Race, H-dropping, and writing Guyanese Creole

By Dhanaiswary Jaganauth

Dhanaiswary Jaganauth gained a BA in English and Spanish and a Diploma in Education at the University of Guyana. She obtained the MA in Linguistics from the University of the West Indies (Mona). She has written course material for and taught courses in the online MA English programme (Open Campus, UWI) and in the undergraduate programme in education. She was a Junior Research Fellow in the Institute of Caribbean Studies (UWI, Mona) and is putting the pieces together for a grammar of the Jamaican language (Patwa). She is currently a lecturer in the Dept. of Curriculum and Instruction in the Faculty of Education and Humanities at the University of Guyana.

Not surprisingly, the announcement that UG is offering a course on how to write Creolese has stirred up a good deal of discussion. Issues of race, politics (in the sense of power struggles), linguistics, creative writing and public readership have all popped up in the discussions and as soon as one issue is addressed, another one raises its head. This is to be expected.

The Creolese Writing course is not designed to teach linguistics but the spelling system being introduced was designed by linguists. This has prompted one reader (who is against any new spelling system) to say that linguistics should remain in academia.

Linguistics is about the study of language – the scientific study of language. People have long been offering their thoughts on how they think language works and how particular languages (such as English) work. Many of the pronouncements of the self-appointed “language experts” are no more than their personal opinions about how a particular language (English, for example) ought to work.

Linguists, on the other hand, aim to study and report on how people actually use their language. They are interested as well in how people view the various alternative ways of saying the same thing. For example, if one group regularly uses ‘ain’t’ while another prefers forms such as ‘isn’t, aren’t, am not’, then the linguist will record and report this fact. But that’s not all. The linguist will also report on whether some, or all, groups regard ‘ain’t’ as acceptable usage.

The discussions triggered by the June 15 letter to the editor (“UG’s  Aliidee Skuul teaches writing in Guyanese Creole”) provides some interesting socio-political data that will have to be taken into consideration in any sociolinguistic account of Guyanese Creole.

The English word ‘holiday’ is pronounced ‘aliidee’ by some Guyanese and ‘haliidee’ by others. The June 15  letter writer chose to use the version without the ‘h’ and that has provoked a strong reaction from one reader and a conjuring up of old racial and political wounds. I am sure that whoever chose the word ‘aliidee’ did not set out to discriminate against or exclude any group. But it is in the nature of communication that we each bring our own experiences to bear on the task of interpretation.

One possible reason for choosing ‘aliidee’ over ‘haliidee’ is that the former is more different from the English spelling. Consciously or not, the motivation behind the choice may have been no different from Merriam Webster’s decision to change the spelling of words such as honour to honor.  It is said that Webster’s motivation to write a dictionary of American English and in doing so, to reform the spelling of words, was to help establish American independence from the British. Linguistic independence fosters political and cultural independence.

As one reader sees it, the letter writer’s choice of ‘aliidee’ rather than ‘haliidee’ indicates a bias in favour of the African Guyanese variety of Creolese and an exclusion of varieties associated with the other races. This is a common perception among Indian Guyanese and we should acknowledge this.

The contrast between ‘aliidee’ and ‘haliidee’ lies in the fact that one is pronounced with an “h-sound” and the other is not. A linguist would tell you that such a phenomenon is not unique to Guyana or to any one racial group. In fact, it is so common in British English that some observers have coined the term h-dropping to refer to it. To illustrate: if an individual or group regularly fails to pronounce [h] at the beginning of words and syllables, and another group of speakers usually pronounces it in those places, then the group that does not pronounce [h] is said to be h-dropping.

In the UK, dialect surveys (by linguists) reveal that h-dropping is very common in Wales and in most of England.  The surveys do not say anything about race, but they do identify h-dropping as being more common among the working class. And, in the UK, Caucasians (white people) are part of the working class!

It may be worth noting that this aspect of British speech dates back to a time before there were African Caribbean immigrants to the UK. Even before Columbus set sail for India! Some linguists say h-dropping was a feature of English going as far back as the 13th century and that it was only in the 18th century that some elocution “experts” began to tell people that it was wrong. In this excerpt from a Dickens’ novel, for example, the character says ‘umble’ instead of ‘humble’.

