Friday, August 1, 2014

Guyanese English Creole - A Sociolinguistic Study

Alex Matthew Balgóbin
ALIN/AANT 325—Sociolinguistics

Guyanese English Creole

1. Introduction
The Co-operative Republic of Guyana is a small developing country located on the northern coast of South America. Guyana was originally founded by Great Britain as British Guiana. The territory had been traveled on and disputed over by the Spanish, Dutch, and French prior to formerly becoming an official British colony. Guyana is landlocked on each side except for the north where the Atlantic Ocean resides. To the south is Brazil—whose official language is Portuguese, Venezuela to the west—a former Spanish colony, and Suriname—a Dutch-speaking country—to the east. Not only is Guyana the only country in South America of which English is the official language, but it borders three countries who each have their own official language. The population of Guyana is approximately 758,000; the Guyanese diaspora consists of several hundred thousand globally, with a significant amount residing in New York City alone. Within the country itself, the population of Guyana is composed of (in order of decreasing prominent races) about 50% of East Indian descent, 36% of West African descent, around 7% indigenous, and the rest containing European ancestry (mostly Caucasian, Spanish, & Portuguese), and also Chinese. Much of the population is of “mixed” race.
Guyanese English Creole (GC) is a language heavily based on British English with influences from Dutch, West African languages, Arawakan and Carib languages, and little influence from Indian languages (mainly Hindi). The standardized language of Guyana is based on Standard British English (SBE)—but due to a lack of education and a high poverty rate along with a high emigration rate (and other common problems that contribute to Creolization), Guyanese English Creole is more widespread throughout the country. Other spoken languages in Guyana include Hindi, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and Aboriginal languages. GC is classified as an Atlantic Creole, as it is very similar to the other English-lexicon creoles throughout the Anglo-Caribbean nations and also in Belize.
        In this paper, I plan to analyze GC on a broad linguistic context, ranging from—but not limited to—phonology, morphology, and syntax. I am basing much of my analysis on a recent study, entitled “A Concise Grammar of Guyanese Creole (Creolese)”, by Hubert Devonish and Dahlia Thompson from 2010.

