The voice of the foreigner: reproducing Caribbean English in the postcolonial novel
Table des matières
While the term Caribbean refers geographically to some 7,000 islands stretching from south of Florida to North of Venezuela, the same precision is not applied so easily to its linguistic or literary use. There is in fact no common language as the various countries were colonised by the English, Spanish, French or Dutch, and their inhabitants modified these languages into Creole varieties distinctive to each area. Even within the anglophone Caribbean where English is the official language, different versions of Creole exist and to some extent each also has its own version of the standard variety. Such differences become obvious in the means used to mark negation, for example Trindadian English, unlike Jamaican, uses “eh” for negation as in she eh there (Mühleisen 2001). In terms of pronunciation, these varieties also possess different features. While Barbadians have a rhotic accent (Holm 1994: 449), those living in Trinidad and the Bahamas have a non rhotic accent, making no distinction between ham and harm (Holm 1994: 461). Jamaicans, on the other hand, have a semi-rhotic accent. More obvious differences concern distinctive lexical items peculiar to each variety. Indeed, the exact status of these varieties has been a source of discussion for scholars. Should they be considered as “forms” of Caribbean Standard English, distinct languages, or dialects of English?
While one cannot neglect the fact that there are distinctions to be made between the many Caribbean varieties, the overall impression, as David Crystal says, “is one of a ‘family’ of languages closely related in structure and idiom” (1995: 346), a view shared by Loreto Todd who states that there are “enough common-core features to permit us to consider them as a reasonably homogeneous linguistic group” (1989: 218). A number of universal grammatical structures has been observed in all the varieties, even if differences in pronunciation or spelling render the similarities less obvious. R.B. Le Page (1969: 5) believes that “there is sufficient in common between the creolized English of one part of the Caribbean and another for there to be a potential ‘Caribbean English’ for writers to use with effect, whatever audience they are aiming at”.
Geographical variation is further complicated by the fact that each regional variety will shift in register according to context. It is now generally thought that the linguistic situation in the Caribbean can best be described in terms of a continuum with broad Creole, or the basilect, at one end and Standard English, or the acrolect, at the other. In between are to be found the dialect forms or mesolects. In other words, individual speakers can move from one way of speaking to another with relative ease. D’Costa (1983: 252) remarks that
The [Caribbean] writer operates within a polydialectical continuum with a creole base. His medium, written language, belongs to the sphere of standardised language which exerts a pressure within his own language community while embracing the wide audience of international standard English.
The term postcolonial is no less controversial but it will be used here to refer to the literature of the Caribbean as it existed during and after the period of colonization. It has long been considered by literary critics that the literatures of formerly colonized countries, while possessing their own regional differences, feature many common themes and notably a need to establish their own identity in relation to the imperial power. The establishment of this identity is closely linked to a preoccupation with language. English is seen as being an “imperial language” (Brathwaite 1984:5) for “it was in language that the slave was perhaps most successfully imprisoned by his master, and it was in his (mis)use of it that he perhaps most effectively rebelled.” (Brathwaite 1970:31). Thus Caribbean writers are constantly seeking an appropriate voice or language in which to write. But unlike many colonies such as those in Africa, English was and is their first language. The Barbadian author, George Lamming, writing in The Pleasures of Exile about his works states that “the language in which these books are written is English – which I must repeat – is a West Indian language” (1992:44). While African and Indian writers writing in English describe characters whose thoughts would not normally be in English, West Indian writers do not face the same problem. However, as Brathwaite remarks, “ it is an English which is not the standard, imported, educated English, but that of the submerged, surrealist experience and sensibility, which has always been there and which is now increasingly coming to the surface and influencing the perception of contemporary Caribbean people” (Brathwaite 1984:13). So even if the term Caribbean refers to a wide and diverse area, the people have a shared common experience and similar concerns when it comes to the problems of identity and language.
The corpus used for this study consists mainly of works by writers who moved to Britain after 1945: George Lamming, originally from Barbados, Samuel Selvon and V.S Naipaul from Trinidad, and Vic Reid from Jamaica. In addition some examples have been taken from more contemporary writers such as Zadie Smith, Jamaica Kincaid and Oonya Kempadoo. The earlier writers belong to the wave of immigrants that arrived in the United Kingdom after the Second World War. In fact they became labelled as “Caribbean” writers only after their arrival on British soil, so that paradoxically the phenomenon of West Indian literature can be said to have started not in the Caribbean but in London, as it was only once they were alienated from their native home that these writers became aware of their identity as West Indian or Caribbean.
