I’ve just come back from Hawai‘i, where I took part in the 5th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation. After travelling for nearly two days, it’s strange to find yourself in a place which is so similar to the one you left. Hawai‘i and the Caribbean resemble each other in climate, topography, and the numbers of tourists on the beaches, but what struck me most were the familiar sounds.The Pidgin language widely spoken in Hawai‘i (really a creole) is not so far from the creoles of the Caribbean, and within a day of arriving I heard Hawai‘ian dancehall on the radio, steelpan music piped into a hotel lobby, followed by a ukulele version of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds (I’ve since learned that the song features in Your First Ukulele Lesson on Youtube).
I was also struck by how much the issues being discussed at the conference, by people engaged in documenting and reviving endangered languages as diverse as Guugu Yimidhirr, spoken in Australia, Lingit of Alaska, and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Min City Sign Language, connected with issues faced by people in the Caribbean. The theme of the conference was “linking language and wellbeing.” In the final plenary, Richard Oster and Rick Lightning talked about links between language, cultural continuity and diabetes. They argued convincingly that while factors such as lifestyle and diet clearly contribute to epidemically high rates of diabetes in First Nations communities in Canada, colonization and cultural destruction are crucial underlying factors. Their research has shown a correlation between continued use of traditional languages by First Nations groups and lower diabetes rates, and they argued that “First Nations that have been better able to preserve their culture may be relatively protected from diabetes.” Rick Lightning, himself a member of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, and a third generation survivor of the brutal residential schools which were designed to obliterate First Nations cultures, spoke of how this burden of intergenerational trauma could lead directly to alcohol abuse and health problems.
It was impossible to listen to this without thinking of the Caribbean. Across the region, diabetes “is responsible for 13.8% of all deaths among adults in the region.” Trinidad and Tobago, also has extremely high rates of Diabetes Mellitus.
Among the Kuna people, one of the few pre-Colombian groups in the islands of the Caribbean who have managed to maintain their traditional language and culture, the rate of Diabetes Mellitus is exceptionally low.
There was much discussion, too, of seminal research by Chandler and Lalonde, who found a link between language loss and suicide in First Nations communities in Canada. They found that in British Columbia these communities have a suicide rate of 45.2 per 100,000, compared to a rate of 14.8 in the province generally. Suicide among young people is staggeringly high, up to 100 times the provincial average. However, “youth suicide rates effectively dropped to zero in those few communities in which at least half the band members reported a conversational knowledge of their own ‘Native’ language.”
Again, it was impossible not to think about the Caribbean. The suicide rate in Guyana is by far the highest of any country in the world, at 44.2 out of every 100,000. Suriname is 5th on the list at 27.8 per 100,000. Meanwhile, according to Ethnologue, all of Guyana’s languages except for English, Guyanese Creole and American Sign Language are either threatened or worse. This includes many indigenous languages like Mawayana and Taruma which are almost extinct in Guyana; immigrant languages, like Hindustani, which is not being passed on to children; and creole languages like Berbice Dutch, whose last speaker died this century. With limited documentation, there is a realistic prospect that many more of these languages may be lost forever within the next few decades.
In talking about the effects of colonization on health, Rick Lightning stopped himself: “Ugh, colonization. ‘Colonization’ is too nice of a word. It’s genocide. That’s what it is.” Caribbean linguist, Hubert Devonish, also talks of “linguistic genocide” and “language slaughter” in his history of Caribbean languages. This slaughter was extremely effective, and many of the languages that were once spoken across the islands of the Caribbean were wiped out years ago. In Trinidad and Tobago, at least 11 Amerindian languages were once known to be spoken; now none of them is spoken natively here. In some cases, only the names of languages and a few words remain, and there is no hope of revitalization. The colonizers were also careful to try to obliterate the diverse languages and cultures of the Africans they enslaved and brought to the region.
And yet, as Jo-Anne Ferreira described in her post on where Patois words come from, the creole languages which have emerged in the region preserve the links, linguistic and cultural, to those ancestors. The words, sounds, even the grammatical patterns of the creole languages spoken in the Caribbean today can be traced back to the languages of Africans, Amerindians, Europeans and of each subsequent group of people which has come to the region. For many in the Caribbean still dealing with the devastating effects of colonialism and intergenerational trauma, creole languages can provide the cultural continuity which has been shown to have such beneficial effects on health.
All of this suggests that language has a crucial role to play in addressing urgent health problems in the Caribbean. Linguistic and cultural loss should not be seen as a matter of mere nostalgia, but as a key public health issue. Investment in language documentation and revitalization; supporting communities who wish to revive their heritage languages; de-stigmatizing and promoting creoles and the links they provide to ancestors whose languages and cultures we may have thought were lost; all of these are practical initiatives we could take to address the root causes of some of the biggest public health challenges faced across the region.