Dr Winford James

Creole question formation

By Winford James
April 28, 2012

In the Caribbean, as everywhere else in the world, people have created social and musical technologies, but our history of colonisation and strict indentureship has invested us with a quality of self-hate and self-diminution that makes us regard some of the European technologies as being superior to ours in some cases. In the presence of the pop song and the piano, for example, we have created calypso and pan, but many of us see the latter as having a value that is inferior to that of the former — though, mercifully, that attitude is increasingly weakening in the face of adoption of our technologies by people of more prestigious worlds, like America and China.

In the presence of English—in particular, Standard English—we have also created the social technology of language (for example, Jamaican (Creole) and Tobagonian (Creole), but many among us see the latter as low speech and the former as high speech. They must be possessed of an ignorance and/or a brainwashing of a perverse kind, mustn't they?

On the assumption that knowledge is superior to ignorance, I shall take a bit of Standard English grammar and compare it to an analogous bit of Creole grammar and hope that my analysis will change the decidedly backward attitude of some.What about the grammar of question formation?

In English, if we want to ask a question, we must (except in the case of an echo question) change the order of the subject followed by the main verb, as obtains in a statement, to one where the subject is still followed by the main verb but is preceded by an auxiliary.

For example, in the past-tense statement "The UNC mistreated the COP", the subject "The UNC" is followed by the verb "mistreated", but for the question version, "Did the UNC mistreat the COP?", that subject, while still followed by the verb "mistreat" (stripped of its past tense marker "-ed"), is now preceded by the auxiliary "did", which assumes the tense function of "-ed" and fills the need for an auxiliary in the question. In addition, there is typically a rise in tone at the end of the question.

Let me put the two sentences together in two lines so you can compare them more easily:

Statement: "The UNC [subj] mistreated [vb] the COP."

Question: "Did [aux] the UNC [subj] mistreat [vb] the COP?"

While there are differences in the shape and placement of tense, note that, in terms of word order, the critical difference is that there is an auxiliary in the question plus, if you speak the question, a rising tone.

The same thing happens if you change the tense of the statement to, say, present:

Statement: "The UNC [subj] mistreats [vb] the COP."

Question: "Does [aux] the UNC [subj] mistreat [vb] the COP?"

In the question, the verb remains in place after the subject as in the statement, but there is an auxiliary ("does") before the subject ("The UNC"). The "do" in "does" carries present time, while the "es" expresses agreement between the third person singular "The UNC" and the verb "mistreat". In other words, this 'does' can be broken down into two parts— a main verb, "do", and an agreement suffix, "es".

Teachers (of English) call this grammar of question formation subject-verb inversion, but the more accurate label is subject-auxiliary inversion (assuming an auxiliary does not arise from "nowhere" but instead lies hidden in the verb and is called upon to move to the front of the sentence to do duty in question formation).

What's the state of affairs in Creole?

Here are the Creole equivalents of the English statements:

Statement: "The UNC [subj] mistreat [vb] the COP."

Question: "The UNC [subj] mistreat [vb] the COP?"

Statement: "The UNC [subj] does [aux] mistreat [vb] the COP."

Question: "The UNC [subj] does [aux] mistreat [vb] the COP?"

As you can see, the statements and the questions have the same word order; there is nothing in the first statement that indicates past time; there is an auxiliary in the second statement that indicates present time; and "does" cannot be analysed into two parts.

Now, if statement and question have the same word order, how do speakers and listeners distinguish them? Clearly, it's by the tone at the end of each—falling tone for the statement but rising tone for the question. There is no subject-auxiliary inversion!

Is there a need for inversion in human speech for us to understand that a question has been asked? Creole question formation suggests that there isn't; we have been speaking for centuries without inversion and there has been no confusion reported between questions and statements.

Some of you may ask why Creole "does" does not move to the front of the question. The answer seems to be that it is because Creole "does" is not stressed in typical speech as distinct from English "does", which is always stressed.

Is the difference between the two grammars resolved by saying English has the high and better structure while Creole has the low and poorer structure? What makes English high and better? Inversion? Creation by the coloniser? Elitism and snobbishness?

What makes Creole low and poorer? Lack of inversion? Creation by the slave? Depressed, low-intelligence conditions of genesis?

Why can't we conclude the obvious—that the two languages are two different but equal ways of expressing messages, no different than, say, Russian is from Polish?

By the way, when the English speaker says in na´ve disbelief, "The UNC mistreated the COP? Really?", he is using what is called an echo question, one that echoes a statement previously uttered by somebody else. But note that there is no inversion in its structure. Is the question form therefore as poor as the Creole form?

Winford James is a UWI lecturer and political analyst