“‘I am well aware that I am the umblest person going,’ said Uriah Heep, modestly…. My mother is likewise a very umble person.’” (Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, 1850)

As noted above, the perception of many Indian Guyanese, is that ‘h-dropping’ is a feature of African Guyanese speech. Interestingly, Indian Jamaicans drop their aitches too. “We ave to plant a edge” (‘a hedge’), was said by an Indian Jamaican. Nonetheless, the Indian Guyanese perception cannot be discounted in a description of Creolese today. That perception may change with time and more discussion. Language patterns and the social judgements associated with them are continually undergoing change.

The teachers of the Writing Creolese course have allayed one fear: the fear that the course privileges speakers of one dialect of Creolese (the dialect associated with one racial group) at the expense of all others. However, the gap that was left by addressing this fear was soon filled by another concern. Why should we use a special spelling system for writing Creolese when English spelling can do an even better job?

The argument presented in favour of using English spelling for writing Creolese is that it allows the Caribbean/Guyanese writer to reach a much wider readership than would be the case if such a writer were to use the proposed Creolese Writing System. English spelling, so the argument goes, means that Caribbean literature would be accessible not only to Caribbean readers, but it would be accessible to readers worldwide (since English is known worldwide). The new spelling system limits the writer’s readership to Caribbean readers only.

One could argue that that is a choice the local writer should be allowed to make. The writer would have to weigh the importance of the marketplace against his/her sense of self, his/her commitment to the development of a Guyanese/Caribbean selfhood and independence. The lesson from cases where writers have gone with their conscience instead of the marketplace has been, if you have what the world wants, the world will find you. That’s what translators are for.

But let’s examine the claim that the English spelling has an advantage of readability and public readership. It may be true that the Caribbean reader who is literate in English has grown accustomed to reading Creolese written in English spelling.  But should we have to become literate in English before we can read and write in our native language?

Like children everywhere, the Guyanese child has the need to express himself creatively. He already has a language, Creolese. It will take him at least another ten years or so to attain a fair degree of competence in English. Why should he have to wait ten years or more before he can write (and read) his own stories? Giving him the tools to do so is a necessity right now.

And what about the child who never attains that degree of competence or comfort in English? Doesn’t she deserve her place in the sun as well?

The claim that Creolese written with English spelling is understood by a non-Caribbean readership is also open to question. Let’s take the Englishman reading a Caribbean novel containing some Creolese references. How will he interpret “You too disgustin”, or “Why you so miserable?” and “Where you stopping?” “I have family in New Amsterdam”?

In one Guyanese story, a man waits in the dark to catch the boys who steal his mangoes at night. The story-teller says: ‘Mr Jones, he pick up he walking stick, out he lamp, den he go outside an sidong in he chair to wait for them’. The translator writes: ‘Mr Jones picked up his walking stick. Out he limped….’ How often do such mis-translations occur?

Today I wrote, “Wayne says Thursday is better for him but I must remind him on Wednesday.” Was it Wayne’s idea that I remind him? Or was it mine? What would the Englishman make of what I wrote?

Finally, let me end where I began. As a linguist still learning, my journey began as a teacher frustrated by the fact that I could not solve the problem of my students’ failure to master English. Linguistics has given me a better perspective on the issues and I am pretty sure that now I can do a better job and have more empathy with my students’ struggles. Linguistics has never been an ivory tower plaything.

Linguistics is about everyday language use. Each of us knows the grammar and social norms of our native language. But for the most part, we do not know that we know such patterns and norms. The linguist can make us aware of the rules we know and use. For the Creolese speaker, such knowledge is priceless. In a system that does not validate what he/she knows, a system where he/she is constantly being humiliated for not “speaking properly”, Linguistics can contribute to the healing.

For a writer, creativity and intuition must be matched by an ability to create the right effects with words and sentences and paragraphs. There is Linguistics in that. If you ever picked up a good dictionary or grammar book, linguistics was involved in its making. Linguistics has always been about language in use.

Creativity is not limited to one language or one spelling system. And writers should have the option of choosing which spelling system they want to use. We have a far way to go before that choice is readily available. Introducing the Guyanese writing system to interested persons is a beginning.

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