Varieties of English in the West Indies have often been treated unfairly and inaccurately.
In spite of an unbroken continuity of English in certain Caribbean territories (see Roberts 2008), Caribbean Englishes have usually been treated in any one of the following manners:
- They have been described as World or New or Emerging Englishes (often with regard to the standard varieties);
- They have been ignored in scholarly or popular studies on English of the Americas (or on the historical spread of English);
- The non-standard varieties have been called English Creole, although non-standard English is not English Creole and vice-versa. English Creole and English are two separate languages. English Creoles are, in fact, many different, hugely diverse languages, and some are mutually unintelligible among each other and many are mutually unintelligible with English (standard or non-standard dialects).
Caribbean English Creole languages have been analysed and described, and reasonably well-documented, almost to the counter-neglect of English in the Caribbean. The focus on English Creole(s), of course, occurred in response to the historical and ongoing (and obvious, often hostile) lack of recognition of these languages. Those Caribbean linguists at the vanguard of this movement to protect, defend and describe English Creole(s) have themselves generally been mother tongue speakers of English, although that may be changing.
Now it seems that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.
Caribbean Englishes, with their standard and non-standard dialects, have been less well-described, particularly the non-standard varieties. Standard English is not the only type of English in the Caribbean, and standard English does not only comprise a formal register. Non-standard English, whether spoken in the Caribbean or elsewhere, is English, and its varieties are alive and well right here.
When it comes to the standard varieties, they are often benchmarked against metropolitan varieties in a most exonormative way, and treated as if they are merely historical imitations of British English with increasing influence from the USA. Non-native speakers of English also feel they have the right to make pronouncements on Caribbean Englishes, whether they know the sociolinguistic history of the English language or not.
Even when Caribbean norms are well established (such as the use of the preposition ‘in’ to refer to an island country or nation, rather than ‘on’, islands being geographic accidents), these norms are usually ignored or considered local oddities.
The English-official Caribbean is not even a reference for the non-English-speaking Americas. For example, the editor of a cookbook in French or Portuguese or Spanish from the Americas would sooner look to the USA and UK as sources for English language translators than to Guyana or the Caribbean, which probably have similar or same ingredients, dishes and culinary traditions (and therefore words for these). This, however, may change slowly with the establishment of translation bureaus in the Caribbean.
Power and Prejudice
There seem to be issues of power and prejudice at play, and issues of majorities vs. minorities. Or perhaps there seems to be a issue with some of the ancestors of speakers of Caribbean English varieties.
“Linguists have cherished the following myth in discussions of the evolution of English and its speciation into several varieties, viz., those spoken by descendants of Europeans, wherever they evolved, are English dialects, whereas most of the nonstandard vernaculars that have evolved among populations of non-European descent are creoles and separate languages altogether” (Mufwene 2009:280).
Each native speaker of a language has automatic membership status in that language group, regardless of variety, regardless of numbers of fellow speakers, and regardless of origins. Most of the English-official Caribbean could and should belong to the English-speaking equivalent of Francophonie, Lusofonia, Hispanofonía, such as Anglophony or Anglosphere, but those seem to function quite differently from the Romance groupings. Spanish speakers don’t have to prove to other Spanish speakers that they are Spanish speakers. Belonging to the Commonwealth doesn’t seem to be enough. Oh, the othering…
Current models of English around the world frequently omit native Caribbean-born native speakers of English. In the English-official Caribbean of 2015, English may be native to relatively few (1), but it is foreign to none.
Ironically, the English-official Caribbean is, of course, the region that gave birth to two Nobel-prize winners, V.S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott, and to Trevor McDonald, all recognised masters of the English language, in prose, poetry and in speech.
The odd result of this prejudice is that speakers and writers of English, born in the post-independence Caribbean, are faced with a new dilemma. Since 2005 or earlier, applicants to certain overseas universities in the USA and the UK have had to sit (and pay for) English language tests, after having sat only English language tests and tests in the English language all their scholastic lives.
On the other hand, others who are required to have a second or foreign language play on this existential ambiguity and use it to their advantage. They do this by declaring English as their second or foreign language (and by declaring an English Creole as their mother tongue), whether either declaration is true and verifiable or not. They are considered to have satisfied the foreign language requirement and receive an exemption from same.
Kachru et al
Although English may be considered a statistically minority native variety in the Caribbean, it does not have a minority history, nor minority political and official status in the English-official Caribbean. It also does not belong to the group of ‘new Englishes’ of the Third Diaspora, contrary to the statements of some scholars on the historical status of Caribbean Englishes (cf. Kachru, Kachru and Nelson 2009). Previous studies by Kachru correctly categorised Caribbean Englishes in the First Diaspora or First Dispersal.
