Dr Winford James

Doing our own thing with English, II

August 03, 2003
by Dr Winford James

In the first column on this topic, which appeared on May 11, 2003, I argued that our Creole English does not have auxiliaries, and that one consequence of this fact - a major one, if you take the time to reflect on it - is that we have produced a structural innovation in language, available (if not evident) in a question such as 'Anybody remembers?'. In this column, I develop the argument, explaining why the innovation occurs, and invite you to come along with me.

First, a little refreshment from the first column. If Panday asked Manning, 'You does lime by Smokey and Bunty?', Manning couldn't say 'A does'; he would have to say something like, 'Yeah, A does lime there.' But both men would be talking, not Standard English, but Creole. In Standard English, which they are both fluent in, Panday would say, 'Do you hang out at Smokey and Bunty's?', and Manning would reply, 'Yes, I do.' Both men therefore have two different ways of talking, two different sets of structures, two different languages - the same for each. More particularly, where they can use 'do' to do the work of missing main verbs in Standard English - to help these verbs, as we've been taught - they can't in Creole, where they have to repeat the main verb after 'does'.

I am saying that the words in 'Yes, I does lime there' (where the main verb 'lime' has to come after 'does') and in 'Yes, I do' (where the main verb phrase 'hang out' doesn't have to come after 'do') can be thought of as participating in two different ways of talking, two different sets of language structures. In the first structure (belonging to the set we are calling Creole), 'does' could be called a preverbal marker. In the second (in the Standard English set), 'do' could be called an auxiliary or helping verb. Two other preverbal markers that behave like 'does' are 'go' and 'did' (as in, 'I go / did lime by Smokey and Bunty').

There is no auxiliary in the Creole in the sense that there is in Standard English, for we do not have anything that can do the work of a missing main verb (understood to be there).

To develop the argument, let's consider the contrast of structures in the following sentences: 'Manning hangs out at Smokey and Bunty's, doesn't he?' vs. 'Manning does lime by Smokey and Bunty, ent (it)?' In both, there is a part at the end that questions the first part, which contains a proposition. In the first, the Standard English one, the auxiliary 'does' does the work of the verb phrase 'hang out', which it represents. But in the second, the Creole one, 'does' doesn't appear at all; indeed, can't. Rather, we have the question word 'ent' (which Ronnie MacIntosh made famous in one of his party songs a few years ago). Unlike Standard English 'does', Creole 'ent' doesn't stand in for the main verb here, but for the whole proposition expressed in the structure 'Manning does lime by Smokey and Bunty'. Indeed, if we rewrite the Creole sentence, we can have 'Manning does lime by Smokey and Bunty, ent he does lime there?' (with the pronoun replacing 'Manning').

An important condition for the independent occurrence of the auxiliary in Standard English is that it is a stressed item. The 'do' in Manning's 'Yes, I do' is stressed. But the 'does' in his 'I does lime there' is not. So we have two differences from Standard English in the Creole usage: obligatory use of the main verb with preverbal markers like 'does' and lack of stress. Could it be that the possession of stress is critical to the independent occurrence of auxiliaries, as is the case in Standard English?

I think so. But I also think the general system behaviour of Creole is more important. If we go back to the relevant Creole sentence, we will find that 'ent' is stressed, as well as being able to occur independently at the end of sentences in the role of proposition questioner. But 'ent' can't stand independently of a main verb in a statement. That is, we can say 'He ent coming' and 'He ent know', but we cannot say 'He ent', which would be ungrammatical Creole. If 'ent' is stressed but can't stand in place of a verb, then we have to conclude that the possession of stress is not a sufficient condition for the independent occurrence of auxiliaries.

What else is necessary? I suggest that the default Creole system (in which preverbal markers must be accompanied by their main verbs) forced 'ent' to behave like unstressed 'does' and the others. So in the end, the property of stress (in the Creole case, stresslessness) matters a lot.

I propose that it is this stresslessness of preverbal markers that is responsible for an innovation like 'Anybody remembers', used by even the most educated. Standard English requires that an auxiliary come before the verb in questions (except those that we may call echo questions). So that, where our educated person says 'Anybody remembers?', we should have 'Does anybody remember?' But for that to happen, the auxiliary must be stressed, as indeed 'does' is. But Creole 'does' is not, and so cannot come before the verb in questions.

What establishes a structure like 'Anybody remembers?' as an innovation is not simply that the 'does' is absent, but that the verb behaves as if the 'does' should not be there. How do we know? By observation of the fact that it carries the agreement suffix 's' or 'es', which 'does' carries in the Standard English question. In Standard English, agreement is on the main verb in statements but shifts to the auxiliary in questions.

Our educated person could reduce 'Does anybody remember?' to 'Anybody remember?', which is also okay in Standard English, but she doesn't for at least two reasons: 1) habitual use of the Creole system first forces 'does' out; and 2) her education tells her that third person singular subjects, e.g., 'anybody', require an 's' or 'es' on the verb.

Even with the highest level of schooling, language acquisition is imperfect! But it does produce innovations.

Part I

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