Generally speaking, the average person does not understand exactly what a linguist does. Certainly in Jamaica where I grew up, and in the wider Caribbean region to a large extent, confusion abounds as it relates to the work of a linguist. Some think we specialise in the teaching of many (European!) languages or serve as some kind of special police force for the enforcing of proper punctuation and grammar. Our most unflattering label though would be something along the lines of “those pesky academics who are hell bent on promoting those substandard Creole languages.” Unflattering indeed. So generally speaking, the average person does not see the linguist as doing anything useful, let alone being an activist. But it was in fact activism which brought together some of the most prolific linguists in the Caribbean for the first ever “International Conference on Language Policy in the Creole Speaking Caribbean”, January 13 -14th, at the University of the West Indies, Monai.
When tourists think about the Caribbean, they think about white sand beaches, scrumptious spicy food, great music and world class hospitality. Not necessarily rich linguistic heritage. And even when people do recognise this diverse linguistic heritage, they hardly ever think of it as under threat. Indeed, quite a number of these languages come under threat from two main forces (i) the natural attrition of native speakers (without any accompanying interest by the new generation to preserve the language) and (ii) a complex network of socio-political discrimination and public indifference on the matterii. Linguists who lobby for language rights are interested in addressing both of these forces, with a special emphasis on the latter – that of discrimination.
The Caribbean is an interesting milieu of multiethnic and multilinguistic heritage which was largely borne out of a very long history of colonial legacies. For the most part, this intricate mosaic of different nationalities, ethnicities, races, cultures and sub-cultures get along quite well. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to find someone in the Caribbean who has suffered some form of discrimination. Discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, race, religion, gender and political affiliation, while unconstitutional in all Caribbean jurisdictions, does in fact occur from time to time. There is not much mention, however, of discrimination on the grounds of language.
What exactly is linguistic discrimination? Well, imagine that you are calling a potential landlord to inquire about the availability of an apartment which you noticed was vacant. You place the call, tell the landlord about your occupation, family composition and level of income and the unfortunate response is that the apartment is already gone. A friend of yours calls back a few hours afterwards, same family make-up and same income but with a different accent and voila! The apartment is now ready for him to move in. Don’t believe it happens? Well Prof. John Baugh of Washington University in St. Louis has documented the issue of linguistic discrimination in the USA and a public service announcement inspired by his research can be seen hereiii. But how does this relate to the Caribbean?
As I have pointed out above, the Caribbean is an area which can be characterised by its rich linguistic diversity. While there is a tendency to label some Caribbean territories as simply “English-speaking”, “French-speaking”, “Spanish-speaking” or “Dutch-speaking” this only acknowledges one facet of this linguistic diversity. It ignores the fact that almost all Caribbean territories have a Creole language such as the English Creoles “Patwa” in Jamaica and “Creolese” in Guyana and some have an indigenous/aboriginal language such as Lokono, an Amerindian Language spoken by the indigenous people of Suriname and Garifuna spoken by the indigenous inhabitants of Belize. As it turns out, in most of these Caribbean territories it is the European languages which have prestige and command respect. The other languages, which in some cases have the numerical majority in these territories, are seen as having low prestige, unstructured and uncultured, and generally have little or no intrinsic value. What makes this situation distressing is that the same attitudes towards a particular language are usually extended to the speakers of the same language. When this happens, it’s now a human rights problem.
It was with this concern in mind that linguists from all over the world with a common interest in language rights in the Caribbean decided to gather on the campus of the UWI, Mona in January. The purpose of the gathering was to create and critique a Draft Charter on Language Rights for the Creole-Speaking Caribbean. And not just linguist. This time around we managed to get input from legal minds, heads of state, educators and, most importantly, the general public.Academics are often criticised for their eagerness to forge ahead with idealized plans without so much as even a memo to the general public. Well, I think we managed to steer clear of that mistake with this conference. The questions, criticisms and recommendations coming from the large contingent of non-linguists in attendance served as a counter-weight to any hyper-idealized plans we linguists might have been tempted to implement.
The format of the conference had one significant addition to the usual modus operandi of academic conferences. While there were panels, presenters, and question and answer segments the main focus of the conference was for participants to work towards one common goal. Our aim ultimately was to critically scrutinise and make the necessary adjustments to a charter of rights for the speakers of Caribbean creoles. The charter focused on four main areas:
1. Public Administration: The general focus in this area was to outline the rights offered to the territorial languagesiv in the Caribbean as it relates to the legal and soci-economic sphere
2. Education in Schools: This section detailed how the territorial languages of the Caribbean should be handled with respect to public formal education
3. Education out of Schools: The specific aim here was to highlight the freedom of accessibility given to members of all language communities in the various Caribbean territories to learn the history and evolution of their languages outside of public education
4. Culture: The final area dealt with the right for all language communities to use their languages in all forms of cultural expression as they see fit
While there was heated debate about whether particular sections of the charter were practical, or even legally sound for that matter, there was general consensus among all those present that such a charter was needed. And the reason behind it is simple. It is unacceptable that a law- abiding tax-paying member of the electorate in a Caribbean territory should be denied certain fundamental rights on the grounds of language. It would spark widespread outrage if the government of a territory discriminated against members of said territory on the grounds of their race, gender or religion and language should be no different. One’s language is as intricately linked to one’s identity as is their ethnicity, cultural heritage and overall worldview. When you discriminate against a person’s language, you discriminate against the very element which makes
that person human.
