By: Pat Dyal
IN THE 19th Century and until about the mid-20th Century, Guyana was still a multi-lingual country. The Portuguese language was still heard and at the turn of the 19th Century, Portuguese language newspapers were published in Guyana. Hindi-Urdu was heard all over the Coastlands and was the language of the temples and mosques. And remnants of the Yoruba language survived in certain pockets. The Indigenous (Amerindian) languages were spoken all over the interior.
From about the 1950s, Hindi-Urdu and Portuguese began to be fast displaced by English and its Creolese version. There are many reasons for this trend, but the most important was the heavy emigration from among the Portuguese and Indian communities, the spread of secondary education which was done through the medium of English and the economic imperative that one had to speak and write good English before being employed in the Public Service and in business. These same trends affected the small number of Chinese language speakers who even more quickly disappeared.
The Indigenous languages were less affected in these years and continued to be the main local language in the interior of Guyana. By 2000, however, these languages were affected by the same trends which had earlier affected Hindi-Urdu, Portuguese and Chinese. The only difference was that the earlier emigration was to foreign countries while the Indigenous emigration was from the interior to the coast and especially to Georgetown and its environs.
Today with cultural and economic relations with Brazil growing stronger, several thousands have been learning Portuguese as a second language. Hindi-Urdu has likewise had a similar revival with many people learning the language as a cultural imperative.
This is supported by the popularity of Indian films, particularly the Indian soaps on television. Indian film music is also popular. On the local radio, only two languages are heard- English and Hindi-Urdu.
The Indigenous languages have had no such revival as Portuguese and Hindi-Urdu. In fact, the numbers of speakers of Indigenous languages have had a steady decline. Urgent action needs to be taken to save these languages from disappearing from Guyana.
Preserving the Indigenous languages is maintaining an essential aspect of the Guyanese identity, the existence of the Indigenous languages helps to define the Guyanese identity as against others and is an enrichment of the National Culture.
Every language encapsulates a unique worldview and allows someone who learns the language to have an insight into a new cast of mind and new values. Learning a new language would help to make one’s personality more rounded.
Another national benefit the Indigenous languages have is they could form the basis of friendlier relations with the neighbouring countries who all have Indigenous populations which are contiguous with ours.
The Government, the Ministry of Education, the Churches which operate in the Indigenous regions and the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs must, with empathy and understanding, work to keep these languages alive and expanding.
The University of Guyana used to have an Amerindian Research Centre which was not very well funded. When Dr. Desrey Fox was an Indigenous lecturer whose first language was from her native tribe, the Centre did show much activity, especially in the area of language. After Dr. Fox’s tragic death in a traffic accident, the Centre became dormant.
The University should again revive the Centre and develop strong and relevant links with foreign institutions which may have the talent to help to revive and maintain the Indigenous languages. Such specialist help is necessary to work in tandem with the Ministry of Education and the Indigenous Peoples’ Ministry.
The Ministry of Education has to take a policy decision to introduce the Indigenous languages in schools in those regions with large Indigenous populations. There are a number of Indigenous teachers who are capable of teaching the languages while others could be trained. Such teachers should enjoy higher pay to attract them to such jobs.
Simultaneously with these efforts, a settled orthography has to be worked out, the most populous of the seven languages should be used as the lingua franca. Other such arrangements could be worked out with the help of the foreign specialists.
The Regional Administrations should also begin to give preference to employing workers who speak the Indigenous languages or who may have some certification when the schools begin to teach the languages. The Government of Guyana through its Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs is committed to all policies which would preserve and expand these languages.
In Minister Allicock’s words : “If our Indigenous people do not know their language, they are not complete. Language is the identity. Language helps us to understand the Laws of Nature which allows us to have an environment test that has a healthy ecosystem.”