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Linguistics and Economics in the Caribbean:

Who speaks Creole?

Linguistics and Economics in the Caribbean:
Ianá Ferguson

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by: Ianá Ferguson

Due to our shared histories, we all, Caribbean nationals, are familiar with Creole languages. Yet due to variances in our respective geographies and colonial histories, each Caribbean community speaks a different Creole language—from Kreyòl in Haiti, to Vincentian Creole in St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Kwéyòl in St Lucia and Dominica to Creolese in Guyana. Creole and European languages are in constant, if uneasy, tandem in the Caribbean. While the “importance” of standardized international languages is accepted, this does not explain why Creole languages have been devalued. Hence, we need to analyze the socio-economic power-play among the languages that co-exist in our communities.

Let’s first consider how we present ourselves to others. As Peter Roberts says in his book From Oral to Literate Culture: Colonial Experience in the English West Indies, “West Indians [in English-speaking countries] tried to modify their speech in the direction of the host country in order to be more easily understood…” hence giving others control of our self-perception. Despite the fact that Creole languages are natively spoken by most in the Caribbean, formal education tests our ability to master European languages. The usefulness of multilingualism in today’s global economies is not lost to Caribbean nationals. However, the pressing question is: How do socio-economic factors affect language use in the Caribbean?

The perception of Creole languages is often related to the socio-economic profile of the speaker. For example, sociolinguistic surveys in Haiti have shown that participants of higher socio-economic status have more positive attitudes towards French (the prestige language) than those of lower socio-economic status. In these surveys, participants with lower literacy levels have more negative attitudes towards French than highly literate individuals. In the “(Post-)Creole continuum” construct by creolists like David De Camp, “acrolect”, “mesolect” and “basilect” are Creole varieties that are relatively close to or remote from the European “superstrate” language. In some countries, people who are viewed or who view themselves as upper-class tend to speak a variety (an “acrolect”) that is closer to that of the colonizing nation, while those of a lower socio-economic status tend to speak a “basilect”. Evidently, the languages that we speak or do not speak have been enlisted as tools for social stratification and political control.

It is one all-encompassing hierarchy of power that continually self-replicates— often through education. In earlier times, exposure to European languages were mostly afforded to descendants of European plantation owners, their indentured servants and others in their social circles. These people would have benefited from higher standards of living and by extension better educational prospects. This reality filtered through future generations, along with a system whereby wealth feeds into the production of knowledge, and knowledge feeds into power and vice-versa. This means that persons with higher socio-economic standing could afford “education” that is perceived to be of higher quality. This would have led to business ownership, capital investments and other advantages that would have deemed them successful, hence, prolonging the fallacy (convenient, for some) that speaking a “prestigious” language is a guarantee of intelligence and success.

Based on these observations, one can say that, socio-economically, the Caribbean tends to mirror the slavery period (1600s-1800s). That is to say, Caribbean societies are still mimicking a somewhat subconscious state of mental slavery. (Although some Caribbean nationals disagree, proclaiming their hard-won freedom to speak the language they are comfortable with, this begs the question what makes them feel comfortable in said language.) With globalization favouring international languages such as English, French, Spanish, Portuguese etc., linguistic bias is not localized to the Caribbean only, but this bias exists throughout the world.

We must, then, ask: Are Creole languages overpowered by European languages because of historical wrongs or present-day prejudices… or both?

There are many motivational quotes like “Your past, no matter how bad it was, does not define your future.” Though endearing, those sayings are usually enlisted for self-deception in order to superimpose, in our minds, kinder and more likeable versions of ourselves— “kinder” and “likeable” by societal standards. Much of the power given to European languages is a result of us, Caribbean nationals accepting what has always been, due to colonial power devaluing our minoritized languages and identities. While we may think that a European language represents the upper end of some hierarchy of prestige, one should realise that the person who accepts Creole and even switches between both languages is the most “successful” person. Not only are they able to view the world from multiple viewpoints but they have accepted who they are and where they are from. They are fighting age-old biases, which is no small task, given the pernicious global standards of “excellence” that favour the interests of the few (the rich and powerful) to the detriment of the majority.

Ianá Ferguson is a rising junior at MIT with an intended major in the physical sciences. This paper is a subset of a project which explored the theme “Creole languages and Caribbean identities” in fulfilment of a Communication course taught by Professor Michel DeGraff of MIT’s Linguistics and Philosophy department and a co-director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative.