Dr Winford James

Licensed to speak Trinbagonian

By Winford James
March 15, 2012

Last Tuesday, I was a guest of the Port of Spain Rotary Club and had a lively conversation with one of the members, an English graduate from a prestigious British university, on the use of proper grammar, including the pronunciation of "definitely". He said the pronunciation is de.fi.nit.ly, with the "nite" pronounced like "nit" and not like "night". What was wrong with de.fi.night.ly? I asked. It was simply wrong, he said. Simply wrong. There were some things in proper speech, that is, Standard English, that were just wrong. Like de.fi.night.ly.

I disagreed with him and adduced arguments, but he seemed unpersuaded — an older England-educated man secure in his understanding. But his position reminded me of a Trinbagonian pronunciation of the English word spelt "licence" and "license", as well as of novel Trinbagonian grammar arising from the pronunciation. In their regular vernacular, many Trinbagonians pronounce the word as lie.sn, with an indeterminate vowel sound between the consonants "s" and "n" — much like the pronunciation of the "son" in "bison".

The last time I was struck by that pronunciation was during Winston Dookeran's 2012 budget speech. He was talking about measures his government would take in the energy sector and was focusing on new petroleum licences. I noticed that he was alternating between lie.sn and lie.snz, and listened a little more carefully to see if there was a pattern to the alternation. There was, for the most part.

Mr Dookeran was using lie.sn for the singular number and the noun-as-adjective, but he was using lie.snz for the plural number. Neat. In his pronunciation, the singular noun ended in the consonant "n" and he simply pluralised it by adding an "s", which actually came out as a "z" sound. This is the novel grammar I was referring to earlier.

Now, I have checked the written version of the speech and I have found the following: 18 instances of "licence", ten of "licences", two of "licensed", and one each of "licences", "licensee" and "licensing" — 33 instances of the word in various forms. When he came upon the singular noun — as, for example, in "a refining licence" and "a marketing licence" — he pronounced it as lie.sn. When he came upon the noun-as-adjective — as, for example, in "annual licence fee" and "the licence requirement" — he pronounced it the same way: lie.sn. He gave the same courtesy to the seldom-occurring "licensed" and "licensing". But when he encountered the plural noun — as in, for example, "marketing licences" and "licences for gas stations" — it was lie.snz.

My host from the Rotary Club would say Mr Dookeran was simply wrong — that he was not speaking properly, plain and simple. Some things, like recreating perfectly good words like "licence" and then turning round and pluralising them, are simply wrong. But I wouldn't.

For me, he was participating in a Trinbagonian innovation, along with other Trinbagonians. He was apocopating a noun, trimming its plural-looking end and pluralising it, using the English plural suffix "s". "Licence" ends with an "s" sound, which has a pluralising function in English, so it probably was perceived as a plural noun in the first place. The other option was to perceive "licence" as a singular noun ending in an "s" sound as in the English way, just like "kiss", and then pluralise it by adding the plural "s", which would require an intervening vowel in order to be pronounced, as in kiss.i.s or, more realistically, kiss.i.z.

You might want to consider that pluralising a trimmed noun is perhaps easier to do than leaving a complex ending ("ns") and having to find a vowel to enable the pronunciation of the plural "s". But there seems to be another logic, apart from the logic of ease, to the innovation — one arising out of systemic economy. Trinbagonians can easily pronounce the "ns" sound at the end of words, as in, for example, "since", "mince", "rinse", "fence", and "tense". So they should be able to easily pronounce "licence" as well. So why shorten it to "licen", change its pronunciation to lie.sn, then pluralise it?

This is a matter for more careful research, of course, but two observations seem to be in order. One is that words like "since" and "mince" are not perceived to have pluralisable meanings and so cannot be shortened for the purpose of pluralisation; and the other is that one-syllable words (like the examples above) behave differently than two-syllable words like "li.cence".

So the innovation may have to do with two-syllable words whose meanings allow pluralisation.

The most important consideration for me, however, is the fact that many Trinbagonians treat "licence" in the way Mr Dookeran did. If a usage has a community of users who are not uncomfortable with it, how can the community be wrong? Who determines right and wrong in speech, even speech involving English words? The British?

If a community of Trinbagonian speakers produce phrases like "Dookeran an dem" and "Dookeran an they", and use them without communicative discomfort, who is to say they are wrong? The British?

Winston Dookeran was not speaking British English in his innovative treatment of "licence". Rather, he was speaking Trinbagonian English!

Which brings us back to "definitely". When I was an undergraduate student, Denis Solomon (who taught me an Applied Linguistics course) roughed me up for saying de.fi.night.ly. I retorted that I had been socialised in Tobago to pronounce the word that way and I did not see why my pronunciation was objectionable. Want to know what his response was?

That I should socialise myself away from the pronunciation!

How's that as a persuasive argument?

Winford James is a UWI lecturer and political analyst

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