The rich cultural expression of Guyanese Creolese

By Michelle Gonsalves

ALTHOUGH the Queen’s English is our official language, Guyanese Creole English is the de facto language of national identity in Guyana, with some 700,000 persons using it.

Feel sorry for magga dog magga dog turn back and bite yuh
Feel sorry for magga dog magga dog turn back and bite yuh

This was somewhat highlighted at the annual Heritage Exhibition, hosted by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport in collaboration with the National Trust of Guyana, and held at the Guyana National Museum in Georgetown.
Themed “Expressions of our Heritage”, the exhibition highlighted Creolese along with other aspects of Guyanese culture, such as plantation life, monuments, literature, folklore, and festivals.
There are three varieties of Creolese: Acrolect (speech of upper-class speakers), Mesolect (speech of middle-class speakers) and Basilect (speech of illiterate rural labourers).
There are many sub-dialects of Guyanese Creole, based on geographical location and race and ethnicity. For example, along the Rupununi River, where the population is largely Amerindian, a distinct form of Guyanese Creole exists.

Bacoo drawing by Harold Bascomb
Bacoo drawing by Harold Bascomb

The Georgetown (capital city) urban area has a distinct accent; while within a forty-five-minute drive away from this area, the dialect/accent changes again, especially if following the coast where rural villages are located.

Guyanese Ambassador Dr. Odeen Ishmael, in his Guyanese history, “The Guyana Story”, traces the language from the first African slaves, drawn from different tribes, who developed a rudimentary “pidgin” to communicate with each other. On arrival in Guyana, they added some words and expressions drawn from the language of their Dutch masters, and as time passed, this “Dutch-Creole” went through changes and modifications.
As a new generation of slaves was born in the country, Dutch-Creole became the first language of these children, who continued to add new words and expressions to it. As a result, the

Up a creek without a paddle
Up a creek without a paddle

development of “Creolese” intensified. By the time the English took control of Guyana, the slaves added more and more English words and expressions to their vocabulary; and with succeeding generations, the “Dutch-Creole” eventually disappeared. However, some Dutch words remained in the now English-based “Creolese”, as did some words from the French language, acquired when the French briefly occupied Guyana in the late nineteenth century.
If this explanation can be considered fairly accurate, then it can be understood that words and expressions from the Indian, Chinese and Portuguese immigrants were also added to the developing Creole language.

Other contributions
The Indians contributed words and expressions of kinship and agricultural terms, while the Chinese and Portuguese added names for foods. As more and more contact was made with the Amerindians, words from their languages became absorbed into this “Creolese” language.
As with other Caribbean languages, words and phrases are very elastic, and new ones can be made up even as words can be changed or evolve within a short period. Words can also be used within a very small group, until picked up by a larger community. Ethnic groups are also known to alter or include words from their own backgrounds.
As Wikipedia, the Online encyclopedia states: It is common in Guyanese Creole to repeat adjectives for emphasis (as if saying, very or extremely). For example, “Dis wata de col col” translates into “This water is very cold”. “Come now now” translates into “Come right now.”
Other examples of words and phrases include “a go do it” (“I will do it), “evri de mi a ron a raisfil (“Every day I hurry to the ricefield) and “ Mi a wok abak” (“I’m working further inland)
In John McWhorter’s book, ‘The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language’, the author recounts an incident that neatly depicts the existence of such varieties in a language, one perfectly transparent to him, but to the others increasingly unintelligible.

McWhorter’s dilemma
The dialects in question are Standard English and Guyanese Creolese. McWhorter was at a conference when he entered an elevator with his dissertation advisor. Another Guyanese man hopped in at the last minute. He relates: “They started out speaking Standard English, largely in deference to me, but as the elevator went up and their conversation became gradually warmer and more spontaneous, they started gliding into increasingly more Creole layers of their speech repertoire. The higher we went, the less of their conversation I could grasp. I lost the first sentence above the fifth floor; by the tenth, all I knew was who they were talking about; by the eighteenth, all I knew was that something was really funny and that it probably wasn’t me. By the twenty-fifth floor, when we got out, they might as well have been speaking Turkish. Yet, to them, they had never stopped speaking “English” – they had simply travelled along a continuum of Creolized varieties of it leading away from the lone vanilla variety I grew up in”.
In “Examples of Guyanese Creole English”, a presentation by Jan Florian Bender, she gives the examples of the following dialogues, apparently with agricultural field workers: Creole: swet plenti.yu ge kramp. yu badi naa muuv. Somtaim yu ge mosl bong. Sometaim yu siik. Mi de ya nou, mi ge mosl bong, mi lef simi so. Translation: You sweat a lot, you get cramp, your body does not move. Sometimes you get muscle-bound. Sometimes, you see like how I am here now, if I got muscle-bound, I’d be left just like this.
University of Guyana lecturer in the Department of Language and Cultural Studies, Alim Hosein, is one advocate of the Creole language, as he believes that our own internal prejudices and platforms of hierarchy draw the line that bastardizes our own Creole language.
He stated in an earlier interview with the Guyana Chronicle that Guyanese are fed the lie that our Creole language is a bastardized form of the English language, and this falsity spirals into the harsh reality of discrimination against those who use Creole.
“Creole is not a badly spoken type of English; it is a language of its own,” he said, adding that the language came of its own culture, and has its own life and grammar.
Indeed, the Creolese language is a unique cultural Guyanese product which has undergone, and continues to undergo, change as new words and expressions from different cultures are added to it.
CAPTIONS: Photos saved in ‘Guyana Creole’ folder in Graphics


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