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Mohammed 1

Shivana Mohammed

Dr. Jeannette Allsopp

The Standardization of Caribbean Languages

7th May 2009

The Tongue That Ties:

Addressing Caribbean Fragmentation Through Linguistics

To suggest that we all speak one tongue is surreal.

But can’t we learn each others...

so that every man's native tongue,

is every other mans second language?

Then can we not say we have achieved linguistic unity?

(Mohammed, 2009)

The Caribbean is conventionally referred to as a singular region internationally, however,

internally the region is far from singular, rather it is a group of islands each a nation unto itself.

Many an individual and government have attempted to create within the region a sense of unity,

the façade of a single nation under the sun. However, after multiple failed attempts this has not

been accomplished.

This paper proposes that the definitions of the region all reflect its fragmentation and that

attempts to piece the puzzle together have all failed due to one overlooked and understated
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element, at the grassroots level, islanders cannot communicate across their national boundaries.

In his Nobel laureate lecture Derek Walcott captures the sentiment of most Caribbean

intellectuals, of the region he remarks that the everyday acts of belief and culture, recall

“Memory that yearns to join the centre, a limb remembering the body from which it has been

severed, like those bamboo thighs of the god. In other words, the way that the Caribbean is still

looked at, illegitimate, rootless, mongrelized. "No people there", to quote Froude, "in the true

sense of the word". No people. Fragments and echoes of real people, unoriginal and broken.

Historically the Caribbean has been destined for fragmentation, politically, socially and

otherwise. A Pre Colonial West Indies was home to a number of indigenous tribes among which

were the major groups the Tainos and Kalinagos, the Carib-speaking peoples and the Arawak-

speaking peoples. These languages were later subjugated before a European Tongue, or tongues.

This process began with the colonization of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Trinidad by the

Spanish. Though in 1655 Jamaica was seized by the English and remained under its rule for 300


Consequent to their domination an English speaking rule began in Bermuda(1612) to be

followed by their conquer of St Kitts, Barbados, Nevis, Antigua, Monsterrat, Anguilla, Tortola.

In 1625 however a French Rule permeated the island of St. Kitts followed by Guadeloupe and

Martinique both of whom to this day are French Departments, a political aspect that has had

serious ramifications for their assimilation into the greater Caribbean region. Similarly, the

French took control of one third of Spanish Speaking Hispaniola, creating the French Speaking

Haitian. In addition to the English and French rule the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire,

Curacao, Tobago, Saint Eustatius, Saba, St. Martin, St. Croix and Tortola, also became Dutch

speaking territories.
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Colonization Policy was one that mandated that the slaves be fragmented to allow for

easier rule. Such that the African imports, were scattered across the multiple territories in no

linguistic order to prevent collusion. Derek Bickerton in discussing the Language Bio

Programme Hypothesis comments that the intelligence of the average slave was undermined

since one’s ability to learn language is seen as proportionate to ones intelligence, rather in

actuality the average slave came out of a region with nearly 2000 languages, where knowledge of

multiple language varieties is commonplace. Bickerton notes that the propensity of the slave to

acquire a multilingual repertoire was high.

The acquisition of the language of the Colonizer was no herculean feat. It is thus a

curiosity that with so heavy a substrate influence- genealogically speaking the Caribbean region

should have evolved into a region where, while being multi-lingual, the average islanders

linguistic repertoire ought to include the major languages and varieties. Africa for instance as a

multi-linguistic nation has an average 80 million people who share 400 languages, the typical

Nigerian for instance, his repertoire includes at minimum two to three languages; this they

consider their “linguistic inheritance” (Languages of Africa,1)

Furthermore, in a Nation that is considered third world as is the case with the Caribbean

region, the value of a multilingual population to its development has been recognized, that “the

high linguistic diversity of many African countries (Nigeria alone has 250 languages, one of the

greatest concentrations of linguistic diversity in the world) has made language policy a vital issue

in the post-colonial era. In recent years, African countries and many other developing nations

such as Singapore1, have become increasingly aware of the value of their linguistic inheritance.

