajan from a Jamaican from someone from Antigua or the Bahamas. But yet we don’t say they have their own language. I can only think of creole and patwa, I maybe wrong.
    I can tell that there is difference between the way my friends and I would speak in formal settings and then the way awe dees does talk when awe deh home. But i don’t think I changed the language there but rather just used it more informally, relaxed the rules. Much of what we do as Guyanese is relaxing the “rigor of standard english.”
    On a different note, how would accepting and adopting Guyanese play into formal education and the CXC english syllabus?

  4. ‘A so awi deez doz taak wen awi de oom.’ That is the way you would write the Guyanese sentence. In English it would translate to ‘That is how we talk when we are at home.’ No relaxing of ‘rules’. Completely different rules. People are born into language/s which has its/their own grammar/rules and intrinsically learn that/those grammar/s by the time they are five years old. Your Guyanese sentence might be spoken by a Guyanese child who is growing up in a home where that variety of Guyanese is being spoken. The child may or may not know how to say the English version or other versions of Guyanese, or in Spanish or Portuguese, or Patamona or Macusi. . . . etc.

    So this is nothing to do with relaxing anything. Maybe the notion of relaxation comes because when we speak English we know that it is not really natural to us as Guyanese. It is something we do very formally and with strangers or foreigners. We speak our own language when we are relaxed.

    In terms of the CXC English syllabus, Guyanese would not ‘play’ any part at all. English is English and Guyanese is Guyanese. But I would pledge quite a lot of my earnings on the creation of a Guyanese language unit that begins the process of creating texts in Guyanese language so that we can actually teach the Guyanese language in schools, get children to speak, read and write in it creatively and test their performance in it. Their English performance will soar, because they will at last become real language learners having the benefit of studying the language they speak systematically. Learning other languages would then become a natural process rather than the gruelling and painful task the education authorities have been making it out to be. All a legacy of the slave plantation and barracks room

    Please read the rice farmer’s story properly.

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