2. Personal experience
        As a native speaker of GC, much of this paper will reflect my own experiences with the language and its speakers. I am the first in my immediate family (inclusive of my mother, father, and two brothers—those that I have lived at home growing up with) to be born and raised outside of Guyana. Although I have two brothers who have spent their teenage years and onward in the United States (America), before I was born, I was under the age of five when they both moved out so they had little influence during my critical language acquisition period; but from my recollection, I usually spoke to them in Amercan English (AE, both Standard [SAE] and our shared colloquial urbanized Brooklyn dialect), as they have always—even unto now—seemed more comfortable speaking in AE. To clarify my fluency in GC, I spent most of my critical language acquisition period (which I am estimating to be from birth to approximately the age of 13) speaking with my parents, who both did not emigrate from Guyana until their early 40s—recently before I was born. I have spent much time interacting with my extended family, who are mostly all Guyanese natives with varying levels of Creole fluency (which I will go into later). I also have a significant close connection with several of my paternal cousins, with a wide age range from younger to older cousins—the oldest ones being raised in Guyana and the younger ones raised in America. As I will also highlight later, my paternal cousins and I—as we are all of similar generations of Guyanese-Americans—share, to an extent, the same Americanized Creole Dialect of Guyanese English.
Beside from interacting with family through various functions and events, a significant part of my GC learning as a child came from when I spent two weeks, at the age of seven, in the small urbanized village of Berbice, Guyana (in which my mother grew up in), interacting with her family there. From my recollection, I had mostly spoken a concentrated dialect of GC for those two weeks that I have not been able to speak in since then—as it was the last time I had visited Guyana. I believe this event is noteworthy as it was before the part of my critical language learning period when the ability to pronounce new phonemes becomes increasingly difficult with age. I also believe it is noteworthy to mention that the part of America that my brothers and I grew up in is the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Flatbush happens to contain the highest concentration of immigrants from Anglo-Caribbean/Atlantic nations (mostly Afro-Caribbeans from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, and Guyana). Many of my friends during my critical period were first-generation American-born of Caribbean immigrants, similar to myself.
Brooklyn is arguably one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the world, it is almost needless to say that I have picked up many dialects and “accents” during my critical period from various ethnic backgrounds. Over time, I have developed a mental distinction between different (but very much similar) dialects of Caribbean English Creoles (including Guyanese), particularly those from Jamaica and Trinidad. Jamaica may perhaps hold the most prominent mainstream culture within the Anglo-Caribbean nations, especially in America, and holds a large sphere of incluence within the media, as it is a large producer of Anglo-Caribbean music and hails many “mainstream” celebrities in Western Nations. Trinidad is also significantly relevant to Guyana as it is the closest Caribbean island and has the most similar dialect of English Creole. To my extent of knowledge, the syntax and phonology of Jamaican English Creole (JEC), Trinidadian English Creole (TEC),  and other similar English Creole dialects in the Atlantic region almost mirror that of GC. Most of the differences between these Creoles are usually among certain nouns or other parts of speech in the lexicon that are related to the culture of that respective nation—such as foods and profanities.
Devonish and Thompson (2) mention that GC is “most normally referred to as Creolese by its speakers”, but from my experience I have never heard of this term being mentioned by anyone, let alone my family. In reference to “our language”, we would normally refer to it as simply “Guyanese”, as it is quite uncommon to find a native Guyanese who does not speak GC. There are some cases when I have heard native Guyanese refer to GC as “Creole”, but normally the term “Creole” would only be used in reference to Hatian Creole, the single standardized creole language in the Atlantic region. “Patois” is also a term that I have heard denoting GC. Patois is the French-derived Jamaican vernacular term used to describe JEC by many of its speakers.
Growing up with my parents (after my brothers moved out), I often found it difficult to communicate with them as I mostly spoke to them in AE. I did not understand, as a child, why they hardly spoke to me in AE when they had lived in America longer than I have. As GC is not standardized in any way, it is mainly passed down involuntarily through generations; in regards to American descendants of Caribbean families, it is often up to them to decide whether to maintain their fluency in GC or not. “Markedness” of certain dialects in America is a well-known aspect of Cultural Linguistics; bilingual speakers fluent in both SAE and another non-standard dialect sometimes feel obligated to avoid speaking in their second dialect in public to avoid being judged by others. I have often come across many people of Anglo-Caribbean descent, some being native-born Caribbeans, who choose to only speak to me in AE, even if I were to initiate Caribbean English Creole (CEC) into the conversation. In one case, an American-born friend of mine to a Guyanese family told me her family discourages the use of GC, even when visiting Guyana, yet she often speaks in GC with her friends when given the chance. She says that her family attributes GC to the lower-class and uneducated and they only speak in AE. There are also cases of the opposite, where people that are fluent in both AE and CEC choose to openly speak in CEC—even with those who are not fluent in it—as a way to distinguish themselves culturally.
It was not until my post-critical period that I developed self-awareness of my culture and realized that my parents spoke GC to me because they were not completely fluent in AE, and they most likely never would be because they had not learned AE during their respective critical periods. In order to reacquire the level of Creole I had when I was last in Guyana, I took the initiative to mostly speak to my parents, my paternal cousins, and my native-Guyanese family members in GC. Code-switching is another aspect of linguistics that I have been involuntarily using my whole life. Although I find it much more convenient to speak in GC rather than AE with my family—I believe this is due to creole dialects being simpler in general than standard dialects—problems arise when trying to convey complex thoughts and sentences that cannot be expressed in GC, forcing me to code-switch to AE. Some of these “complex” sentences include specific verb tenses or phrases that either do not exist in GC or bring up lexical ambiguity when spoken.

3. Creole continuum
“Creole continuums” are used to describe the extent of sub-dialects in creole languages that range from the most concentrated form, the “basilect”, to the form closest to the standard, the “acrolect”. The intermediary forms that exist between these two are the “mesolects”, which are the range of sub-dialects of GC that I often speak to my family in. Devonish and Thompson (3) attribute the mesolects dialects to the urban areas of Guyana, and the basilect dialects to the more rural areas. Presented below is an example of how the Creole continuum looks like in GC.

Creole continuum of Guyanese English Creole
Level of speech
5: Acrolect
I told him.
I tool im.
3: Mesolects
A tel im.
Mi tel i.
1: Basilect
Mi tel am.

These utterances are usually interchangeable; a speaker that uses the basilect form would not necessarily avoid using the “higher” forms. Using the numbered scale on the left of this chart, I would rate my “fluency” levels on a range of 2-5, and the range of my parents would fall within 1-4. The level that I most normally would speak to my parents in would be around 3-4, as my parents would normally speak to me at around levels 2-3.