Singapore has four major languages, they are; Tamil, Malay, Mandarin and English.
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Language policies being developed nowadays are mostly aimed at multilingualism. (languages of

Africa, 1)

As a region that has suffered the rape of colonialism, they too understand the pressures

that exist to assume the language of the colonizer where “A monolingual perspective is often

unfortunately a consequence of possession of a powerful language of wider communication; as

English, French, German, Spanish and other languages are often styled.” ( Edwards 1) This

monolingual perspective that Edwards mentions happens to be the perspective of most islanders,

where there lingua franca is the only language that matters. For within this particular lingua

franca are their social aspirations and cultural norms. To become multi-lingual is often construed

as being a traitor to one’s own, language, culture and country.

Edwards recognizes this, also, and he states, “the unique well springs of group

consciousness, traditions and beliefs are thus seen as intimately entwined with language. This

idea stemming from the premise that the latin root the word traduttore- to translate, lies in the

word traduttore- Traitor.

This type of attitude to language may be considered as an offspring of provincialism or

even tribalism within the region. These two act as antagonists to individualism and intercourse.

Provincialism according to linguist Ferdinand de Saussure “keeps small communities [such as

the island territories in the Caribbean] faithful to their own original habits; but while

provincialism makes people sedentary, intercourse obliges them to move about and interact….

[it] spreads language preventing dialectical splintering by wiping out any innovation and

insularity, it also promotes unity by adopting and spreading innovation.” (qtd Edwards 53)

This is seen as one of the current issues in the 21st Century Caribbean, while most persons

opt to travel to the Anglo phone cosmopolitan, few Anglophone Caribbean persons chose
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Martinique or Guadeloupe or even Belize as a vacation destination, due to linguistic challenges.

Rather the OEC has seen this trend, and sought to suggest a solution, in order to increase contact

and the desire to learn another’s language. They decided that there should be a common Eastern

Passport. The distinctions between these two sets of ideologies determine whether or not a

country [Nation] is plurist or majoritarian. In a situation like that which the common OECS

passport would create, there would be the arrival of a plurist Nation.

While most Caribbean islands do have in existence a diglossia of a standard European

language and its bastard offspring; there is no situation where there exists a second country

standard, or to the extreme a situation of diglossia where both the Standard European language

and its relative Creole are both considered lingua franca.

With the world closing in on the Caribbean, the need for a voice that speaks on behalf of

all Caribbean man is inexorable. Should every islander, be able to speak the tongue of his

neighbor. Can they not rise up in unison even in their divisiveness? Where, their words though

different, share a common agreed thought after sufficient communication. In the face of

globalization and rising global turmoil Caribbean Gatekeepers have overtly voiced the need for

Caribbean Unity.

In August 2008, Trinidadian Prime Minister Patrick Manning re-commenced old but all

too familiar talk’s pro- Caribbean unity; talks which were similar to those launched by former

Barbadian Prime Minister Alexander Bustamante fifty years ago, with the formation of the West

Indian Federation; the first official and structured move toward Caribbean unity. This was the

beginning of a series of unification measures leading to the formation of the Organization of

Eastern Caribbean States, later CARICOM, CARICOM Caribbean Single Market and Economy

and the now Free Trade Area of the Americas.

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Post the 2008 activity, one Robert Buddhan recognizes the inevitable fate of all blocs

whose intent is Caribbean Unity, he states “Caribbean unity is a strategy for survival by making

alliances with each other and with states that are going to be important in the new global order

that is taking shape. If we have been on the wrong side of history we need to get on the right side

of the future...” (Buddhan, 2) to this the Prime Minister of St. Vincent Ralph Gonzales remarked

“CARICOM's single market and economy, if it should come into being at all, will require the political

authority similar to that which the OECS has. Otherwise, the Caribbean Single Market and Economy

(CSME) will not work.” (qtd Buddhan, 3)

“Politically the Caribbean is made up of numerous entities depending not only on present

political status but also on colonial associations. European colonial policy above all else

determined the entities in the Caribbean by creating great distances or close links between the

islands regardless”(Roberts ) This colonial legacy of the Caribbean has resulted in a nation state

that is characterized by its fragmentation.

It has furthermore created a “A monolingual perspective [which] is often, unfortunately a

consequence of possession of a powerful language of wider communication; as English, French,

German, and Spanish and other languages are often styled” (Edwards 1) It must be noted that the

formation of any political union within the region is often influenced by the delineations created

by the Colonial Superpowers, thus maintaining the linguistic divide that was implemented during

the plantation system, this thus permeating the problem of Caribbean fragmentation. It is

noteworthy to look at the fact that The Federation of the Westindies was composed however of

not solely the anglo-phone Caribbean but include, however the OECS and Caricom by no

coincidence are majorly Anglophone in origin. Thus we keep within the agenda of the colonial

superpower, divide to conquer.

