What is Caribbean linguistics?

from the Jamaica Gleaner, August 5, 2000.

Hubert Devonish

The following is a contribution by Hubert Devonish, the coordinator of the 13th Biennial Conference of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics which is set for the Mona campus of the UWI between August 16 and 19.

IF I told you, 'Linguistics is the scientific study of language', you are likely to find something more interesting to read. And if you did that, you are likely to miss a lot of stuff that you might really find very interesting.

When I say 'the study of language', please don't cast your mind back to those boring lessons you had on how to use tense in English, or French or Spanish or, if you are old enough, Latin or Greek. This linguistics stuff is about real living language and about how people use it.

Linguists are interested in the sounds of human language. Anybody who had heard about Miriam Makeba sing would have heard those click sounds used in Southern African languages such as Xhosa (the 'x' represents one of those click sounds) and Zulu.

But we are also interested in how meaningful bits of language are put together to form words. So, as in that expressive Jamaican word 'bakativ'/"backative", we do want to understand the process by which the ativ(e)' from English words like 'laxative', 'purgative', and the word 'ba(c)k' combine to produce a new word on with the meaning, 'backing, support'. And, of course, linguists are interested in how words in sequences to produce sentences.

We are fascinated

So, we are fascinated by the fact that in Jamaican, a sentence such as 'Aal di waak im waak, Jaan naa get taiyad" is a perfectly good sentence and yet its close English equivalent, "All the walk he walks, John is not getting tired' is not. What makes the first sentence a perfectly grammatical sentence in Jamaican and the second ungrammatical in English? What is it about the rules of these two languages which differ.

But linguistics is not just concerned about the actual structure of language. Linguists are fascinated about the fact that in every culture, in every society, every child who is born and does not have a mental or hearing impairment, ends up learning the language of his or her community perfectly.

Many of us who, as adults, have toiled for hundreds of hours trying to master a foreign language then go to a country where the language is spoken have been humbled. To our horror, see every single six-year-old child, some of whom may not even have started school yet, babbling away quite merrily in this language that we are still struggling to even pronounce properly.

What makes children able to learn any language they are exposed to? Is it something about language or something about children's brains which makes this happen?

Linguists study child language acquisition, observing how children acquire language, in what order they learn what they learn, the mistakes they make as they learn.

Anybody who has ever seen the film, "My Fair Lady" would know how important how you speak is to you being able to identify yourself with and as a member of a particular social group. And if you have ever giggled at someone who says 'hoks" and "toil" for the English words 'ask' and 'tile', you have an understanding of the importance of language for identifying a speakers social background.

The interest in the link between language and social groups is the concern of a sub-area of linguistics called socio-linguistics.

Now that we know what linguistics is, what then is this beast called Caribbean Linguistics? In many areas of the Caribbean, there are special kinds of language situations.

Usually, there is in existence an established, standardised and official language, originally brought to the Caribbean from Europe. These are languages such as French, Dutch, English, and Spanish. However, as a result of the importation by Europeans of millions of West Africans into the Caribbean as slave labour, there grew up, as well, a range of other languages which can be regarded as mixed languages.

For the most part, these languages have the vocabulary of one of the European languages, but have pronunciation patterns and grammatical structures which can be linked to the languages imported in to the Caribbean from West Africa.

These languages are what have come to be known in linguistics as Creole languages. These are new languages, no older than 400 years old. This is young, very young, when compared with most of the world's languages.

Another feature which Caribbean Creole languages share is that they have very low status. In most Caribbean societies, from Suriname to the Bahamas, from St. Vincent to Belize, these languages are looked down upon, often even by the people who speak them every day.

Into conflict with

And it is this last issue that brings linguists almost daily across the region, into conflict with public opinion. Linguists argue that these forms of speech are languages, they should be studied, they can tell a lot about the history of the societies, and they can be used for any purpose their speakers want to put them to.

They are in no way inferior to any of the European languages with which they co-exist.

Linked to this is the thorny question of how these languages affect the school, children's ability to learn the European languages, children's acquisition of literacy etc. These issues exercise the minds of people right across the region, consuming tons of newsprint in the process and hundreds of hours of time on radio and television.

Whether the issue is about Dutch and Papiamentu (a Spanish-Portuguese Creole used in Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), Dutch and Sranan (an English vocabulary Creole language spoken in Surinamme), French and Haitian (the French vocabulary Creole spoken in Haiti) English and Guyanese Creole, English and Belizean Creole, or the decades old Patwa/English debate in Jamaica, we have heard it before.

The 13th Biennial Conference of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics will have presentations which cover the origins and history of Caribbean languages. Other presentations will deal with the pronunciation patterns of these languages, their word building structure and their syntax. And on, day one of the conference, which is also styled, Colloquium 2000, the knotty issue of language and education will be tackled.

The theme for Colloquium 2000 is Language Teaching and Learning in the Caribbean: Interrogating Theory and Practice.

The keynote speaker will be Dr. Marta Dijkhoff, a linguist and former Minister of National Education of the Netherlands Antilles. She is particularly noted for the radical measures she took to bring about language reform in the education system of that country. Her address on Mother Tongue Education in the Netherlands Antilles should be of particular interest to us here in Jamaica.

The Colloquium 2000 programme will also feature a panel discussion on the Role of Jamaica Creole in Language Education. Colloquium 2000 shall also feature papers by a number of scholars on the Use of Native Language in teaching English at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Also on the agenda is a workshop on the writing of English at the tertiary level.

If you are still with me, you have your answer. What I have just outlined is just a small sample of what Caribbean Linguistics is and what the concerns of scholars are within this field. The 13th Biennial Conference of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics to be held between August 16 and 19, at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies, is just another stage in the ongoing task of studying Caribbean languages and bringing the results of our scientific study to public attention.