On the Speaking of English

It’s about time, I think, that we recognize as a nation that the language we speak is not English.

Not so long ago, a columnist in The Punch took a letter issued from the Ministry of Education to task for its poor use of English grammar. Of course, anything emanating from the government ministry charged with teaching the next generations must be perfect. But simply criticizing the grammar in the letter missed the real point.

The real point is this. English is a foreign language to us Bahamians.

I’m not aiming to be flip or insulting here; I’m deadly serious. The language we speak in this country is not English, but something quite different. Professors of linguistics call it a creole — Bahamian Creole, to be exact. They recognize that while it disguises itself as English by using English vocabulary as a vehicle, its structure and its rules are fundamentally different.

I believe that we recognize that we have a different flavour to our language. We celebrate it in the few bits of vocabulary that we have retained from our pasts: words like jook (which is, as all true Bahamians know, quite different from stab), or yinna (which we sometimes express as y’all or you-all, and which distinguishes the singular you from the plural). But what we don’t recognize is the fact that we speak a different language altogether.

We don’t recognize it for a number of reasons. One of them is the fact that we were so well colonized that the language we speak, which is completely legitimate, was (and still is) categorized as bad or broken English. Another of them is our national prejudice against our Haitian neighbours that leads us to associate creole with all the negative connotations we associate with Haiti.

In linguistics, the word creole has a far more universal meaning. A creole is, quite simply, a mother tongue that originates from the contact between two or more languages. In the Bahamas, the language we speak, Bahamian Creole, is the language that was created in the slave societies that founded our modern one.

During slavery, many tactics were used to maintain order. One of them was to avoid at all costs placing slaves of the same background together. As a result, many Africans were separated from people who were familiar to them, which meant that they were unable to communicate with one another except with the language of the masters. At first a basic language of communication was created to cover all those areas of overlap — a work language, one full of commands and concrete words, but one whose use was limited. Linguistics professors call this language a pidgin, and we still find pidgins today in the languages Bahamians use to speak to the Haitians they hire.

Later, those languages expanded to include all areas of life, including abstract and philosophical ones, and they became the creoles we speak today. We use English words, but we retain the African grammar that our ancestors brought with them when they came.

What is interesting about African languages is that they almost all have certain things in common that make them fundamentally different from European ones. The three most prominent are the creation of plurals, the creation of possessives, and the conjugation of verbs.

In European languages, each of these tasks is achieved by modifying the word in question. You’ve got one DOG, but two DOGS; the bone that belongs to Mark is MARK’S BONE; and Mark GIVES that bone to the dog. If he did it yesterday, he GAVE it to the dog.

In African languages, however, nouns and verbs remain the same. When Africans want to indicate possession, tense or number, they use other words to help, or they indicate it by context. How this translates into Bahamian Creole is like this. You’ve got one DOG, and Mark has two DOG. We know he has more than one because we said it already; he has two. (Duh). In our language, and in the African ones from which it derives, two dog is perfectly correct.

The bone Mark owns is MARK BONE. We don’t need to change the noun to show whose it is; the context tells us. Sometimes, if we want to emphasize it, or if we want to get rid of “bone”, we say MARK OWN. Simple.

And if we want to tell people what Mark did with the bone, we say MARK GIVE the bone to the dog. That remains the same, whether it’s happening now or happened last week; if we want to indicate when Mark gave the bone to the dog, we say when it happened.

But in English, we have to change the nouns and the verbs to do the same work. English, you see, may be the official language of our nation, but it is a foreign language to us.

Hence the all-too-common awfulness of some of our published writings; hence the absurdities of overcorrection that we hear on the radio and the television. What we are witnessing are people trying to speak English correctly, but applying African rules. The result is a mangling of both our languages.

Until we recognize that English is a foreign language to us, as it is for the Greek and Chinese and Haitian immigrants who settle our shores, and teach it as such (perhaps teaching also the formalities of Bahamian Creole at the same time), we will continue to be almost universally challenged by three very basic rules of that grammar: noun plurals, noun possessives, and the conjugation of verbs.

And until we recognize this fact, we will continue to be plagued with the kinds of absurdities that appear in our newspapers and news reports with depressing regularity.

5 thoughts on “On the Speaking of English

  1. I really appreciate your point-of-view in this article that English is essentially a second language to (not only Bahamian people), but also to the many peoples inhabiting the islands of the Caribbean. I am Jamaican. Recently, our most famous Lady of Culture, the beloved Miss Lou passed away. She made the Jamaican language famous and “accepted” in circles outside of Jamaica, as well as encouraged our own local people to embrace their language. Jamaican and Bahamian Patois &/Creole are not English. They are different and unique languages, and I am happy to know that there is someone like you championing the cause for the official recognition of these languages of our peoples as not corruption of the Queen’s English, but as legitimate languages in their own right. When we disrespect our language, we disrespect the slaves who suffered the loss of their cultures and languages, and who had to improvise and formulate new ways of communicating with each other, when men and women from different parts of Africa, speaking vastly different languages, were thrown together.

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  2. Thanks, Kenisha, for the comment.

    What tends to confuse us is that enough of the vocabulary that we use in our languages is the vocabulary of the former masters to make us and those around us believe that we have corrupted European languages, when in fact we have taken the Europeans’ fabric and stitched our own languages from it.

    And props to Miss Lou. We recognized her passing in the Bahamas here.

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  3. thank you so much nicolette for your blog , wow i love it so much , i love to read yours comments , i live in france and it always a pleasure for me to see your blog , what i would like to ask you today is what you think about mondialisation ( i do not exactly in english , globalization )the world is like a big village now so with china , india and many more countries developping it will not good just to stay within yourself , what do you think about this situation of our world

    yours patrick kapela

    merci beaucoup , nicolette

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  4. Merci, Patrick! Many thanks for checking out my blog all the way from France!

    I agree with you that it globalization is making the world one big village, and that we have to be able to think and behave beyond the barriers of our local communities. This seems to be easier to do in big cities like Paris and New York than it does in small countries and small towns. But it’s important that we learn to do it.

    Thanks again!

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  5. Nicolette!

    I ran across this article five years later but right in time! I am fed up with the fact that we are ignoring a delicate part of what makes each of us uniquely Bahamian and that is that we speak something far from English. I really do hope that a forceful change comes in time before we are completely colonized by a foreign language and many, like me, lose the ability of speaking Bahamian that has been a part of us since the inception of time!

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