How far then do these Caribbean writers reproduce a faithful copy of the dialects in their writings and how far do they actually invent a language? Before analysing the use of Caribbean English in the novels, it is first of all necessary to study the features of this variety of English, how it differs from Standard English, even if the description of Caribbean English that follows will be necessarily shortened and simplified by the nature and scope of this paper.
As with any regional variation of Standard English (SE), the distinctive features of Caribbean English (CE) are to be found in the pronunciation, the lexicon, and the grammar and each of these features will be examined in turn.
The phonology of CE tends to merge many of the distinct vowels to be found in Standard English : cat and cot will sound the same, and diphthongs such as /IƏ/ and /εƏ/ are indistinguishable so that fear and fare are no longer distinct one from the other. As a result, CE contains far more homophones than SE. Other differences include vowel lengthening in CE giving gaan for gone and the pronunciation of some consonants. SE has two pronunciations for th : an unvoiced interdental fricative /θ/ and the voiced interdental fricative /ð/. The former is pronounced /t/ and the latter /d/ in Caribbean English, with the result that thing becomes ting and that becomes dat. Moreover final consonant clusters are simplified so that /t/ or /d/, for example, do not occur at the end of words such as past participles. In broad creole /v/ tends to be absent, so that /v/ is pronounced as /b/ or /w/, and /j/ is often introduced between a velar consonant and a following open vowel with cat and garden being realised as /kjat/ and /gja:dn/. The intervocalic /t/ becomes /k/ : little is heard as likkle. (Crystal 1995, Todd 1984, Sutcliffe 1982).
How is this Caribbean accent represented in the novel? Firstly it is obvious that the representation of speech in the novel can never be an accurate transcription. Everyday speech contains innumerable redundancies and repetitions, and while writers may occasionally introduce an incomplete sentence or hesitation, they rarely include oral features such as fillers (er, um), hedges (you see, you know), or false starts such as “why why did you say that?”. In fact, many characteristics of speech, such as intonation, speech rhythms, exact phonetic transcription, simply cannot be represented on the printed page. Thus one of the major differences between SE and CE, a difference in stress, cannot be rendered. Unlike SE, CE stresses all syllables more or less equally. David Crystal remarks (1995: 344) that “a consequence of this ‘syllable-timed’ rhythm is that vowels which would be unstressed in most other English accents are here spoken with prominence, and schwa /Ə/ is little used”. Furthermore, in CE a simple difference in intonation can distinguish between can and can’t or the man’s dog and the male dog (Todd:240). The only way such differences in stress, pitch or intonation can be rendered in the novel is through authorial comment as in White Teeth:
‘Cheer up, bwoy,’ she said in a lilting Caribbean accent (20)
Phonological differences are generally presented in the written medium through modified spelling. The following examples illustrate some of the phonological differences just mentioned:
One day he came to us with a sad face and said, ‘Hat, it look like if I have to get married.’
He spoke with his Trinidad accent. (MS 190)
Djam fool bwoy taut he owned everyting he touched. "My side," said Clara tentatively. (WT 294)
"You're pregnant?" said Clara, surprised. "Pickney, you so small me kyant even see it." (WT 49)
"... Ryan? Look, Ryan, I don't mean to be rude, but it's midnight, yeah? Is there something you wanted or-" "Irie? Pickney? You dere?" (WT 402)
"We gwan warn all a dem!" broke in Hortense. "And we gat it all plan out nice, see? We gwan sing hymns" (WT 404)
My mother, looking at my children, told me that they loved her ("Dem lub me. Dem lub me a lot, you know"), (MB 63)
"Why must you go an' say tings like dat, hmm? You wan' 'im to tink you some devilish heathen gal? Why kyan you say stamp-collecting or some ting? Come on, I gat to clean deez plates-finish up." (WT 324)
However, as there is no fixed way of writing any of the varieties of Caribbean English such spelling is invariably based on the spelling rules of Standard English, even though pronunciation can only be accurately reproduced using a phonetic alphabet. The danger then is of individual writers reproducing divergent ways of representing such speech differences. Moreover, very often if the text is rewritten with normal spelling, all traces of accent disappear, as a rewriting of the previous example shows:
Why must you go and say things like that, hmmm? You want him to think you are some devilish heathen girl? Why can’t you say stamp-collecting or something?
