Language + the Self

This Ted talk 

shook loose a memory of a conversation with a white American man who did/does charitable work in the region about The Way We Talk (to reference the book by Antiguan and Barbudan author Joy Lawrence breaking down, well the way we talk…and other Antiguan folkways).

As with most Antiguans and Barbudans, and Caribbean people, really, I move in and out of that home/heart/nation language and English (the standard), depending on the context.

Sidebar: A recent overheard conversation – one woman to another – “yuh ah go back ah work?” – other woman in response – “dem lucky!” This tickled me because really how do you express that in standard English, that “dem lucky!” – “hell to the no” maybe? – oh, wait, that’s not standard English either, is it? But no “they would be fortunate if that happened because I have my business to take care of; so, no, I will not be returning to work today” doesn’t quite cut it either; some things only find fullness of expression in our heart language (yes, I calling it language; let the linguists linguist, ah so we talk).

I had by the time of my interaction with the gentleman mentioned earlier written pieces in defence of this ‘dialect’ (a whole series explaining why it was not just bad English at one point). It was odd, this conversation, because he and I were really meeting for the first time and he commented on what he perceived as the limited range of expression of this heart language. For context, consider that this ‘limited’ language is my first language. Consider that variations of it is the first language of people up and down our archipelago of Caribbean islands, French, English, Spanish, Dutch etc., depending on which European country colonized the island and the origins of the primarily African people, of different tribes with their own languages, who were brought to those islands largely by force and, while trying to hold on to something of themselves under duress, had to shape a new identity from these larger influences and other factors, like the indigenous influences and the influences of the migratory populations who would arrive later. Limited? A rich, thick, tasty pepperpot more like.

Was his assumption arrogant? Sortofmaybeyes…but it was also curious and I decided to be patient. I remember telling him something along the lines of the language, like any language, having the vocabulary it needs (language is functional after all) and it is dynamic (meaning that it continues to adapt to the needs of its population). I’m not sure if I directed him to pick up a copy of The Way We Talk and Other Antiguan Folkways, which talks about the origins of some of the words in our vernacular, as well as the constructions of those words to make sentences, that communicate meaning that is understood by other speakers with the tools and frame of reference to decode that language. See, it works like other languages – and though we had been colonized into thinking badly of it, it served us well. My own mental shift on this topic probably began in my undergrad years, reading Dr. Carolyn Cooper’s columns written in both standard English and Jamaican patois. I was not used to seeing any variation of the largely oral Caribbean creole we all grew up speaking, in our various island variations, written down. And back then the only patois I knew was what the Dominicans (not Dominican Republic) in my family spoke. It was a French based creole much like our English based creole but we saw it (patois) as its own thing and called what we spoke dialect (and it was common to hear “speak properly” if you spoke that dialect out of turn). But the times they are a-changing. Dr. Cooper still writes her column in both English and Jamaican – could she do that if one lacked the range to express itself as fully as the other? There is a dictionary of Caribbean English, online data resources of Caribbean creole, a Bible in Caribbean creole, and it (the creole, not the bible) is included in A-level communications courses and texts (which now fall under the jurisdiction of the Caribbean Examinations Council). I use ‘dialect’ liberally in my creative writings, and I taught those Advanced level communications courses at more than one institution, at one point.

These developments represent shifts in our understanding of our Caribbean creole language/s – that it has a vocabulary, an origin, an orthography, a construction, a standard along with its sub-regional variations.

And that’s a good thing, because per the video, which prompted this reflection, the other thing to be considered is how language shapes the way you think on so many levels – from geography to humor to emotions to gender to crime and punishment, so much hinges on that – and understanding that is a step closer to understanding the self.

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