Dr Winford James

What kind of question is this?

By Dr. Winford James
July 18, 2004

One of the real tragedies of life in the Caribbean, without a doubt a continuing psychological consequence of slavery and colonialism, is that we are blind to the worth of most of our creations and innovations. The evidence of our creativity stares us in the face day and night, but so many of us, Best's validating elites included, just cannot see. For example, we have created a dynamic Creole language right here in the Caribbean, mostly out of English and African word material, but so many see it as a corruption of Standard English - a pathetic result of our inability to learn that language properly after centuries of effort. 'Why Manning an Boynes complainin about di brong package?' clearly has a different syntax than 'Why are Manning and Boynes complaining about the brown package?', but so many see it as a corruption of English rather than as a Caribbean restructuring or innovation.

The failure to see is clearly not a failure of intelligence; after all, there are people with PhDs, knowledgeable in the mind-breaking subtleties of their specialisations, who fail to see. No, the failure to see is a consequence of the failure to develop rational belief systems. If you believe English is the genuine article where language in the Caribbean is concerned - perhaps because it is the language of the former colonial masters, of education, of the judiciary, of science, of the textbook, and of the dictionary and grammar book - then Creole, because it does not qualify in these areas, cannot be a genuine language.

But what the blazes do these qualifications have to do with a language being genuine?

I submit that a language is genuine when its norms are shared by a community of speakers. So that if Trinbagonians share the structure in the question 'Why Mannin an Boynes complainin about di brong package?', which they do, then the structure is genuine language. Yes, yes! Even with its shortened or differently-pronounced words 'Mannin', 'an', 'complainin', di', and 'brong'. English is partly what it is today because of different pronunciations of Roman, Germanic, Celtic, French and other words its speakers picked up and restructured over time.

Let's forget pronunciation for the moment and focus our attention on the syntax or grammar of our question. Notice that it is different from its English counterpart in at least the following ways. There is no auxiliary; 'are' is not there to go with the main verb 'complainin'. And, perhaps because 'are' is not there, there is nothing between the question word 'Why' and the subject 'Mannin and Boynes', unlike the case in English.

Does the absence of auxiliary 'are' make the question ungrammatical? Far from it, if you are looking at the matter rationally and scientifically, and not from the standpoint of colonial belief. If you consider that the absence of the auxiliary is systematic in the speech of Trinbagonians, you will have to conclude that it is a community norm and therefore genuine language. Trinbagonians say things like 'Why you harassin me so?' / 'What you doin here?' / and 'How you getting dere?', in which we hear no auxiliary but which we have no trouble understanding across the country, ent it? In creating our Creole, therefore, we dispensed with the auxiliary without any deficits in communication.

The absence of an auxiliary in the questions is also true of statements. As responses to the questions, we might variously say: 'I harassin you because A love you.' / 'I workin here, uno.' / 'I travelin by bus.' In other words, the word order for questions and statements is the same; there is no subject verb inversion.

Not so in English. To ask questions beginning with words like 'why', 'what', and 'how' - let's call them 'WH-questions' - we have to have at least two things coming together: 1) rising intonation at the end of the question; and 2) inversion of the subject and auxiliary, as in 'Are you harassing me?' instead of 'You are harassing me.'

The Creole question has only the rising intonation, with no auxiliary to invert.

But the matter does not end there. Even in our most Standard speech, where there are auxiliaries, Trinbagonians do not invert. We will utter a statement like 'Manning and Boynes are complaining about the brown package.' where there is no question as to its Standard Englishness. But wait! When we turn the statement into a question, we often end up with 'Why Manning and Boynes are complaining?' where the auxiliary 'are' is in the same place as in the statement. In other words, we do not change the word order; we do not invert auxiliary and subject, just as we do not in Creole.

What kind of question is this? Like its English counterpart, it has an auxiliary, but unlike it, it does not invert the subject and auxiliary. Unlike its Creole counterpart, it has an auxiliary, but like it, it keeps the same word order as for statements.

We are creating new language here, aren't we? Don't you see?

What kind of question is this? Pt 2

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