4. Phonology
        The phonology section offered by Devonish and Thompson include a set of ten vowels and two diphthongs. Five of the vowels can be found in AE, represented phonemically they are: /i/, /e/, /a/, /o/, and /u/. The other five vowels are “long” forms of the latter five, which Devonish and Thompson dub as “complex double” vowels. I will represent these vowels as the following: /i:/, /e/, /a:/, /o:/, and /u:/. The two diphthongs included are also found in AE: /ai/ and /ou/. There are 30 consonants of GC mentioned in this study, several of which are absent in AE. A noteworthy pair of consonants that are absent in GC are the dental fricatives: voiced /ð/, and voiceless /θ/, the sounds found at the beginning of “the” and “thigh” in AE, respectively.
        As I have indicated before, GC is somewhat of a “simplification” of Standard English, and that includes a “simpler” phonology. Presented below is an example of some phonological changes that occur between SAE and GC in relation to the inter-dentals and alveolar stops.

Phonological changes
SAE Utterance
GC Transcription
the dark
/di dak/
tasty thigh
/testi tai/

As can be seen by the first example, the voiced dental fricative in SAE would be pronounced the same as /d/ in GC. The second example has the voiceless dental fricative pronounced as /t/ in GC. In general, the dental fricatives become alveolar stops. Another interesting occurrence is the change from /t/ to the voiceless palatal affricative, /ch/ in certain words. The SAE words of “tune” and “attitude” become /chu:n/ and /atichu:d/ in GC. A notable distinction is the deletion of the /r/ in “dark” within GC, similar to the way it would be deleted in many non-standard dialects of English.

5. Syntax
        The simplification process of GC is also present in regards to syntax. Many aspects of syntax that distinguish lexical ambiguities in SAE are absent in GC. Some of these elements include conjugations between verb tenses and pluralization. In SAE, we use verb conjugations to help further clarify the subject performing the verb (for example: he eats, I eat, and he does, I do). In GC, these distinctions are made based on the subject and other helping words.

Verb tenses of “to eat”
SAE Utterance
GC Transription
I eat
/mi it/
she eats
/shi it/
I ate
/mi it don/ or /mi it aredi/
I am eating
/mi (de) a it/ or /mya it/
I was eating
/mi bin a it/
I will eat
/mi gu it/

The chart above shows how tense and subject distinctions can be made without conjugating the verb in the phrase. In the phrase “I ate”, the GC translations come out roughly as “I ate done” or “I ate already”. Levels higher than the basilect might produce phrases closer to AE in regards to word order such as /mi don it/ and /mi aredi it/. “I was eating” includes the past tense form of “to be” which comes out as /bin/ in GC, deriving from “been” (as in “I been eating”). The addition of /a/ before /it/ indicates that it is/was ongoing in a progressive aspect and can be seen in the past tense. The final example displays the future tense using the verb “to go”, as in “I go eat” or more loosely, “I’m going to eat”. Also note the deletion of the /l/ before the /r/ in “already”, similar to how the /r/ deleted before the /d/ at the end of “dark”.
        Pluralization in GC is similar to that of certain dialects in French, where the phonological changes may not be pronounced, but can be distinguished based on other context words in the sentence. For example, “dog” in GC would be pronounced as /da:g/, and “dogs” would come out the same. In a sentence that would require the use of “dogs”, the determiner /dem/, “them”, can be inserted to clarify more than one dog.

Pluralization of “dog”
the dog is hungry
de dog hungry
the dogs are hungry
de(m) dog dem hungry
these dogs (right here) are hungry
dem dog dis hungry
those dogs (over there) are hungry
dem dog deh hungry

One aspect to note right away is the absence of the verb “to be” in present tense, which is not uncommon in languages such as Russian. The determiners “these” and “those” simplifies to “them” in GC and is pronounced as /dem/. To clarify their distance away from the speaker, /dis/, deriving from “this”, or /de/, deriving from “there” are used.

6. Conclusion
        The linguistic breakdowns of GC show that it is much simpler than any standard dialect of English. Some may ignorantly refer to GC as “broken English” because of its simplification, which would deter speakers from using GC or any other Caribbean English Creole dialect in conversation. As brought up, this simplification makes learning and speaking the language more convenient as there are less conjugations and morphological changes. The creole continuum provides multiple ways to convey a sentence while still being understood due to phoneme/morpheme deletions and shifting word orders along with other factors. Problems can arise out of speaking in GC when trying to convey more complex sentences such as those involving different verb tenses and plurals, but helping words can easily be added to compensate for certain ambiguities; and in my case, I usually code-switch to AE, sometimes mid-sentence, in order to avoid these problems.


Devonish, Hubert, and Dahlia Thompson. A Concise Grammar Of Guyanese Creole (Creolese). Muenchen: Lincom Europa, 2010. Print. 

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