Language and Caribbean People

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What has been your experience? 

“To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.”

“The Negro and Language.” Black skin, white masks’ – Frantz Fanon (1967):17

As we know, language, use of language, proper language, standard English or “learn to speak properly” is a requirement of the social, cultural and academic context of Caribbean people;  notwithstanding, the labeling of bad or and improper English.   These expectations can be summarized within the Linguistics’ jargon as ‘varieties of English’.

As a result of the many complexities that may arise, it is not the intention of this blog to define what ‘standard English’ is.  It is the intention, however, to expand on Fanon’s quotation as stated above, and to posit that he has perfectly summarized the social and cultural identities of Caribbean people in their use of language.

Language is not only used to communicate but it is one of the characteristics of our identity and as such assumptions and expectations of self and others are formed.  We are then included and excluded for one thing or the other.

Whether to choose to use the word ‘civilization’ or ‘enlightenment’, the fact is, our ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ was altered during colonization.  Some of the languages that were brought to the islands include Spanish, French, English and Dutch.  Our ability to master the English Language and its conventions therefore has created a creolization and dialects of many of our Caribbean countries.  It has also created stereotypes.  For example in Barbados, persons who have mastered the ability of speak “standard English” or to use the Bajan vernacular, ‘speak properly’ oftentimes are at a better chance of progressing socially, academically and economically.  They are also in better positions to be ‘heard’ or referred to as very articulate.  As of consequence, we are categorized or reminded by society of our socio-economic background (working, middle or upper class).  This is to say that standard English signals prestige and that it is reserved to the elite.  Standard English has become a hierarchal structure.

Culture and identity is a social construct and standard English will impinge on cultures in the Caribbean.   If we are to measure English within the context of academia and juxtapose it with sport commentary this will morph into another discussion.  Take for example, in the use of English there is the rule of subject and verb agreement.  It would be correct to say, “the team is”; however, in sporting commentary the word “team” becomes plural it is referred to then as the “team are”.  Additionally, in every organization, profession or social setting there are other variations and requirements and hence “standard English” vs ‘culture is contested.

images language 1In the Caribbean there is a preference for accents of tourists.  However, in Barbados persons who travelled aboard and code switch their foreign accent with Bajan dialect are referred to as Bajan Yankies amongst the nationals.  They are even compared with persons from other Caribbean people, like Jamaicans, Vincentians and Dominicans whose accents remain strong despite having lived aboard.  One of the reasons for this, as posited by Peter Roberts in his article “Language and Culture: West Indians and their Language”, is that because of the high dependency in tourism Bajans mimic the tourists’ accents to make communication easier between the two nationalities but this is not the case with Guyana, St. Lucia and Dominica because of less tourist penetration in Guyana and the creolization in the other two countries.

As a result, it is impossible to determine what is standard English because of its dynamics.  It may be practical however, to recognize the requirement and expectation of a ‘culture’ so as to understand the requirements within the context that it is being used, understood and or accepted.


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