What ‘English’ do you speak?

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The generation of young West Indians that Olive Senior describes in her poem, Colonial Girls School, had hammered into their minds the importance of Latin declensions. Needless to say, the teaching of the English language – “the language of Shakespeare” – was no different: a process of rote learning, by which foreign words were fed to reluctant tongues for automatic regurgitation and recital. Today however, there can be little doubt that we have made the language our own thereby establishing and defining our own identity as West Indians. Indeed, English has been firmly established as one of the major official languages of the Caribbean and its legacy lives on, albeit a legacy of sorts that we have arguably added to and while we may consider the conflicts surrounding the primacy of the “language of the coloniser” still of some relevance today, we may also want to focus our attention on something else i.e. could the integrity of a language that we have adopted and made our own be threatened?

The source of said threat seems obvious: the heavy influence of our North American neighbours reflects itself more and more in the way we manipulate the English language. Aside from the everyday spelling ‘errors’ (many of us, as a reflex, omit the ‘u’ from words like ‘honour’ or substitute ‘s’ in words such as ‘subsidise, for the letter ‘z’), when corrected on certain points of pronunciation and grammar, the correction seems to us a complete revelation (lieutenant is pronounced leftenant). This begs the question, are we more familiar with American English than we are with British English, one of the languages upon which our Caribbean English is modelled? Of course these few examples are not indicative of any radical shift whatsoever in the mindset of an entire generation but it does offer a glimpse into the future of our linguistic habits.

But maybe we should focus a bit more on the bigger picture. As an English-speaking student attending a French West Indian university with a thriving foreign exchange program, I notice that most of my fellow students who are interested in learning English would quicker spend a semester or more at an American university than at one of the proposed University of the West Indies (UWI) campuses. When asked why they would chose an American institution over a West Indian one, most automatically attribute their preference to the fact that they would learn better English in America (a smaller number of students choose the United Kingdom). Whether by mistake or by design (or both), we tend to shun West Indian culture while we gravitate more towards or willingly embrace American culture. While this may not be all bad, it should seem only natural that we invest in understanding (and hopefully appreciating) our own before we go ahead with the wholesale acceptance of what is another’s.

In fact, in the same way that Americans, after definitively gaining their independence from Great Britain, went on to create their own identity, separate from their former colonisers, by – among other things – remodelling different aspects of the English language (to create the American English that they are so proud of today), we as West Indians should do the same. Perhaps the point should be driven home more forcefully in English class that we are not Americans or, better yet, English class should be renamed Caribbean English class, to take into equal account our English and African (among others) heritage, not a nearly non-existent American heritage. Admittedly, a lot has been put in place by our educational institutions and examining bodies to ensure that we learn and legitimately accept not only the various creoles and different dialects that form Caribbean English but also that we speak and write not like an American but like a West Indian. However, each one of us has a personal responsibility to exercise discernment in our everyday lives, especially with the knowledge that most of the social and visual media we consume today is of US origin. I, for example, upon buying or receiving any new device, immediately adjust the settings to have the language reflect the region that I am from even if I have to choose British English as the language setting. I wish to neither promote Caribbean English as the one alternative to our standard writing English (besides, there is no reason why the two can’t live harmoniously and enjoy equal official recognition) nor am I a proponent of anti-American sentiment. In fact, throughout my academic life, I have enjoyed and appreciated the literature from the North American continent (Canada and the USA included) as much as I have the works of Walcott or the aforementioned Olive Senior, to name just a few examples. This merely serves as my attempt to remind us of who we are.

Of course, speaking purely from a purist’s (like myself) perspective, this aspect of our cultural erosion seems lamentable, but for the ordinary person, it is a trivial matter. Some would suggest that we content ourselves with the fact that “it’s not even that serious” or that “change is good.” All the same, it is something that deserves at least some of our attention. Whether it be a by-product of Americanisation or, more generally speaking, of globalisation, should we simply accept it as a ‘necessary evil,’ a manifestation of the fascinating dynamism of language and culture in general, or should we genuinely be concerned that in the not-too-distant future the end result might be that our English is no longer quintessentially West Indian or that we are no longer quintessentially West Indian? Seems rather extreme, but I would like to think that our self-affirming mantra should be “I am West Indian, not American,  I am West Indian, not American” repeated daily like a prayer to remind us of our primary cultural identity.

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