The question that remains to be asked is how far these examples provide an accurate representation of the phonological differences outlined. Firstly, it is obvious from a study of the corpus that those writers who choose to represent the accent through spelling tend to choose specific features and notably the pronunciation of th as d or t. Some features such as a rhotic accent or merging of diphthongs are seldom present. There are several possible reasons for this. Firstly, the features chosen are those easiest to reproduce on the printed page. Secondly, elements such as the rhotic accent are also present in certain dialects in England as well – as in Scots or American. Such features would therefore not be recognised by all readers as being distinctly Caribbean. It is, in fact, probable that the writers have chosen to focus on those aspects that they believe will be most easily recognisable by the reader as being different. Moreover to reproduce all the differences would risk making the reading experience difficult.
Choosing to represent an accent through deviant spelling is not without dangers, however. There is the danger for example that such deviant spelling will become assimilated to eye-dialect, the practice of misspelling a word to indicate that the speaker is uneducated for example when Mr is spelt Mister or what is spelt as wot. In this case, however, misspelling is not a different pronunciation. Whether we write Mr or mister, we pronounce it the same way. In Caribbean literature, on the other hand, a different spelling implies a different pronunciation, but the fact that this spelling contrasts with standard spelling elsewhere in the text tends to present the foreigner as less-educated and inferior. This is especially true in so far as certain characteristics of Caribbean English, such as lack of concord “we was” or “h” dropping are also characteristics of an English considered to be socially inferior. Moreover, the narrator, by using standard spelling, distances himself from the character and, at the same time, distances the reader. The narrator risks appearing to patronise the character.
Furthermore, in so far as a small number of key features are reproduced, such a representation of dialect can easily border on caricature. It is for this reason that some writers prefer to avoid deviant spelling. Toni Morrison, in Playing in the Dark, takes task with this technique of eye dialect, describing "how the dialogue of black characters is construed as an alien, estranging dialect made deliberately unintelligible by spellings contrived to disfamiliarize it" (1992: 52). On the other hand, it can be argued that such spelling draws attention to the fact that Standard English is a socially-constructed norm, unable to represent the variety and richness of the linguistic spectrum. Such spelling underlines the otherness, the foreignness of the speaker, an otherness that is measured against another standard, in this case standard spelling.
Lexical items are another distinctive feature of Caribbean English. As in other creoles, reduplicated forms are commonly used for emphasis as in the following examples :
‘I dry it dry dry’ (CS 22)
Davie’s breath is coming quick-quick (ND 13)
He had to go home without penny or cent, an’ to make it worse blind blind blind drunk. (CS52)
“They only quick to take, take” (MS174)
Conversion, the extension of the use of one word from its original grammatical category to another is another feature that figures in the novels. While the lexical process of conversion is common to all Englishes, the cases of conversion found in these novels are not to be found in Standard English :
Father said something sharp and we sit down quick-quick (ND 43)
“Tolroy, is a shame to leave her alone to dead” (LL30)
Galahad wonder, they not afraid somebody thief the money? (LL42)
‘What time this fete overing?’ (LL121)
All the Caribbean varieties have borrowed extensively from a number of contact languages and lexical items are, as always, a distinctive trait in the different varieties. Thus, just like any translator, the Caribbean writer is faced with a number of possibilities. Firstly the term or expression can be translated, but this implies the supremacy of the standard variety. Secondly, the untranslated word can be included in the text and the reader referred to a glossary at the end of the novel. This is the technique used in New Day by Vic Reid who places the word in italics, thus highlighting the difference between the two languages and signalling that a specific cultural experience cannot be rendered in Standard English. At times, the Caribbean term is also accompanied by a paraphrase or an explanation in the context:
I know all the scents o’the shrubs up on the mountains. There are cerosee, mint, mountain jasmine, ma raqui, there are peahba and sweet cedars. (ND1)
A john-to-whit is a-dance in a guinep tree and making music with whistles in his throat. (ND20)
Another option available to the writer is to leave the word in the text with no explanation. Thus, in The Lonely Londoners by Selvon we find frequent use of the verb and noun lime:
It have no other lime in London that Big City like more than to coast by Marble Arch (LL98).