Those so-called Third Diaspora groups were colonised by Britain two centuries after the colonisation of the Caribbean and North America. If the Caribbean is lumped with those so-called ‘Third Diaspora new Englishes’, this is probably in reference to those Englishes being more and more used by and among traditionally English Creole speakers (or French Creole speakers). Such a model, however, completely ignores the use of English among traditionally and other English speakers of the Caribbean, and again, seems to be a majority-minority matter.
The English-official or Anglophone Caribbean therefore does not fit neatly into controversial Kachruvian theory, especially into those three concentric circles of English. (That is another discussion; briefly, the English-official Caribbean may actually belong in all three circles, since Caribbean speakers of English and speakers of Caribbean Englishes come from various socio-economic, educational and geographic origins, all of which influence the code that becomes the mother tongue of individuals and the groups to which they belong.)
McArthur’s wheel model is far better than many others, although Jamaican Nation Language (see below) fits into Jamaican English Creole and not English.
A new, balanced model is needed, both to capture, include and explain Caribbean complexities.
English outside of England
A look at the spread of English in the Americas and beyond is somewhat illuminating.
North America (except for Mexico), Australia and New Zealand are all in Kachru’s Inner Circle.
The English language went to North America in 1607 (Jamestown, Virginia, now part of the USA) and in 1713 (Acadia, Canada).
The English language went to New South Wales (the beginning of Australia and New Zealand) in 1788.
The English language went to 13 Caribbean territories as follows:
1. St Kitts (1623)
2. Barbados (1625)
3. St Vincent (1627)
4. Nevis (1628)
5. Antigua (1632)
6. The Bahamas (1648)
7. Jamaica (1655)
The first date above is 16 years after the first American colony, and all of these are before Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
8. Guyana (1746)
9. Grenada (attempt made in 1609, conquered in 1762)
10. St Lucia (1762)
11. Dominica (1763)
12. Trinidad (1797-1802/3) and Tobago (1763)
(These are all in the same century as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and most well before the latter two.)
13. Belize (1862)
Of the 13 independent states, Belize is the only one colonised in the late 19th century, and remains truly multilingual. All the others were colonised around the same time, before or not long after the so-called Inner Circle countries. (Some situations are more complex. Trinidad, for example, became officially British in 1797, but was only “Anglicised” in the 1840s.)
It cannot be that the English language disappeared from the Caribbean, or was never used or passed on here, or that it only contributed to the emergence and development of English-lexified Creole languages.
In terms of literacy, Peter Roberts give insights into the history of literacy in the English-official Caribbean in his book From Oral to Literate Culture. Literacy, of course, merely follows speech.
Interestingly, for some scholars and others, Caribbean English that has been English Creole-influenced simply becomes English Creole, and somehow stops being English, from pronunciation to vocabulary to grammar.
In the area of vocabulary, if Australians invent the world selfie (meaning “a self-taken photo, usually with a cell/mobile phone”), it is an English word. However, if Trinidadians invent the word lime (meaning “to socialise”), it is an English Creole word. The latter word actually belongs to both English (not just because of Lionel Richie or other American celebrities) and English Creole. Words can and do have dual and plural citizenship.
Another example: Papaya is seen as the acceptable name for that fruit, and Pawpaw is seen as ‘local’ or ‘Creole’ (except when people see it in the Oxford English Dictionary, which then gives it respect and raised status). In any case, they are apparently two different names for related fruit.
In the area of pronunciation, TH-stopping is English in Ireland and the USA (New York), but English Creole in the Caribbean.
In the area of grammar, German-influenced English in the US, Pennsylvania for example, is English. African- and Creole- and Indian-influenced varieties, for some reason, are no longer English.
If speakers of Caribbean English use a lexeme or a pronunciation or turn of phrase not known to urban, metropolitan speakers of English, the former are often pounced on by the latter, who are quick to point out the “Creole” influences on the speech of Caribbean English speakers. If a speaker or writer of Caribbean English makes a mistake, they are judged more harshly than other native speakers, and the cause is said to be “Creole influence”, rather than a slip of the tongue or the pen. (Even attempts at word play can be thought to be errors.)
Ironically, some are historical and regional variants from English varieties that came to and that survived in the Caribbean, in much the same way that other historical and regional variants from other English varieties went to and survived elsewhere, in those places that now dictate the pace when it comes to English. History continues to be a good teacher.
English has been in the Caribbean for almost 400 years. New Englishes? We don’t think so.
(1) English may be considered a foreign language only to deaf Caribbean-born people.