Creole languages are inherently systematic

Dear Editor,

I thank Mahindra Persaud (SN, March 30) for his supportive comments on the discussion on Creolese. By now, there is a loose group of persons – University of Guyana present and past students – who are better informed about Creolese and language in general.

I also thank Ferlin Pedro, in the same issue, for joining the discussion on Creolese. To his credit, he generally supports Creolese, and he raises some considerations that are relevant to the discussion and to any attempt to move Creolese more into the mainstream of education in Guyana. But I want to invite him to not rest his thinking where it is, since there is much more to understand.

His main point of disagreement with George Cave is that he does not think that Creolese is a “systematized language”. He equates systematicity with a body of “prescriptive” rules, which he claims does not exist and without which the language cannot be taught. He also feels that attempts to “systematize” Creolese would result in something that is not really the creole.

First of all, as I stressed in earlier letters, every language has variations, but this has not prevented them being codified and taught. The creole continuum does not present a bigger problem than English did. English has numerous dialects, including northern dialects such as Manchester, Liverpool and Lancashire dialects;  East Midlands, West Midlands,  East Anglian; southern dialects including those of south London, Kent, Essex and others; and West Country dialects. These are merely some of the English regional dialects.  Yet, Standard English exists. This resulted from a long process and many contributing factors such as the printing press, dictionaries, education, religion, internal changes in the language, and conscious reform by persons who understood the value of having one standard for the country. Critically, this standard did not preclude the regional dialects, which still continue to exist while undergoing normal language change.

Secondly, we do not need to have a singular, prescriptive Creolese grammar. Creole languages have forced us to accept variation in language and to re-think traditional European linguistic idealism. Linguistic study has shown that the variations in creole continua are systematic, and can be described using poylectal grammars which can easily include variations such as “me na know”, “me en know”, “I ain know” and “Ah doan know”.  If you study Richard Allsopp’s Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage closely, you will see that it is constructed differently from the traditional dictionary. This is to accommodate variation in language usage in the Caribbean. Therefore, it is not simply a question of trying to pour new wine into old bottles, but of rethinking language as a whole, and re-thinking our thinking about it.

A huge part of Pedro’s difficulty is that he does not want to believe that creole languages are inherently systematic, but they are. This is a problem that many Guyanese have. The simple fact that they can use Creolese throughout their entire life to do all the important and necessary things that all humans do should be enough to tell them that their language must be systematic to allow them to do so. For example, it can be easily demonstrated that Creolese can express the most complex aspects of grammar which involve nuances of time and all the nuances of possibility and probability, as well as English can.  Creolese does have “sophisticated rules of usage”.

And these Creolese structures are not “arbitrary preferences and maxims” but the result of careful study. Mr Pedro might be amused (or not!) to know that it is not Creolese but English grammar that is based on “arbitrary maxims” such as that one cannot end a sentence with a preposition, or use split infinitives! The history of English grammar shows that their prescriptive grammarians borrowed heavily from Latin and Greek in order to model English grammar and spelling – all to make English a “respectable language”!

Language education has long moved away from prescriptive rules to descriptive rules which take into account the contexts of use, communicative purposes and other factors.  Such rules accommodate all the levels of the continuum. Any outsider who wishes to learn Creolese only has to decide which level s/he wishes to learn.

Editor, we Guyanese continue to beat up ourselves over matters that the rest of the world has long progressed past. We continue to produce the spectre of “problems” as if these were actual problems, when some deeper thinking would show that these are not problems at all.  We tend to imagine that all other languages arrived in perfect form, that they are all correct, grammatical, normal, systematic and so on. A great part of our problem with Creolese is not the language at all, but our self-concept. I once again invite Mr Pedro to not stop where he is in his thinking about Creolese.

Yours faithfully,

Alim Hosein

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