To lime is defined by Eriksen (1990: 3) as “the art of doing nothing”, with no exact linguistic or cultural equivalent in British society. Wapee is another Trinidadian word whose meaning is partly elucidated by the context:
Little later that same day, some fellars would say: ‘Big City, how about some wapee?’
‘Listen to this man! I don’t gamble, boy.’ (LL94)
While it is clear here that some kind of gambling is involved, it is not mentioned explicitly that wapee is a card game. Other words, such as watchekong are not clarified at all.
By including the Caribbean words in the text without translating them, the writer underlines that there is no strict equivalent in Standard English, “conveying the sense of cultural distinctiveness” (Ashcroft et al. 1989: 63). Selvon draws attention to the fact that it is not Standard English that is being used, and that Standard English is no longer the norm against which Caribbean English must be measured. To understand the meaning, the reader needs to extend his knowledge beyond the text, to reach out to the other culture.
The final category of differences that needs to be examined is that of grammar. In many instances pronunciation and grammar are linked, for a pronunciation rule applied to a grammatical context becomes a rule of grammar. This is the case in the following examples:
He was surprise (LL26)
‘The white gentl’man didn’t know what to do and pick up his heels and run like a ball of fire all the way home.’ (CS27)
where the past tense or past participle is expressed using the base form without an ending. This absence can be explained in terms of the phonological rule mentioned earlier concerning the reduction of final consonants. Among the other features which are to be found in most of the varieties of CE is the omission of be as auxiliary or copula:
He always doing something for somebody.(LL23)
‘What happening there, Bogart?’ (MS11)
‘They still there.” (CS22)
Barrack-cart going to market. (ND13)
‘Where the guitar?’ (LL27)
Similarly there is absence of concord between subject and verb:
We was wrong about Popo (MS 21)
‘Elias have brains, you know’ (MS39)
‘It take a Parker to know everybody business’ (CS 104)
and no inversion in the interrogative form:
So what Moses could do? (LL24)
‘Why you didn’t write me you was coming?’ (LL26)
‘Why you don’t see him and find out?’ (LL27)
Other grammatical features include completed action expressed using the past participle:
Meanwhile Tolroy gone down by the bottom of the train (LL29)
‘They ain’t got no chance to go to high school’ (CS102)
use of an invariable does (present tense) and did (past tense) as a preverbal marker :
When Tolroy did left Jamaica (LL27)
“They does give the others a thirty-one-cent pack of biscuits” (MS189)
and go as an invariant preverbal marker to refer to future reference:
‘You go be seeing Hat this evening?’ (MS206)
While SE has maintained differences in pronouns for person, Caribbean Englishes tend to make no case distinction:
We want you to help we (LL25)
All of we come (LL30)
With she eyes wide open (LL30)
‘An’ from the time the great Marcus Garvey come down an’ tell us that the Lord ain’t goin’ to drop manna in we mouths I start to think’ (CS 102)
CE indicates possession by juxtaposing two nouns with the possessor placed before the possessed:
The fellar name Henry Oliver. (LL23)
That is the people bible. (LL24)
‘It take a Parker to know everybody business.’ (CS 104)
the plural morpheme –s is frequently absent:
All you Jamaican. (LL26)
and there is a tendency to omit the pronoun it when it is subject:
‘Is true,’ the woman said. (CS 20)
Is good that, for by-and-by after he has rubbed my head with his hand, he talks. (ND 95)
While the features studied so far are common to all varieties, some local markings occur in the novels. In Trinidadian English it +have is used instead of there + be:
‘If it have one man in this world.’ (MS 119)
When it had a kind of unrealness about London. (LL23)
It have some fellers. (LL26)
In Jamaican English, the progressive tense is signalled by a preverbal a:
October sun is a-shine warm on me.(ND36)
Predicate clefting is a form of emphasis that can be found in Jamaican English (Patrick 2003: 18) but not in SE. While a noun may be focussed in SE through a cleft sentence as in It was John who stole the car, Jamaican English can focus on the predicate itself and this is frequently used by Vic Reid:
Is remember I remember one August morning. (ND37)
As with the phonological features, it can be noted that certain grammatical forms tend to occur more frequently than others. The use of “dem” as a particle to mark the plural as in George dem went (= George and his gang went), (Crystal 1995: 347) is less frequently used in the novels, and the use of fi to mark possession (Todd 1989: 227) is rarely used. On the other hand the absence of concord between subject and verb and absence of be as copula or auxiliary are far more frequent. Once again, it seems likely that the writers have chosen to focus on those features most easily recognized by the reader, and least likely to render the text obscure for the reader. Moreover certain writers tend to focus on specific traits. Selvon for example makes frequent use of “had was” to express past obligation, unlike Naipaul in Miguel Street, which is also set in Trinidad:
He had was to get up (LL23)
You had was to buy one of them big galvanise basin. (LL73)
He had was to go to court (LL95)
Reid, on the other hand, often uses cleft sentences to give the flavour of Jamaican English.
