February 24, 2006
Towards a writing system for Vincentian creole

By Paula Prescod PHD

Vincentian speech can only accurately be referred to as part of the oral tradition of a people.

Part II of III

The present spelling practices of VinC are calqued on the English. Seemingly, Vincentian poets and folklorists have had to resort to this system for lack of an appropriate one. Consequently, a number of spelling variations are suggested for the same word, generally motivated by speaker variation. For instance, around is spelt ‘roun’ or ‘rung’ in Vincentian literature. {{more}}

Writing systems do not particularly take pronunciation variation into account although other types of functional and/or stylistic variations can be represented. The British have -our in such words as favour, colour, where the American dialect of English has -or. There are variants such as fulfil in British English and fulfill in American English. Admittedly, these dissimilarities are not necessarily coupled with pronunciation variation. Hence, the written form of a language may convey less about present-day pronunciation than that of the past. This does not mean that transcriptions of actual individual speech cannot receive personalised touches. In order to show that one character has a form of speech that stands out from the others, a writer may choose to use elisions of vowels and consonants, vowel variations and the like.

Consequently, a feasible spelling system must provide for some rigorous standardisation but also for individual variations. This series of articles seeks to propose such a system. This is quite a tricky task because Vincentian speech can be considered phonologically unstable since pronunciations float quite easily between the basilect, the acrolect and even Standard English forms. For instance, Standard English water is pronounced /waata/ by some Vincentians and watuh by others.

Many sounds are akin to those of English so that the following will be written identically in both languages: bin, pen, pat, bun. However, these words may not necessarily refer to the same things in both languages. In English these refer to a receptacle, a writing instrument, a repetitive touch on the back and a bread roll, respectively, whereas in VinC bin is used to render the past tense of verbs, pen carries the same sense, pat may refer to a kitchen utensil and bun can also be glossed ‘burn’. In what follows, I shall only make mention of those letters that differ in both languages.

Short vowels: there are six of these one of which is digraphic, i.e. it has two letters: /uh/ replaces English ir. Examples are buhd ‘bird’ and gyuhl ‘girl’. In place of the syllable-final y, /i/ is suggested as in hapi ‘happy’.

Long vowels: there are four long vowels. /ii/ replaces ie, ea as in ‘piece’ and ‘easy’ (VinC piis, iizi). /aa/ replaces ar, al in words like paat ‘part’ and haaf ‘half’, /oo/ replaces long o, ure and oa as in pook ‘poke’, pyoo ‘pure’ and boot ‘boat’. /uu/ replaces some long oo sounds as in muuv ‘move’ and skuul ‘school’.

Diphthongs: there are only three of these in VinC as against eight in Received Pronunciation (RP), that form of English which was accepted in the “high society” of 19th and which is taught in British public schools and at the Oxford and Cambridge institutions today. VinC has therefore neutralised many diphthongs. This is not unlike some British dialects like East Anglian where words like chair and cheer are homophonous whereas RP has distinct sounds. Some English diphthongs have been monophthongised in VinC so that ‘down’ can be transcribed dung. This brings about further homophones and homographs since VinC dung will be glossed both as ‘down’ and ‘dung’ in English.

Diphthongal English words that are spelt with ea(r), ai, ere, ay, a take /ei/ in VinC, those with i, y, ie, igh(t) and sometimes oy, take /ai/, whereas words with o, ow take /ou/. Some examples are hei ‘hear’, ‘here’, ‘hair’, sei ‘say’ kein ‘cane’, kain ‘kind’, mai ‘my’, lai ‘lie’, mait ‘might’, bwai ‘boy’ and kou ‘cow’.

Nasal vowels and semivowels: There is only one nasal sound, found exclusively in the words ein and kyaan. Ein is the mesolectal form of ‘isn’t’/’aren’t’, the phatic expression meaning ‘what did you say’ or the echo question ‘isn’t that so’. Kyaan is in fact the negative modal verb denoting ‘cannot’. The semivowels are identical to English y and w as in ‘yes’ and ‘win’. This brings me to the consonants.