(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.”