From this brief survey, it can be observed that Caribbean English is imitated in different ways by the authors studied. While writers such as Zadie Smith prefer to concentrate on phonological features, others, such as Sam Selvon and Vic Reid opt for copying the syntax. Oonya Kempadoo, on the other hand, opts for modified spelling and grammatical features :
‘I going an’ tek a rest fellas.’ (TR29)
Yet none of these writers reproduces a completely faithful copy of speech. As Norman Page remarks : “Faithfulness to life, so often invoked in praise of dialogue, would be a very doubtful virtue if it were ever practised” (1973: 70). Walter J. Ong draws attention to the fact that “the word in its natural, oral habitat is a part of a real existential present (…). Spoken words are always modifications of a total situation which is more than verbal” ( 2004: 100). The very nature of the written medium results in oral speech being modified, with certain characteristics being focussed upon or omitted.
In fact Caribbean speech is used for different purposes within the novels studied and this aspect cannot be neglected when studying the degree to which the dialect reflects life. In White Teeth CE depicts the characters ethnic and social background. It also provides comedy in the long literary tradition of dialect use that can be dated back to Chaucer, the danger here being that it can all too easily become a stereotype, a literary convention, in the same way as the Cockney idiom has been widely represented in English literature and the features focussed upon have become a convention. In so far as linguistic accuracy is not the main concern of most novelists, a writer may well choose to use specific features of oral speech in an inconsistent manner. In The Lonely Londoners, for example, the plural morpheme ‘s’ is missing at one stage in the text: “Allyou (sic) could live on two-three pound a week” (LL26) only to reappear a few pages later: “you write home to say you getting five pounds a week”(LL29).
But beyond merely imitating the sounds and words of a specific variety, some of these novels have captured more fully the rhythm and style of Caribbean English, notably in the use of repetition and parallel structures. Repetition is frequently highlighted as being typical of oral narratives. David Sutcliffe underlines how British Black narratives are characterized by “the rhythmic delivery, the voice, the use of formulaic phrasing, and (…) parallel phrasing, repetition and emphasis.” (1982: 52). Such formulaic phrasing can be found in Selvon’s description of the sun “like a force-ripe orange” (LL42) (LL102), in the repeated phrase “the sky blue, sun shining” (LL87) (LL89) (LL98), and in passages describing Galahad’s joy at being in London:
This is London, this is life oh lord. (LL87)
When he land up in London, oh Lord! (LL88)
In the big city, in London. Oh Lord (LL90)
Repetitive structures such as anaphora can also be found:
That circus have a magnet for him, that circus represent life, that circus is the beginning and the ending of the world. (LL90)
as can epistrophe:
is one of those summer evenings (…) a magnificent evening, a powerful evening. (LL87)
and sometimes a combination of both
To say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London. (LL137)
In The Lonely Londoners one particular passage (LL101-10) is composed of a single sentence but repetition figures throughout, both in terms of structure and in the lexicon. Thus “oh what a time it is when summer come” is slightly modified into “what a time summer is” a few lines further on (101-2), before becoming “when summer come” (102). In similar fashion “you could coast a lime in the park” is changed into “the boys coasting lime in the park” (101-2) and “he coast a walk” (103) and “these fellars that cruising” (104) becomes “you meet up cruising” (104) and “some fellars who does go in the park only to cruise around” (105)
