A short history of “dialect” and why we should value it
I’ve tried many times to write this message, about the racism that’s inherent in how we regard different varieties of language. Yet, unusually for me, it’s never come out quite how I’d like. So, this time round, I’m presenting some of the thoughts that have crossed my mind about it. Please use these as a starting point for your own exploration of this topic.
“Standard” vs. “Dialect”
In global minority (white majority) spaces, there’s always a distinction between what’s considered the standard speech and what people from other cultural and ethnic backgrounds speak. It’s similar in Black majority post-colonial spaces, where the standard is prized, and anything else despised. Many Caribbean people will relate to growing up in households where speaking “dialect” was forbidden, or at the very least frowned upon. Even if you spoke it with your friends at school, it wasn’t something you brought home or used in any company where you wanted to impress.
Along with that went a whole bunch of attitudes about the people who conversed primarily in dialect. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered, through a study of linguistics, that the despised dialect was actually an English-based creole language, with its own grammar and syntax. And I know for myself that these Caribbean languages are redolent with nuance and meaning.
The Origins of Caribbean Creole Languages
How did these languages come to be? Here, a little history lesson. When enslaved Africans arrived in the Caribbean (similar to what happened in the US), they were separated from people who spoke the same language and put with people who would teach them the smatterings of whatever European language they needed to learn.
There are creole languages throughout the Caribbean, varying depending on which European power held sway where. That’s why, for example, there’s a French-based creole, patois, in English-speaking St. Lucia, because the island changed hands so often between France and England.
Like most people acquiring a second (or in many cases, third or fourth language), this wasn’t always acquired perfectly. And any “broken speech” was thought to be all enslaved people were capable of.
As part of the process, anything African was derided and they were forcibly separated from both their language and their culture. The amazing thing to me is that despite that, expressions of African origin made it into the dialects of multiple Caribbean islands, many of them similar, if not identical. You’ll find examples in the articles linked at the end.
In the post-enslavement and early post-colonial period, any limited social mobility depended on white adjacency and better speech. Speaking dialect could disqualify you from certain jobs. So, by and large, people didn’t. Naturally, at a certain point, there was a backlash, with pan-Africanists and others urging us to value what was effectively a second language for some of us and a native language for others.
Using Dialect Today
There are situations in which it’s totally acceptable to use dialect: in songs, plays, locally authored novels and poems, and similar cultural contexts. And there are some parts of every society who use it as their first language. But in schools and offices, there’s still an expectation of the “standard”.
Today, most well-educated people in the Caribbean switch between the two seamlessly, or flavor their standard English with "dialect" when it's appropriate. I'm in the latter camp, my situation being compounded by having grown up in several places, and having smatterings of the creole languages of several islands. Our current Barbados PM, a QC who knows the so called “Queen’s English” like the back of her hand, is adept at sprinkling in dialect where it’s most effective.
Undoing the Colonial Programming is Hard
As a Black woman, I feel that the colonial project has been successful in robbing my ancestors and their descendants of our original languages and cultures, imperfectly teaching us the languages and cultures of our colonizers and enslavers, deriding us when we don't live up to the standard, and teaching us to look down on ourselves when we don't meet the standard. It’s a bit of programming that I don’t think I’ll ever successfully undo, though I give myself a stern talking-to whenever I catch it. This is yet another example of white supremacy being everywhere.
Just as many people the world learn English in addition to their native language or languages, I have no problem with us doing the same. But I would like us to celebrate the richness of our creole languages, and stop looking down on them as imperfect varieties of the standard. What do you think?
P.S. I know I have a couple of readers who are experts on this topic. If I’ve made any factual errors, I’m happy to correct them, and I’d love you to share any additional insights in the comments.
Thanks for reading,
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Cover photo courtesy of Canva.