“Yu wahn i hot up?” asked the woman behind the till when I returned my cold dhal and roti to the counter at Giftland Mall. I paused for a second, deciphering, then agreed. Yes I wanted it heated up, please.
Guyana’s official language is English. A hangover from its days as a British colony. But sit on the bus, walk down the street, go into a shop and what you’ll hear is something richer, more melodic than anything the Queen could come up with.
“It’s bad English,” Adam Harris, Editor-in-Chief of Kaieteur News, put it when I went to record him for my oral-history project, Guyana 50: Memories of Life in British Guiana.
I wanted to argue back, all fired up as I was from a workshop I went to earlier in the week at the University of Guyana: Writing Creolese the Creolese Way. The session was led by the fiesty and funny Charlene Wilkinson, a lecturer in the Department of Languages and Cultural Studies, who took no time to pull me up on my quiet, mumbling voice. “The British don’t like to open their mouths when they talk!”
The workshop was part lecture, part practical exercise. We took dictation in creolese, read aloud from the transcript of an interview with a Guyanese rice farmer, and shared our reasons for being there. One participant was a poet already using her own version of written creolese. Another was a US aid worker wanting to learn to speak the lingo. There were teachers, lecturers and representatives from the education ministry, one who was somewhat rounded on at the end when she attempted to defend the lack of specific ‘English’ lessons on the curriculum.
It’s a strange situation. A country where the mother tongue of most of the population is not the official language. Where some children learn English for the first time at school. Where teachers (depending on the school) speak to their pupils in creolese, but demand they write their essays and reports in British English. Where a room full of mostly Guyanese people, some of whom grew up speaking only creole, struggle to read a line of written ‘Guyanese’.
Why? Because the creole they know is oral. Some prestigious Guyanese writers, as was noted in the workshop, use the language to good effect – and are complimented for the authenticity and vibrancy this adds. Like Wordsworth McAndrew’s classic poem Ol’ Higue:
Ol’ woman wid de wrinkled skin,
Leh de ol’ higue wuk begin.
Put on you fiery disguise,
Ol’ woman wid de weary eyes
Shed you swizzly skin.
But should creolese remain a preserve of academia or fiction? In a letter in the Stabroek News earlier this year, Ms Wilkinson put a convincing argument forward for “bilingual and multilingual education” – where speakers of Guyanese are given the right (and respect) to speak their first language, as well as English.
The many responses in the comments box below her letter give some sense of the heatedness of this long-running debate. One that I am only newly aware of. Perhaps Ms Wilkinson should have responded by giving out the questionnaire we were asked to fill in during the workshop, asking us to honestly assess how we would view an English speaker vs a Guyanese speaker: Which do you think is most friendly? Which do you think is most intelligent? Which is more honest? Which is more helpful? Which is better educated? Which has more money? When you start to examine your own prejudices and pre-conceptions, that’s when you realise change is needed.
Or at least a Creole School for Small-Mouthed Brits. Any offers?