The use of CE can, however, also play a role in allowing the postcolonial writer to adopt an authorial voice that frees them from SE, the language of colonialism, thus enabling them to mark their cultural difference and otherness. Caribbean writers in the Creole continuum “achieve the dual result of abrogating the Standard English and appropriating an english as a culturally significant discourse” (Ashcroft et al  2005: 45). This appropriation of the language is best represented by V.S Reid and Samuel Selvon who choose not to use CE solely in the mouths of the characters but in the narrative itself. In other words, both the narrator and the characters speak the same variety. As a result there is no longer a distancing from the characters There is no longer any opposition between the dialect used by the characters and the third-person narrator. The white characters on the other hand, because they speak a Standard English that contrasts with the language of narration appear as the outsiders. Thus, in The Lonely Londoners, when the reporter asks: “Excuse me sir, have you just arrived from Jamaica?” and “Would you like to tell me what conditions there are like?” (28) his grammar and syntax contrast sharply with the variety used by Moses and the narrator:
And Moses don’t know why but he tell the fellar yes (…) “we can’t get no place to live, and we only getting the worse jobs it have” (LL28-9).
Selvon’s variety of English mixes Caribbean and Standard English. In The Lonely Londoners, for example, standard spelling combines with Caribbean syntax, even though the use of Caribbean syntax is not necessarily consistent. Lexical items for Trinidadian creole exist side by side with literary English, “kiff-kiff” (141) is found with latinate terms such as “cogitations” (142). Far from faithfully reproducing CE, Selvon has reworked the variety and incorporated words and structures that are more typical of SE. Although Selvon exploits this fusion most fully in Moses Ascending, a few passages in The Lonely Londoners announce the later work, and especially the rewriting of passages belonging to the literary canon. This is perhaps most striking in two passages in the novel. The first is the opening chapter, where the reference to London fog may well remind the reader of the opening chapter of Bleak House. Both passages describe the same time of year: “implacable November weather” (BH15), “one grim winter evening” (LL23) with the same soot and fog and the same unreal feeling as the city is transformed by the fog. In Bleak House, it “would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus” (BH15), in The Lonely Londoners the city has become “some strange place on another planet” (LL23). From the point of view of the style, we find the same –ing form “with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur”(LL23), and the same forward movement in the syntax with the main verb being delayed till the end of the sentence. Yet the two are of course very different.
Likewise Galahad’s enthusiasm for London is reminiscent of Mrs Dalloway with a similar accumulation and expansion of noun groups culminating in the appearance of the deictic this.
Every time he go there, he have the same feeling like when he see it the first night, drink coca-cola, any time is guinness time, bovril and the fireworks, a million flashing lights, gay laughter, the wide doors of theatres, the huge posters, everready batteries, rich people going into tall hotels, people going to the theatre, people sitting and standing and walking and talking and laughing and buses and cars and Galahad Esquire in all this, standing there in the big city, in London. (LL90)
In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June. (MD6)
In each case the scene has become appropriated by the writer, modified to fit a new different experience, that of the West Indian immigrant.
The use of Caribbean English in these novels plays an important role in writers’ desire to realise a national identity and language. While it bears close resemblance to actual CE, it is not a simple imitation as each writer has chosen to focus on specific characteristics rather than reproduce every aspect and to incorporate to a varying degree elements of Standard English. The need to reach as wide an audience as possible has certainly influenced their choice of phonological, lexical and grammatical features. To write using the phonetic alphabet would be too technical for most readers. It would hamper the reading process just as much as writing with too many misspelt words, or using a high number of local terms. Over-use of misspelling and grammatical deviancy could also indicate that the character was simply ill-educated or comic. Interestingly enough, while certain features seem to recur, not all writers selected exactly the same features. Thus these writers have each in their own way, to a greater or lesser degree, chosen to steer a middle course, appropriating the English language, reinventing it and by so doing, asserting their own identity.
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