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It is acceptable that any move to multilingualism, within any particular territory would

raise eyebrows. To speak another language is to associate oneself in however minute amounts,

with another person’s culture. Cronin looks at this as a challenge that may seem insurmountable

to some. He states that “All attachments and memberships take time. We cannot be members of

an infinite number of groups in the same way, because attachments like these require more than

quality motivation but also quality time; to learn about the people involved their culture and their

ideosyncrasis“(Cronin 47) For the Saussure, the answer to the issue of how people will accept of

any type of linguistic change may be found in the etymology of the word social, he says “ the

etymology of the word social, in Latin, refers to the binding together of whatever it is that makes

a collectivity of individual act in the same way thus, calling language a social fact is connected to

an assertion that every member of the speech community possesses the language in identical


Should we take social, in a Marxist light, being political in its undertones, “drawing to

mind connotation of social inequity- the inevitable tendency of any social Nation.” (qtd Joseph

99) the regional integration bodies ought to be the ones to address linguistic dis-integration. The

linguistic inequities within the region must first be addressed, not that each individual’s idiolect

become identical but that they assume identical status. In the formulation of integration policies,

regional integration bodies ought to engage status planners, so to put each territories lingua

franca on the same esteem throughout the region. So that French may be used in public fora in

Guyana, or Dutch in Guadeloupe etcetera.

Currently, according to George Marsh, “English is emphatically the language of

commerce, of civilization, of social and religious freedom, of progressive intelligence and of an

active catholic philanthropy; and beyond any tongue ever used by man; it is of right the
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cosmopolitan speech” as such the language of choice for most of the meeting and counsels of the

Caribbean integrating bodies occur in English. This seems a myopic and one sided decision, in

that, by opting to use English there is an informal consensus as per what the lingua franca of the

political, economic and social forerunners of the Caribbean will be, effectively excluding a major

portion of the region. And while the argument of some may be that the extra-english territories

are represented at these meetings in English. It raises the question of who are these summits and

counsels directed toward integrating; solely the leaders? If the average Cuban, or Venezuelan

cannot follow the proceedings of a meeting ordained at bringing him closer to his Jamaican

country man, has the meet served its purpose.

The Caribbean single market and economy raises other valuable issues, it hopes once

enacdted to allow the free movement of skilled labor across the region. The end result of this

may be a failure in two ways; firstly, that the immigrant population of many islands will increase

rapidly and in so doing so will their linguistics composition exponentially change. Leaving

governments with issues of a linguistic nature where they will be forced to come to terms with

their new unofficial multilingualism. In a situation like this where multilingualism arises

“through contact and becomes a necessity [ as is the case in any free trade bloc] it imposes also

the necessity if crossing language barriers. It is obvious in other words that despite widespread

multilingual competence, there arise many occasions when some means of bridging a language

gap is required.” (Edward, 53) There are two main methods which may be applied to the

Caribbean Situation:

I) Translation or assimilation of one language of widespread use, generally the

superstrate influence.

II) Restricted use of limited forms of existing languages

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III) The implementation of multilingual education policy.

The Caribbean governments will now be forced to reconsider the use and status of

another islands lingua franca. Asking them question posited my Joseph; what is the status of this

foreign language? Can it function and fulfill all the purposes of my own lingua franca? How is it

classified vis a vis other languages, primarily my own? What other languages are used by its

speakers? Are there any dialects? The responses to these questions simply put initiate

movements to status planning in a multi-linguistic state.

The twenty first Century Caribbean has come to terms with the fact that there is

increasing need for Caribbean Unity, and one key factor in this has to be recognition of the

challenges which may occur should nothing be done by regional integrating bodies to address the

fact that insularity in the region is caused primarily by linguistic barriers.

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Works Cited

Buddhan, Robert. Caribbean unity an idea whose time has come again. Jamaica Gleaner.


African Languages, 20-04-09

Cronin, Micheal. Translation and Globalisation. Rutledge, 2003: 49-60.

Edwards, John. Multi- Lingualism. Penguin Books: England, 1995

Joseph, John E. Language and Identity: National, Ethnic, Religious. Palgrave: United States,


Williams, Glyn. Socio-Linguistics: A Sociological Critique. Rutledge: London, 1992.