But is it practical? Can governments across the Caribbean be assured that as soon as the charter is accepted that members of various language communities will not turn out in legion to file lawsuits for linguistic discrimination? Participants at the conference had this same apprehension in mind. It was determined that as a precursor to accepting the charter each territory which intends to be a signatory should undertake research. The research findings, which would be guided by a local committee set up to handle the task, would do two things. It would firstly determine to what extent the particular Caribbean territory was already in violation of the charter. Secondly, it would determine the kinds of steps which would be needed for the territory to rectify these breaches and the potential time frame to accomplish this. All this would be done BEFORE the charter would be accepted. As much as language advocates would love to see such a charter accepted, it serves no one if at the moment of implementation a jurisdiction becomes bogged down by claims of discrimination. The last thing needed is a bureaucratic nightmare triggered by the first serious attempt at a regional language policy.
It stands to reason then that it would be better to hold off on implementing the charter until all the necessary research is done to determine the best and most efficient manner of moving forward. This is of course no barrier to accepting the charter in principle and pledging to carry out the task of implementation once the research is completed. And this is precisely what the participants at the conference did in a symbolic signing of the charter at the end of the conference. Even members of the public who had been invited to attend the public forum on the final day registered their support for the initiative and offered their signatures. The research will indeed precede full implementation, but an opportunity delayed is an opportunity denied. Those of us who are familiar with Caribbean-style activism know all too well of great ideas which never somehow managed to leave the ideational realm. The energy and enthusiasm of the participants at the International Conference on Language Policy in the Creole Speaking Caribbean makes me hopeful that the charter on language rights will not be one such idea.
It is important at this point to dispel a misconception which might be brewing in the minds of those who still look at linguists with a “side-eye”. What is the “hidden agenda” of these academics? The most common theory I have come across is that us Caribbean linguists are secretly advocating a kind of radical “Creole revolution” which will ultimately overthrow the established European languages in the region. This will permanently severe the language bridge which extends from the Caribbean to the rest of the world and ostensibly plunge the region into a kind of post-apocalyptic regime where linguists rule. The humanity! Needless to say, nothing could be further from the truth. The charter on language rights is meant to give equal treatment to all territorial languages within a particular Caribbean region. This obviously means the European languages as well. It was never the intention to overtake and replace English with Jamaican Creole in Jamaica, Dutch with Papiamentu in Curacao or French with Kweyol in St. Lucia. On the contrary – the charter is meant to recognise and preserve the linguistic diversity of the Caribbean region. But for this to be a reality a large part of that linguistic diversity will have to be put on equal footing with the historically established European languages. Linguists believe that legislation may be an important step in accomplishing this.
Legislation is important, but the final frontier in addressing language issues in the Caribbean region has always been attitudes. If legislation is not complemented with a change in attitudes towards language, then any kind of meaningful transformation of the linguistic situation is impossible. To be sure, attitudes towards language in the Caribbean have been slowly improving in the last few decadesv. Creoles and indigenous languages from the region have gradually extended their influence beyond the boundaries of entertainment and have seeped into new domains such as education, the media, the legal context and even religion. This gradual change in attitudes has even prompted some Caribbean territories to establish language planning agencies, units or committees to improve the prestige of low status languages much to the chagrin of those who would rather preserve the status quo. Indeed, the road towards linguistic equality in the Caribbean is filled with twists and turns and is hardly ever paved well enough for smooth sailing. But yet still those of us who think such an ideal can become a reality still press on.
Looking ahead it is clear that the journey has just now started for those of us who gathered at that conference in January. We all left feeling a great sense of accomplishment but at the same time were fully aware of the kind of hefty task which lies ahead if we are ever to achieve full implementation of the charter on language rights. Any exercise in language planning is also normally an exercise in changing perspectives and world views. But, as one conference participant admitted, she is not a professional linguist, but she just “loves language”. This is where it has to start: a genuine love for and appreciation of the quintessential human characteristic – language. I love languages too, and that is why I work to preserve them.
I would firstly like to acknowledge the Dean’s office in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, York University, for providing me with the funding for attending this conference. I would also like to thank Denise Banks of the Jamaican Language Unit, University of the West Indies, Mona for providing the pictures used in this article.
i The conference website can still be viewed here.
ii A video clip of some of the dying languages of the Caribbean and the linguistic diversity in the regionncan be viewed here.
iii Additionally, Baugh has discussed the issue of linguistic profiling extensively along with the Ebonics debate in
“Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice” 2000, Oxford University Press.
iv The term “territorial language” as outlined in Article 1 of the charter, refers to (a) Creoles, (b) Indigenous languages, (c) European languages designated in the territories as official languages and (d) Any other language
which may be designated or determined by national consensus.
v The Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona carried out a Language Attitude Survey in
Jamaica in 2005. The main aim of the survey was to gauge the current attitudes of Jamaicans to the language
situation. An explanation of the sampling and results and be accessed here.