As anyone who has seen me perform knows, I frequently go off in some good-natured commentary on various things cultural, and one of them is the effectiveness of our dialect, so that a reaction from Bernard Fernandes, a diaspora Guyanese, lauding a point about dialect I recently made, leads me to shout, as I have before, for the value of our dialect and to consequently object when it is attacked. It’s a subject I often get dragged into because of the dialect nature of many of my songs, but I must confess that I don’t need to be dragged – I’m more than ready to leap in – so at a time when the University of Guyana is making efforts to legitimise our Guyanese lingo I’m one of the persons publicly saying “Go brave Dr Griffith”.
The modern technology, now coming at us in waves, is all in the interest of better communication; that is the mantra and a worthwhile one at that. By extension, however, we have to be on guard to defend “de way we does talk” as often the most effective way we have for Guyanese to communicate with Guyanese, particularly if we believe, as we should, in brevity.
It’s not a conscious, or should I say deliberate thing for me; it’s just that the dialect expression or phrase is often a good tie-off to some point I’m making, and, frankly, because those lines are often the result of much back and forth in the process of usage, they have become a kind of honed language putting the case well in a few words. Indeed ‒ and I make it a point to mention this in performance ‒ dialect expressions are often the best way we have to express something when we’re speaking with or to each other. An example I have often mentioned on stage, is the dialect expression “she sit down bad”. It’s just four words, but I invite you to take any four words in Standard English and describe that scenario better than the dialect does. We would likely end up with something like “a certain female was seen in a public space positioned in such a manner that aspects of her private parts could be easily observed.” (I started to count the words in the Standard English description and gave up.) In the dialect’s four words we describe what’s happening, we tell you that it’s in public, and we also indicate this is not proper behaviour; all of that from “she sit down bad”, and, critically, the folks listening know exactly what you mean – brevity and clarity; what more can we ask in the forms of our exchanges?
The most beautiful part of this (and I’ve learned this over the years) is that the people who created the dialect have already done the work for me; they have refined these expressions from tried and true usage. I know, from experience, from using these terms or forms, that what exists in the dialect is there because it conveys a range of information, very clearly, in a few words. Dialect speakers don’t have the time or the inclination for long-winded explanations of anything; the process is condensations. Think of it: “wutless”, “mawger”, “scraven”, “voomps”, “ruction” ‒ one word, yes, but powerful, like a slap, bringing the meaning across vividly and instantly. The result is singular and very clear communication. The Trinis have a word ‘paypsee’ meaning ‘frivolous’ or ‘wishy washy’… Jamaicans say, ‘jinal’ for ‘devious’… Caymanians tell you that a certain food or dish is ‘stallin’, meaning you can’t eat a lot of it, and in that same scenario Guyanese use the term ‘gains’ me’… same idea, different one-word description, making immediate sense with the person hearing the term; in other words, effective communication.
Some of our academic brethren are aghast at the notion of legitimizing the so-called ‘Creole’ language, when in fact my stance is that the ability to speak the dialect, while competent in Standard English, leaves us as a bi-lingual people with all the advantages that flow from that. As a person often drawn to the humourous nature of things, I recall walking with a Guyanese friend in Toronto some years back, as a very voluptuous lady was passing us. Very impressed by the lady’s attributes, Eric let out the common Guyanese expletive used to describe the female posterior. The Canadian lady stopped, turned around, and stared at him, “Excuse me what did you say?” Cool as ice, Eric replied, “I was just saying you’re beautiful.” The lady beamed, “Oh, thank you very much” and continued on her way smiling. It struck me afterward how much ground that one word, in dialect, could contain so much information for me that was blank to the Canadian. It was, of course, a technique that French Canadians would often use in Ontario: they would lapse into Quebecois French expressions when they wanted to convey something privately to one of their own. It didn’t take me long to draw on Eric’s encounter to realise I could similarly keep things confidential when speaking to a Guyanese with Canadians present. Believe me, in big-city life, that is a useful tactic. It rescued me many times in potentially awkward situations where I wanted something to remain private; I used my alternative verbiage.
As my diaspora friend Bernard Fernandes put it, the more we get into these dialect exchanges “the more we understand what we know.” To which I would add…“and, more importantly, what we don’t know.”