You tas’e petater an’ you say it sweet,
But you no know how hard we wuk fe it;
You want a basketful fe quattiewut,
‘Cause you no know how ‘tiff de bush fe cut.
– Claude McKay, “Quashie to Buccra”
It may be a little difficult for you to understand what Mr McKay is talking about in the verse above (don’t worry there’s a translation at the end), but he’s here to help me illustrate a little something about today’s topic – language.
Remember in our last discussion we spoke briefly to the correlation between communication and the perpetuation of culture? Well today, we’re going a bit more in-depth with that part of the discussion.
The Caribbean Language Situation
The colonial history of the Caribbean, as we may well know, has resulted in the Caribbean being home to no shortage of languages. Seriously, we have a lot. There are a few Amerindian influences in some places; there are European languages like English, French, Spanish, and so on; there are West African-influenced varieties evident in Caribbean creoles; there are even East-Indian influences.
The result of all of these different languages colliding and interacting has given the Caribbean region what is probably one of the most complex and diverse language situations of any region in the world.
Language As A Reflection of Culture
Way back in the late 1920s, anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir theorised that the relationship between language and culture is more than the surface relationship we see. We see language as a part of culture, and we’re not wrong by any stretch of the imagination. But Sapir’s view, termed linguistic relativity, was that language influenced our perception of the world around us. Thirty years or so after, his student Benjamin Whorf had a more deterministic approach – that is, Whorf believed language determined our thought about the world.
Though Whorf’s version is a touch on the extreme side, the general gist of it for me is this: we talk from a perspective of personal experience, and that personal experience is at least partially a product of our culture, and we talk about those experiences using language.
Do you see what I’m getting at?
I think, at some level, culture is reflected in our language. You know how you can go to a bunch of places in the United States and hear different accents and say to yourself “well this person’s from Jersey” or “that’s a down-south accent”? It’s the same way in the Caribbean.
A Barbadian accent is different from a Jamaican one, or a Trinidadian one or any other Caribbean accent. Each accent and further each language variety can be considered a part of this thing we call the Caribbean tongue. An aspect of Caribbean culture is highlighted in the way each of us speaks.
Caribbean Language History
In Sapir’s eyes, language is a ‘social and cultural product’. What does that mean?
When we look at the Caribbean historically, we are reminded that it is a narrative of an influx of people arriving from across the Atlantic and beyond and that with each new wave of people came a myriad of different cultural practices and yes, languages.
It’s kinda like when you put a bunch of cake-making ingredients into a bowl and mix them together. Cultural contact produced language contact through acculturation. Basically, all these different cultures and languages were brought together, interacted with each other and mixed.
Not unlike Caribbean cultural history, Caribbean language history is a story of adaptation. Languages had to adapt to survive in some form just like how cultures had to adapt to stay alive.
This brings us to the situation we have today – the multiplicity of languages and language varieties we have is a direct result of the need for interaction and communication between our historical ancestors. What we have is really a bunch of hybrid languages that came from acculturation.
Food for Thought…
A lot of what the Caribbean is, our culture and identity, I think, is embedded in our language. Like Sapir said, language is a social product and a cultural one too. To me what that really means is it reflects our cultural and societal past, and is a means of perpetuating that culture down through the generations through interaction.
Culture is in the stories we tell and in the way we speak because our language is our culture.
Cyndi, the Historical Sociolinguist
P.S I didn’t forget your translation (though it doesn’t rhyme as well):
You taste the potato and say it is sweet
But you don’t know how hard we worked for it.
You want a basketful for a quarter of sixpence,
Because you don’t know how stiff* the bush was to cut.