The Linguistic Legacy of Indian-Guyanese

By Harry T. Hergash

 Harry Hergash, a graduate of the University

of Guyana, taught at the Annandale Government Secondary from 1964 to 1969.

He immigrated to Canada in 1974.

20131028diaspora Indian-Guyanese, the descendants of Indian immigrants, comprise about 43.5% of the population of Guyana. The everyday speech of the majority of this segment of the population, especially those living in rural communities, is peppered with words of Indic origin. Most of these words relate to items of food, kitchen utensils, terminology identifying family members and other relatives, names and terminology associated with religious holidays and worship, and names of vegetables and plants.

On a daily basis, it would not be uncommon to hear a woman speaking of using a belna (rolling pin) to baylay (roll and spread) roti (Indian flat-bread) or hear at lunch-time that daal (a soup-like dish of split peas/lentils), rice, and bhoonjal chicken (a form of curried chicken with no gravy) are on the menu. A child, on seeing his/her paternal grandparents is likely to greet them as aajee (grandmother) and aajaa (grandfather), or naanee (grandmother) and naana (grandfather), if they are maternal grandparents. A farmer may report that he is going to his garden to plant bora (string beans), bygan (egg plant/boulanger), karaila (bitter melon) or bhaajee (any leafy vegetable such as spinach). At certain times during the year, one may hear of a national holiday granted for Diwaali (Hindu festival of lights) or a national holiday for Eid (Muslim celebration at the end of the month of fasting).

These Indic and to a lesser extent Arabic/Persian words were brought to Guyana by the ancestors of Indian-Guyanese who were taken to the then British colony, to work as Indentured labourers on the sugar plantations. Over the years, some of these words have migrated into the wider Guyanese community. However, with each passing generation of Indian-Guyanese, the repository is being depleted. Increasingly less and less words are being passed on. This article offers a brief look at the sources of the words and phrases that were brought by the Indian immigrants and passed on to their descendants.

The Indian immigrants were recruited from different districts in north and south India, with the majority coming from the north. In the north, the main recruiting districts were the North Western Provinces and Oudh or the United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh), Bengal, Bihar and, to a lesser extent, the Punjab. In the south, the main areas were the Tamil and the Telinga districts of the Madras Presidency. After 1858, the Bhojpuri-speaking districts of western Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh were the main suppliers of indentured labourers and altogether, Bihar and UP accounted for roughly 86% of the recruits to Guyana.

Surendra Kumar Gambhir, in his doctoral dissertation for the University of Pennsylvania in 1981 provides a listing of the dialects of the Indian indentured immigrants to Guyana. He states that the lingua franca of the first immigrants from India to Guyana was a form of Bhojpuri. He mentions that during the period 1842-1871, more than 73% of the immigrants came from areas where the languages spoken were Maithili, Magahi, Bhojpuri, Avadhi and several western dialects. For the period 1875-1916, he notes that a large number of speakers of Bhojpuri, Avadhi, Maithili, Magahi, Kannauji, Braj, Bundel, and Khari Boli (Old Hindi) came to Guyana. In the last period, he observed that 8.3% of the immigrants came from various parts like Bengal, Punjab, Native States like Nepal, Central India, Central Provinces, Bombay and Madras and adds that others immigrating to British Guiana included speakers of Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Rajasthani, Nepali, Punjabi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and perhaps a few other languages.

Over time in the new environment, linguistic adjustments occurred and a combined dialect emerged and became the lingua franca of the immigrants and their immediate descendants. According to Gambhir, a process of homogenization took place leading to a levelled form of Bhojpuri that subsumed the other dialects. He termed this amalgamated language, “Guyanese Bhojpuri” and states that only traces of Avadhi and other western Hindi dialects remained. In his study he notes also that the word “Bhojpuri” is virtually unknown to Indian-Guyanese and its use is limited mainly to scholars and those interested in studying the language of the East Indians. In fact, the immigrants and their early descendants called their language Hindustani, a name still used in Suriname where the language has survived to this day.

Gambhir reports that the Tamil language was not subsumed by the “Guyanese Bhojpuri” and retained its identity. This is not surprising as Tamil belongs to the Dravidian family of languages whereas the north Indian languages are members of the Indo-Aryan family of languages. In Guyana, it is well known that in the Albion area of the country, there is a large Tamil community where the Dravidian culture still flourishes. To this day, Albion is a major centre for the performance of “Kali Mai Puja”, a form of south Indian worship of the deity Kali. Gambhir postulates that south Indian immigrants learned the Guyanese Bhojpuri for communication with their north Indian counterpart but maintained communication in Tamil within their group.

Roughly three quarters of all the Indian indentured immigrants to Guyana were Hindus and around one quarter were Muslims. This division is important as religion has played a large role in the Indian culture that evolved in Guyana. During the indentureship period, several Indic languages/dialects were brought into the country. However, towards the end of the indentureship period, more and more formal Hindi and Urdu were being introduced through the school system, the translators’ examinations and the influx of more educated immigrants to take on the role of Hindu and Muslim priests. With the increasing dissemination of religious teachings in the 1940s and 1950s, based on Sanskrit for Hindus and Arabic for Muslims, Bhojpuri words, especially in relation to religion and religious terminology, started to be replaced, e.g. a Hindu temple which was called a mathya is now called a mandir, a Hindu marriage canopy is now called a mandap instead of a maaro, the colourful spring festival previously called phagwah is now termed holi, and, on the Muslim side the word meijie for a Muslim priest (or leader of prayers) has been replaced by imaam.

The ancestors of the overwhelming majority of Indo-Guyanese came from districts in northern India where each had a native language/dialect but all coming under the umbrella of the Indo-Aryan family of languages. Hindustani, a vernacular language that incorporated both Sanskritic and Persian/Arabic words, was common to many of these areas. A small minority of the immigrants came from southern India where their language/dialect belonged to the Dravidian family of languages and where Hindustani had not penetrated. Among the north Indians in Guyana. an amalgamation of dialects occurred in which Bhojpuri gained dominance and this combined dialect became the lingua franca of the majority of immigrants and their early descendants. The Dravidian languages of the minority were not subsumed but retained their identity and continued to be used in small enclaves where southerners dominated. By the early twentieth century formal Hindi and Urdu came on the scene and slowly started to replace some Bhojpuri terms, especially in the area of religion. With creolization and Anglicization of successive generations of descendants of the immigrants, as they strive for higher social and economic standing, the utility value of their ancestral languages increasingly decreased and are now almost extinct as spoken languages with only words and phrases that have survived.