Trinidad and Tobago and the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights

Trinidad and Tobago and the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights

In 2013, two UWI, St Augustine linguists island-hopped across to the island of O‘ahu in Hawai‘i for the 3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC). The theme was “Sharing Worlds of Knowledge.” We shared our knowledge on “The Diversity of Endangered Languages: Documenting three endangered languages in Trinidad and Tobago” and we gained so much more.


After the conference, one of us went over to take part in the Hilo Field Study (on the Big Island of Hawai‘i). There the Hilo Resolution was signed by all linguists present – linguists from all over the world, each one representing research institutions, linguistic communities and nations.

The Resolution focused on the rights of native speakers and signers of languages everywhere and the need for proper representation before governments. Many of these languages are minority languages. Some are even majority languages, but marginalised. The speakers of the latter languages are usually less socioeconomically powerful than the speakers of their countries’ official languages. Those official languages often have world status, but are actual minority languages in some countries.

There are predecessors of that Resolution that directly concern us here in Trinidad and Tobago:

How does this affect us in Trinidad and Tobago?

It is important that all language groups be both understood and protected. This is so that every citizen can be afforded the best of educational and professional opportunities, and be fully assisted when necessary in health and legal systems.


In T&T, there are four groups who fall into the categories mentioned in the Resolution, as follows:

  1. Our indigenous peoples;
  2. The many monolingual (or varilingual) T&T English Creole speakers (even if they are passively competent and passively bilingual in Standard(ised) English);
  3. The Deaf community, and
  4. Monolingual or partly bilingual speakers of our other autochthonous heritage languages.

The biggest problems that all groups now face or have faced are in the areas of education, employment, health and law, especially by members of the Deaf community.

The ancestors of these groups of people have historically been or are currently socio-economically subordinate and underrepresented in terms of power sharing, education, law and more. Even if some ancestors and their descendants were able to overcome these difficulties, many others have not. In the meantime, their languages and cultures are still being disrespected and belittled, misunderstood and mishandled, or eroded and forgotten.

In all cases, theirs/ours is an intangible linguo-cultural heritage that should be documented before the users of these languages continue to suffer and/or disappear. Like ecological loss, language loss and culture loss are often irreparable. On the other hand, like a balanced ecology, where all species should be protected if possible, all of our languages should be treated similarly, or at least observed and documented for posterity.

Our heritage languages are not only of the past, but they offer us insight into who we are as a people today, how we think, function and see the world, and definitely where we came from. All of our languages are at the very heart of our nationhood and selfhood.


The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights

The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (the Barcelona 1996 Declaration) was signed and adopted to support the rights of language users (speakers and signers) throughout the world, especially those users of endangered languages.

The Declaration focuses on the equal rights of every human being in every sphere touched and shaped by language, and is laid out as follows:

  • Preliminary Title: Concepts (Articles 1-6)
  • Title One: General Principles (Articles 7-14), including the obvious in Article 10.1: “Article 10 1. All language communities have equal rights.”
  • Second Title: Overall Linguistic Regime
    • Public administration and official bodies (Articles 15-22), including laws and legal provisions concerning all language groups;
    • Education (Articles 23-30), including “properly trained teachers, appropriate teaching methods, text books, finance, buildings and equipment, traditional and innovative technology” as laid out in Article 25; language communities also have the right to learn other languages;
    • Proper Names (Articles 31-34), including place names;
    • Communications media and new technologies (Articles 35-40);
    • Culture (Articles 41-46), including intercultural programmes;
    • The socioeconomic sphere (Articles 47-52), including advertising;
  • Additional Dispositions (First to Third)
  • Final Dispositions (First to Second)

Language in Education is of particular interest to us:

Article 26: All language communities are entitled to an education which will enable their members to acquire a full command of their own language, including the different abilities relating to all the usual spheres of use, as well as the most extensive possible command of any other language they may wish to know.

Article 30: The language and culture of all language communities must be the subject of study and research at university level.

All languages are covered covered by the Declaration, including ancestral and ritual languages. Article 27 states: “All language communities are entitled to an education which will enable their members to acquire knowledge of any languages related to their own cultural tradition, such as literary or sacred languages which were formerly habitual languages of the community.” This is of particular interest to our indigenous peoples and a number of ethno-religious groups.

The SIL Linguistic Creed

SIL Linguistic Creed

This Linguistic Creed was composed by Benjamin F. Elson, September, 1987. Here we reproduce the whole creed, highlighting what affects us most in T&T.

We believe that language is one of God’s most important gifts to man, and of all human characteristics, language is the most distinctly human and the most basic. Without language, culture and civilization would be impossible.

We also believe that any language is capable of being a vehicle for complicated human interaction and complex thought, and can be the basis for a complex culture and civilization.

Therefore, all languages deserve respect and careful study.

As the most uniquely human characteristic a person has, a person’s language is associated with his self-image. Interest in and appreciation of a person’s language is tantamount to interest in and appreciation of the person himself.

All languages are worthy of preservation in written form by means of grammars, dictionaries, and written texts. This should be done as part of the heritage of the human race.

Every language group deserves to see its language in print and to have some literature written in it.

Minority language groups within a larger nation deserve the opportunity of learning to speak, read, and write the national language.


What We Can Do

We can lobby our government ministries, write to the newspapers, share with school principals, contact an attorney, learn more about our endangered languages, learn more about our national languages, and continue to sensitise our people to our needs and our rights.

Article 10.2: This Declaration considers discrimination against language communities to be inadmissible, whether it be based on their degree of political sovereignty, their situation defined in social, economic or other terms, the extent to which their languages have been codified, updated or modernized, or on any other criterion.

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