Talking language

Language evolutionLanguage evolution

As Black History Month gets underway with a number of events taking place in local libraries, Jane Grell looks at the evolution of Caribbean languages and defends the use of Creole.

I was born and grew up on the Caribbean island of Dominica, a British colony until its independence in 1978. The official language is English, the unofficial Kweyol, formerly known as French Creole or Patwa. England and France were notorious for their rivalry over ownership of the islands. England won in the case of Dominica, and so Creole was relegated to second-class status. People were judged educated only if they spoke 'good English'.

Creole languages evolved as a result of the slave trade and Africa's encounter with Europe. Forbidden to speak their languages from the Niger Delta region, the enslaved people simply superimposed European vocabulary over the syntax of their mother tongues. English colonies that never changed hands, such as Jamaica and Barbados, speak Patwa as well as standard English. In Kweyol-speaking Dominica and St Lucia, we say: "La plié ka tombe" (rain is falling). The Anglophones say "Rain ah fal". Thus, the African speech patterns are similar, irrespective of the language.

I frequently defend Creole's legitimacy, usually in response to someone of African-Caribbean heritage referring to it as broken English or French. Far from being broken, our languages, evolving as they did in the hostile society of enslavement, were an effective survival tool.

Language remains inextricably bound with power, accent and social class. The way we speak defines us, though things are not always so clear cut. A young black teacher told me that she waited outside a headteacher's office for an interview. On the telephone, all had gone well, but he had difficulty matching the cut-glass accent of the voice to the person before him. Twice he looked past her and was mortified by his mistake.

Language politics has its funny side, though. When I taught French at a boys' comprehensive in Hackney in the 1970s, 11-year-old Xavier was every inexperienced teacher's nemesis. One day, he called me "Sacre' Africhen!" meaning 'damned African!' I assumed his family came from either Dominica or St Lucia, so in response to his intended insult and bad behaviour, I deployed the full force of my Kweyol vocabulary. To my astonishment and gratification, he grinned, became putty in my hands, offered to clean the blackboard and even threatened to "do in" anyone who dared interrupt Miss Grell.

With its abundance of riddles, proverbs and caustic humour, Creole is also second to none for dishing out advice, such as this grandma's words to a fussy girl seeking a husband: "Chile, mind you don't be too choosey, choosey, you know... or you'll end up with jackass!"

Jane will be hosting an open mic night for Black History Month at Wanstead Library on 19 October and at Redbridge Central Library on 26 October. A Black History Month play-reading group will also take place at South Woodford Library on 17 October. Visit wavidi.co/bhm17


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