Insight (1 of 1)

Language Prejudice

(by Alim A. Hosein)

In my last Insight article, “Attitudes to Guyanese” I argued that, as Guyanese, we should change our attitude towards the language we speak. We call it Guyanese Creole, Creolese, Guyanese Creole English, or even, English, using descriptive or borrowed names.

This might seem to be a trivial matter, but it is very important, since these names reflect deep-seated attitudes towards this language, our history, culture and ourselves. They suggest that we do not own the language as a real cultural possession – that it is just a medium of communication, just another version of English, or even a lower form of English.

We have the same attitude to the languages of the Amerindians. Most Guyanese speak about “Amerindian dialects” rather than Amerindian languages. With the concept of “dialect” comes all kinds of notions of “folk” language, lesser language, sub-variety of language and so on.

We also use the term “dialect” to refer to our language and the language of the Caribbean. Recently, in a newspaper column written by someone who is considered very insightful on matters Caribbean, the term “dialect” was used to refer to the speech of Caribbean people.

Somewhat more distantly (but not less significantly) a local minister of government in the 1980’s publicly described Guyanese as a bastardised, rough and ready, uncouth form of communication. The national newspaper widely reported the minister’s views. Not to be outdone, a prominent local historian swiftly picked up the matter and eloquently provided the historical “justification” for the minister’s claim. He linked Guyanese with slavery, and declared that it was “fungus growth” which we quickly need to get rid of.

These statements reflect negative language prejudice. Language prejudice may be either negative (when persons look down upon a language) or positive (when persons have a high regard for a language). Both types of language prejudice are bad and harmful. Negative prejudice produces disregard for a language, while positive prejudice results in the promotion of one language above others.

Language prejudice is fed by the power relationships between the societies that speak those languages: the languages of the powerful are seen as shining examples of linguistic excellence, while the languages of the powerless are regarded as inferior and backward. Both negative and positive language prejudice pose serious implications for cultural and national development since they are not separate from beliefs and perceptions about the people who speak those languages.

Language prejudice is a sword that cuts many ways: not only do others have attitudes to the language we speak and therefore perceptions about us, but we also have attitudes to their language, and perceptions about them; and worse, we internalise attitudes to ourselves because of the attitudes others have to our language. So, ultimately, we are being prejudiced against ourselves! The minister’s attitude is a perfect illustration of the truth of this.

How many of us do not believe that someone is smarter, more civilised and better than us when we hear that person speaking in what we think is “good English” or with an “American twang”? How many of us are not ashamed of our friends, family members and colleagues when they speak to foreigners in “raw creole”? And how many of us do not over-correct our speech and say “block out”, “royot” and “voilent” instead of “black out”, “riot” and “violent” because the latter words sound too “brawling”?

Remarkably, language prejudice is not based on careful examination of the grammar or workings of the belittled language, nor is it based on an understanding of what language generally is and what it involves. Instead, the root causes of language prejudice are social and political reasons –expansionism and imperialism, racism, notions of social class, or just the desire to appear to better than somebody else.

But this kind of prejudice is often cloaked in claims about the languages themselves. For example, it may be claimed that one language has a more sophisticated grammar, a richer vocabulary, or a more elegant phonology. Other claims may assert the supposed purity of the language – that it has remained true to its original roots. Just recently, I read about a comment made in 1995 by Prince Charles at an event to launch a programme to preserve the high standards of the English language.

The good Prince described American English as “very corrupting”. He said that the Americans “tend to invent all sorts of nouns and verbs, and make words that shouldn’t be”. The prince’s statement implies that the nouns, verbs and words of one language (and of course, this would be his language, English) are right and proper, while those of other languages are not. He also warned the public to be careful about the American influence on English or else the situation would become “rather a mess”.

These claims, though, must be considered within an understanding of language as a whole. Claims about superior grammar, linguistic purity and so on are fragile notions as far as language is concerned. A good lesson is learnt from the case of Latin. Highly regarded as a sophisticated language for its declensions, conjugations, case marking, moods, inflections and other grammatical elements, Latin was the powerful language of scholarship in Europe and elsewhere for centuries. However, its “sophistication” could not save it from decline, and it eventually passed out of active use as a language. On the other hand, its “unsophisticated” colloquial, vernacular varieties have developed into full languages which continue to thrive.

Another example comes from English, which has a rich vocabulary. However, much of this vocabulary comes from other languages, to such an extent that it is estimated that at least two-thirds of the English vocabulary is not English in origin! Of course, this borrowing has destroyed any claim that can be made about the “purity” of the English language. Nevertheless, English is still the dominant language in the modern world.

Yet another example from English relates to grammar. In English we say “Two boys are at the gate” but in Guyanese we may say “Two bai deh at de gate”. English marks the plural three times: “two”, “boys” and “are”. In Guyanese, on the other hand, once plurality is established, it does not need to be repeated. Should we say that Guyanese is superior to English in its efficiency? Or that Guyanese people are smarter than the English? The answer is no – each language at any point or time is an efficient tool allowing its speakers to do what they need to do to carry on the tasks of living.

Negative Language prejudice can be aimed at any people or language, including the rich and powerful (as Prince Charles’s comment shows), but it is more damaging when aimed, as it often is, against the language of poor countries and peoples. In this context it has serious and far-reaching implications. Persons whose language is categorised as “inferior” are stereotyped as being backward, or even unintelligent, lazy, untrustworthy, of low character, morality and worth. Once this happens, the “superior” culture stops seeing these people as human beings who deserve the same levels of treatment, attention, care and protection, and these people then become easy targets for discrimination.

Of course, the bases of linguistic judgment are skewed in favour of the “superior” group – they are the ones who set the examinations, they determine who passes or fails; they decide what “good language” is. And of course, they use their own language as the standard of “correctness” or “superiority”. Further, they operate on the basis of a self-justifying circular logic: “See? They deserve to be where they are. They cannot even speak properly. And since they cannot speak properly, they must be stupid, so how can they improve themselves?”

The discrimination caused by linguistic prejudice is usually very subtle. There have been cases of outright violence against linguistic minorities, but in most cases the discrimination is so much a part and parcel of everyday life that we do not notice it. Worse, those who are discriminated against accept it as natural part of life and so do nothing about it.

But there is more: we all practice some form of language prejudice: each of us looks down on persons who, in our opinion, speak “worse” (in whatever way we determine that) than we do.

Think about it. What’s your language prejudice?

Alim A. Hosein is the Dean of Education and Humanities at The University of Guyana and also a Lecturer in Linguistics in the Department of Language and Cultural Studies

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