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Towards a writing system for Vincentian creole

Towards a writing system for Vincentian creole

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Vincentian speech can only accurately be referred to as part of the oral tradition of a people.

by Paula Prescod PhD

Part I of III

The language spoken by a wide cross-section of Vincentians is often labelled uneducated speech and consequently disapproved of in circles where it is believed to impede social development. Undeniably, the lexicon of Vincentian speech (VinC) draws heavily on what is commonly referred to as Standard English. Many do not recognise it as a language, distinct from its source language and every effort is made to ensure that VinC words are spelt like their English etyma. {{more}}

In all languages, there are differences of register, conditioned by diverse social contexts. Whatever our native language may be, we hardly use the same style of speech in official administrative contexts as we do in casual environments. The person who is able to adapt his/her speech with varying degrees of fluency to listeners and situations is said to have good language proficiency. In the Caribbean, linguists generally think in terms of an ability to situate speakers along a continuum of a linguistic spectrum that stretches from a “lower” range or the basilect to a “higher” range or the acrolect, to use Derek Bickerton’s terminology. In Vincentian parlance we tend to use terms like “broad talk” to refer to the basilect and “dix” to designate local speech which is increasingly influenced by English features.

Speakers use language to a purpose, be it to express ideas, feelings, requests or simply, to make others react. Languages therefore serve as a sort of vehicle for communication and any form of speech that allows its users to do just that is a language in its own rights. As far as I am aware, no compendium, let alone a dictionary of VinC has been published but that does not strip it of its status as a language proper. What this implies however, is that like some 4 000 of the world’s 6 912 known living languages, Vincentian speech can only accurately be referred to as part of the oral tradition of a people. Efforts to make Vincentian folklore accessible to readers are highly commendable. To the best of my knowledge, the most widely diffused are Esther Edward’s poetry collections, the New Artists Movement’s (NAM) 1970s publications of NAM SPEAKS and those of St. Clair Jimmy Prince. One cannot forget local satirist, Bassy Alexander, whose weekly column in Searchlight incorporates scores of authentic examples of Vincentian parlance.

In all fairness, these works constitute a wealth of linguistic attestations in the absence of any other documentation. Nonetheless, there is at present a medley of spellings in VinC literature, which brings about a large measure of inconsistency. This in itself is not unsettling, for there is formal evidence to show that the ancestors of our cherished Modern English, viz Old English and Middle English, have been the object of such scribal influences from the 10th to the 12th centuries. For instance, Modern English guest was transcribed gist, gyst, gaest, giest, and gest before becoming stabilised.

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VinC is a relatively young language, not more than 300 years old. On Hairoun, the Kalinga or Carib men spoke a Kalinga or Cariban language. Their wives spoke an Arawakan language. The Garifuna people, offspring of the Caribs and the Africans, also had their own language: a mixture of Arawakan, Cariban and presumably French. Their linguistic heritage was uprooted when they were expelled from St Vincent to Balliceaux in 1796 and then to Roatán Island off Honduras in 1797. Full-scale plantation slavery subsequently influenced the use of English among the remaining populations on SVG. Ebenezer Duncan declared that prior to the Apprenticeship period: “Slaves [were] compelled to speak English. – Of course, broken English at the beginning; but it was a blessing in disguise, for St. Vincent and the rest of the West Indies could not have progressed as rapidly as has been the case, if the people spoke a number of different languages.” (A Brief History of Saint Vincent with Studies in Citizenship, 1955: p. 35).

One can hardly attest the existence of a Vincentian language before this era and there is evidence to suggest that the language of the occupants of SVG was already far removed from 18th century English. Mrs A.C. Carmichael claimed: “I could comprehend little or nothing of what they said; for though it was English, it was so uncouth a jargon that to one unaccustomed to hear it, it was almost unintelligent as if they had spoken in any of their native tongues.” (Domestic Manners and Social Conditions of the White, Coloured and Negro Population of the West Indies, 1833: Vol.1: p. 5). The native tongues to which Mrs Carmichael referred were African languages, implying that Vincentian creole has some genetic relationship with the latter. To establish the likelihood of such a claim, one only has to reflect upon words such as duppy, nyam, jook (poke) and madongo that cannot be traced back to the lexicon of English.

In essence, the tendency to diverge from a widely accepted form of expression is not unique to the Caribbean nor is it exceptional. To take a European example, Classical Latin, now orally extinct, survives only in the form of Romance languages, viz. French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romansh, Catalan and Romanian. As regards French, many dialects coexisted with that variety of Latin in 8th century France: Picard and Walloon in the north; Occitan in the south; Lorraine in the east; Norman in the West. These dialects still exist today albeit as regional languages while the offspring of Vulgar Latin was promoted to the status of official language in the 16th century. A number of reasons may have contributed to the ascent of that version of Latin that had undergone significant sound shifts and functional changes with respect to the Classical Latin. Suffice it to say that it was the variety that was spoken on L’île de la Cité, region of Paris and adopted by the 10th century King, Hugues Capet.

A lot can be said about how historical events have contributed to the present-day language. Space will not allow me to develop the historical facts here. In a nutshell, the language of Vincentians can be viewed as a reflection of the historical paths the islands have traced and more specifically as the result of contact between diverse peoples speaking diverse sometimes mutually unintelligible languages and whose ultimate aim was to communicate effectively to ensure their own survival.

Paula Prescod PhD, University of Paris lll (2005) is currently based in France, conducting research in Linguistics. The spelling system proposed in the article forms part of her thesis on Vincentian creole.

Current research interests cover various aspects of English language varieties. She will be presenting some findings in the upcoming 7th Westminster Creolistics Workshop in Germany in April 2006.

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