As a journalist, every day I struggle with my use of the language to properly express my thoughts and experiences. I am always worried that I am saying the wrong thing, especially in my news scripts. But outside of matters of grammar and expression, and beyond issues surrounding the creative use of language, one of my biggest concerns is using words and expressions that make sense here.
Post-Colonial Trinidad and Tobago reflects its reality in its language. Expressions like “it’s making cold” is a direct translation from the French, or patois (or patwa). Actually it’s patwa, not patois, in the same vein we should use kreole, not creole when writing in Trinidad and Tobago. Because patois reinforces a dominance that isn’t healthy to modern day Trinidad and Tobago. Think that I’m stretching it a bit? Ok, let me explain.
You still hear people talking about ‘good English’ or describing patwa as broken French. Neither are true. The bad English they’re referring to is the vernacular, which is, “the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people in a particular country or region.” It’s the first language you learn, and you’re usually a fluent speaker before you’re introduced to formal classes. Standard English is the dialect of the upper classes, and has been set as the ideal form of all expression. And there is no one Standard English. There’s American, UK, Trinidadian and Jamaican Standard English. You probably already know the difference in American and English spelling. They have grammatical differences too, and the same can be found in the various Standard forms of English around the globe. Plus language is always changing. Words fall in and out of favour all the time. Some are lost forever, and others become fixtures in our vocabulary.
But the good and bad in the language we use has more to do with class than expression or effective communication. And that’s where we need to think about the value we place on the languages at our disposal. Especially here in the Caribbean. Do you really want to value the expression preferred by people who didn’t respect your ancestors? Who put systems in place so that our still valid cultural heritage remains insufficiently known and valued, and runs the risk of disappearing as the minutes pass by? Consider this, in 1797 when the English captured Trinidad of the 28,000 people living there at the time, 20,000 of them spoke patwa. (Let’s not even process what happened to the language of the First People’s, I lack the strength).
For instance, of great concern to me is the use of expressions, where the original meaning has changed, and obscured. In Trinidad, when you call someone an ‘old nigger’ you are calling them violent and hot tempered. ‘Bad John‘ is a good synonym (visit the link for the etymology of that expression) for Ole Nigger. But how did ole, or old, come to mean hot-tempered or violent? Well, it wasn’t because Caribbean elders were more angry that their European counterparts. It was because the expression, which is a straight translation from the patwa ‘Vyé Neg’, the word vyé refers to country. As in Old Country, as in Africa. Think about it, the newly arrive slaves would have been more prone to strikes, more likely to fight for their freedom, and extremely resistant to life on the plantation. The expression remained, but the origins have been forgotten. And I’ve been less inclined to use it as a derogatory term ever since I learned it’s history.
In my line of work I also have to listen to quite a lot of speeches. I’ve become very tired at our poor expression in formal settings when in any lime, we’re witty, sharp and prone to brilliant turns of phrases. Why doesn’t this happen when we write and deliver speeches? And why do we turn to quotes from Shakespeare, Dr. King or some overused cliché, when Dr. William’s was full of chat, as are our writers and calypsonians. We need to use local references more. But more on that in another post.