Dr Winford James

Doing our own thing with English I

May 11, 2003
by Dr Winford James

It is clear that we speak Creole in Trinidad and Tobago. It is also clear that we speak English. Indeed, we mix the two so routinely in our speech that it cannot be true to say that we speaking either one or the other. It is far more accurate to say that we speak an anglicised Creole or a creolised English, depending on our paths of socialisation, our level of education, our level of motivation and interest, and the level of formality of the social situation we speak in. As a result of this state of affairs and, particularly, the creolisation of our speech, we are not always clear on what is Creole and what is English. To compound matters, we will sometimes be blissfully producing creolised English structures, but thinking we are producing Standard English ones.

Our problem of knowing what we speak derives from three main interconnected facts. One is that we are not truly aware of the inescapable influence of community, whether present or past, on how we speak. A second is that we are linguistically insecure, largely as a consequence of the politics of empire-building by others. And the third fact is that the notion of English is not as clear as it once was.

With respect to the first fact, the way we speak today is in large measure a copy of what and how our ancestors spoke in pre-slavery in Africa, in slavery in the Caribbean, in pre-indentureship in India, in indentureship in the Caribbean, and in the forging of new societies in the Caribbean over the years. There are Afric and Indic templates in our speech - inescapably.

With respect to the second fact, we have not been able to develop our home-grown language - in particular, to enliterate ourselves in this language - as we have come along with the tension of self-doubt and easy, almost automatic acceptance of the superiority of the social artefacts of the Other. As a consequence, we doubt the authenticity of some of our words (is it 'bati mamzelle' or 'dragon fly', boy?) and we are quick to think that certain of our grammatical structures and uses are Standard English when they are not. In respect of the latter observation, we think, for example, that when we say 'The meeting would be held in the auditorium' we are speaking Standard English fully, for aren't the words all English? But you see, 'would' is used in a non-Standard way - it expresses a future after the moment of speaking, which is a role reserved for 'will'.

With respect to the last fact, it is being appreciated more and more that though English started out as the language of the English (why therefore, on this basis, don't we call our language 'Trinbagonian'?), the spread of English empire has seen to it that other peoples appropriated it and changed it in their own ways and to their own tastes and natures. So that there is African English, and Indian English, and Canadian English, and New Zealand English, and...Caribbean English. English English remains, but it has been expanded and enriched in vocabulary and structure by different peoples.

We here in Trinidad and Tobago have done, and continue to do, our bit of expansion and enrichment. It is quite obvious in vocabulary (for example, 'commess', 'roti', 'puja', 'bubulups', 'eye-water', 'bodow', 'botheration', 'vup', 'glory cedar', 'jamette'), but it is not so obvious in grammar, as we have seen in 'would' above. The grammatical contributions are harder to discern. In respect of 'would', I suggest that it is a camouflage of that efficient little word 'go', which we use before main verbs to express future events ('We go hold the meeting in the auditorium').

What about expressions like 'Anybody remembers?' and 'You heard what I said?' These are questions in which there is no subject-auxiliary inversion. That is, there is no auxiliary that comes before the subject. There is no auxiliary like 'does' before 'anybody', or like 'did' before 'You' (with the relevant changes to the verb 'hear). Are they Standard English?

No, they are not (and if you didn't know, it makes my point!). Rather, they are examples of Creolised English. There is no auxiliary in the Creole; we do not have anything in it that can do the work of a missing main verb (understood to be there). If you ask a friend, 'You does lime by Smokey and Bunty?', he can't say 'A does'; he has to say something like, 'Yeah, A does lime there.' But in Standard English, you have, 'Do you hang out at Smokey and Bunty's?'/ 'Yes, I do.', where the auxiliary 'Do' comes before the subject 'you' in the question and the auxiliary 'do' stands in for the missing verb 'hang out' in the answer to the question.

I propose that a question like 'Anybody remembers?' is an innovation in our English and comes out of the fact that we do not have auxiliaries in our routine Creole and so cannot invert auxiliary and subject. More of this anon.

Part II

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