I wish to respond to Mr George N Cave’s letter titled ‘There is merit in learning Creolese at university level but also about Creolese’ published in Stabroek News on March 24.
I agree with Mr Cave on his broad point that Guyanese Creolese warrants study at the university level. Firstly, it would be enlightening to learn about the dialect itself, its history, and how it aided to shape our unique Guyanese identity; and secondly, we have yet to produce a sufficient prescriptive account (if possible) of Guyanese Creolese.
Guyanese Creolese was birthed as a historical consequence of the intermixing of two or more languages. African, Indian, and even Arawakan languages have influenced the development of Guyanese Creolese. The English language (the parent language) is formally recognized as the language of Guyana while Creolese is often considered to be a lesser, unimportant language that is merely a dialectal offspring of English (see Mr Cave’s opponents who have published response letters glossing over the significance of Creolese). But I do think Creolese is important since it is integral to our culture.
While I agree that it should be taught and studied at the tertiary level, I disagree with Mr Cave’s claim that Guyanese Creolese is a systematized language, which could either mean Creolese has been ‘systematized’, at least academically, or it is inherently systematic. I am sceptical about both for several reasons.
When we think of a language we tend to think of structure—rules of grammar and norms of usage. In contrast, a dialect is said to be a variant of a language specific to a group of people or geographic region. Linguists who have studied Guyanese Creolese consider it to have the characteristics of an established and systematized language like English given the extent and richness in both vocabulary and grammar. However, much of what is documented about Guyanese Creolese offers a descriptive, not prescriptive, account of the behaviour and usage of the dialect in contrast to its parent language, English.
What makes Creolese particularly interesting is the fact that once the Creole dialect develops socially in a community, it is then nurtured from childhood. Children learn their particular community’s Creolese dialect as their native language. For example, a phrase like ‘fetch de wata bai’ might be spoken subtly differently in regional communities. Therefore, for most of us, our ‘native language’ is some form of Creolese rather than Victorian English.
In his letter, Mr Cave stated that Guyanese “Creolese is a language that is systematic and rule-governed, just as English, or French or Spanish”. As mentioned earlier, I doubt this claim. For a language to be “systematic and rule-governed” it must follow some form of normative prescription on matters of speech and writing, such as a universal standard that we can mostly agree with institutionally and socially. The latter I suspect would be contentious since it begs the question as to through what or whom do we find that standard of a formal systematized Guyanese Creolese. Even if we were to accomplish this, can Guyanese Creolese be formally and systematically taught to natives of Creole? Would it even be Creole from that point onwards?
Guyanese Creolese is an oral tradition, with recent developments in written literacy attempting to capture the essence of spoken Creole. Given the language continuum Guyana has due to its rich multicultural history, any attempt at conclusively systematizing Creolese would prove to be difficult. It seems that Guyanese Creolese subject to analytical rigour gives way to arbitrary preferences and maxims, resembling something other than localized Creole. In other words, we may describe the phenomenon of Guyanese Creolese but it becomes difficult to say, ‘Here is a comprehensive guide to Creolese as we know it and how it should be.’
What about the possibility of standardizing Guyanese Creolese as a national language? To which I say, why not? However, I foresee that the intuitional challenge would have to account as to what exactly they mean by ‘Guyanese Creolese’, and address concerns as to whether it can include holistically the Creole continuum which exists in Guyana. For example, the Berbician Creole would have to agree that the Lindener’s Creole is the ‘same’ Creolese they are speaking despite their oral and orthographical differences. Another concern is which temporal era of Creolese should we adopt as representative of Guyanese Creolese? The problem seems to be a normative concern.
The linguist may attempt to answer the questions mentioned above, but their job is limited to providing a descriptive language that represents closely that of native Creole, not a prescriptive language by which we must abide if Creole is native to us. In Caribbean schools, students nurtured in Creolese are taught with their dictionaries and textbooks on the art of perfecting the English language, while Americans and Britons are given a dictionary of Caribbean Creolese for them to understand in their own systematized English language. Why is that? Perhaps it is because Creolese was never thought of as a language to be learned; that is, one is merely nurtured into it rather than indoctrinated about it. Creolese, in this sense, can be thought of as being a liberating language without sophisticated rules of usage.
Finally, the Guyanese Creole phenomenon is in fierce competition to survive with its parent language, English. If we listen carefully to our dialect we will sense how subtly different our Creole is becoming, especially in Georgetown where competency in good English is in high demand in the job market. Nevertheless, if Guyanese Creo-lese is constantly evolving and shaped by its parent language and the dialects of other cultures, then we must pay attention to this change in linguistic development. For Guyanese Creolese to survive there must be institutional recognition and persistent local academic interest.