February 23, 2002 - From: Winford James

A Different, not an Incorrect, Way of Speaking, Pt 1

The Creole vernacular speech of Trinidad and Tobago is a patterned bona fide way of speaking, but many Trinbagonians, including teachers of English, do not know this. They will tell you that Tobagonians and Trinidadians speak 'dialect' - in fact two different dialects - but what they mean is that it is a substandard, broken version of English. When we speak dialect, so the belief goes, we are speaking Standard English incorrectly and, even though we understand one another perfectly well, our speech is ungrammatical. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The evidence that the Creole is patterned and rule-governed is with us all the time. It is there every time we open our mouths in neighbourly greeting and conversation. It is there in the million-plus limes we have every day of our lives. It is there in calypso, soca, and chutney. It is there in the exchanges in the street, the taxi, the market, the office, the university, the parliament (when we had one!). It was there in full presence in Carnival 2002! We use it as an ineluctable means of daily socialisation, and yet we don't give it the value it deserves.

Oppression-dictated attitudes prevent us from recognising it. Slavery, strict indentureship, an easy acceptance of third-world status, and an insecure, outer-directed selfhood keep many of us blind to the truth and locked up in myth and superstition. And one of the egregious consequences is that many of our primary and secondary teachers see their students as coming into the classroom without authentic, viable language and, consequently, in accordance with some recondite wisdom, without intelligence.

Part of the problem is that many, including some whose profession is teaching and enlightening young minds, have not taken the time to understand that people do not - cannot - communicate without structure in their speech; it is simply impossible. Nor have they properly addressed the matter of how children everywhere are able to acquire the language of their communities in less than five years without being formally taught but somehow have great difficulty acquiring Standard English. So in the rest of this column, I will take two routine aspects of the speech of Trinbagonians and show how they are structured by comparison with Standard English. Those aspects are how we pluralise nouns and how we use them to express general meaning.

First, how we pluralise. Whereas Standard English basically adds an 's' (or an appropriate variant of the latter) to the end of a countable noun to pluralise it (e.g., politician + s, crook + s, wretch + es), Trinbagonian Creole adds dem or an dem (e.g., politician + (an) dem, crook + (an) dem, wretch + (an) dem). The 's' is an inflection or suffix, while the (an) dem is two whole words.

But the difference doesn't end there; they are used differently in the respective languages. 's' is used to express general meaning when the noun is not modified, as in: 'Politicians are corrupt', where, in the absence of a word like 'the', we are referring to politicians generally and not a specified group of politicians like 'The UNC politicians' or 'The PNM politicians'. When we use words like 'the', 'those', and 'our' before the pluralised noun, the 's' combines with those words to pick out a specific group of referents (e.g., UNC politicians) from the general class of politicians.

But (an) dem is used somewhat differently. Like 's', it can combine with 'the' (pronounced di) to pick out a specific group of referents (e.g., 'Di PNM politician (an) dem'). But unlike 's', probably because it is not an inflection or a suffix, it cannot occur with the noun just so, that is, with the noun unmodified by words like di, dem, and wi. We simply cannot have phrases like 'politician (an) dem', 'crook (an) dem', or 'wretch (an) dem'. For example, 'Politician (an) dem corrupt' is ungrammatical Creole, because the noun 'politician' is not (pre)modified by words like di, dem, wi, but 'Wi politician (an) dem', which is 'Our politicians' in Standard English, is grammatical.

How therefore do we render 'Politicians are corrupt' in Creole? The question brings us to our second routine aspect of Trinbagonian speech. The answer is that we strip the noun of both the modifiers and the pluraliser (an) dem. In other words, we use the bare noun and simply say 'Politician corrupt'. This use of the bare noun invites us to infer the kind of reference the word has - whether it is general or specific.

To make things a little clearer, let's use two different examples: 'Car comin' and 'Carnival is woman'. If I said 'Car comin' to a child of mine that is playing in the street, she would infer that at least one car is coming, but possibly several. The situation (of her playing in a street) would make it impossible for her to infer that the general class of cars was coming. Similarly, if I surveyed the sea of women masqueraders on Carnival Tuesday and exclaimed, 'Carnival is woman!', you would infer that I was referring to women generally.

The bare (unmodified, unpluralised) countable noun therefore allows the speaker to infer the kind of reference, and its counterpart in Standard English is the noun inflected by 's'.

It is not that the Standard English way is better or superior, only different; other languages express the same meanings differently. Nor is it that the Creole way is corrupt or incorrect, only different. Indeed, it is difficult to see how (an) dem is a corruption of 's'!

Children go into the classroom using (an) dem and the bare noun in their routine speech, and they do so articulately. The scientific (as opposed to the superstitious and unenlightened) thing to do is to first understand that the children's speech has distinct patterns that express certain kinds of message, then to see how these patterns are systematically different from the SE patterns. Teachers would be better able to teach the SE patterns if they understood how they differ from the Creole patterns. It is a question of difference, not superiority, of patterning.

Teachers must appreciate the children's language as a socially and educationally necessary resource. And just as we don't have to throw out English to learn Spanish, we don't have to throw out Creole to learn English.

One more thing. The fact that a child is not as proficient in Standard English as she is in Creole does not mean that she is any less intelligent. It should go without saying that intelligence does not depend on the ability to speak Standard English.

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