January 4, 2008


Posted in Buxton, Education, Guyana, Messages tagged , , , at 6:11 pm by randallbutisingh


Creolese was the language spoken by the African descendants of slaves and is chiefly based on English, the language of the rulers of the time. Creolese also has elements of Dutch, African, and smatterings of other languages which were adapted as the liberated slaves came in contact with other races who entered the country after emancipation.

It must be remembered that when the slaves were brought in Guyana, they were separated from their families and tribesmen and so had lost their means of communication with fellow slaves, so only a few words have survived and used in the language. Words like pickney which means child, bambai which is later, e.g. me lef’ some a me food fuh bambai; nyam, to devour voraciously, and tutu which is faeces are African. Creolese has a limited vocabulary; there is no word for love; none for the courtesies; the word for excuse me is ‘done’; the word for please is du e.g. neighba len’ me you maata du; no word for greeting, but these are compensated by facial expressions and body language.

Creolese is rich in proverbs – some very striking – but will be considered inelegant, though it is how best the Creole could express himself, e.g. Bat a tu’n ‘e beheng a tap, seh when ‘e shit, ‘e go get Gawd, but ‘e dutty ‘e own skin. Some of them can only be understood in the creolese environment and the conditions which prevailed at the time; e.g. ‘only chupid maan a mek waata kerry way ‘e lap two time’. This situation obtained when men of East Indian descent worked in the trenches and canals in British Guiana clearing them of weeds. They wore only a brief loin cloth which barely covered there private parts. When this work is going on, the kokers are open so that the running water will carry away the weeds chopped by the men. The equivalent to this proverb in English is ‘once bitten, twice shy’, though not nearly as striking.

Another is ‘cent ile na ah full lamp, but ‘e ah bu’n whole night.’ This proverb does not apply in these days, but in those early days when I was a boy, I could have understood it. A lamp was a small bottle with a homemade wick made of cotton. Kerosene oil was sold at four cents a pint. A quarter pint was only a cent; it was enough for a whole night’s supply, but it was not enough to fill the lamp. Once, when I was a young man, I never used to wear a hat. One day, an African woman saw me walking in the broiling midday sun. She said to me ‘leaf fall a waata, ‘e nuh ratt’n same time.’ This meant that what I was doing will not affect me immediately, but will, at some future time.

In creolese, me is used for I, the first personal pronoun and ‘e is used as the third personal pronouns, he,she and it. One word is used for all the genders and there are also no plural endings in creolese; but as Creoles get more and more in contact with English through compulsory education in schools and occupation with English speakers, the genders are being observed, and Creolese is now almost recognizable by the Englishman. Creolese is still being used today – I always use it when I meet some of my old friends – and it will remain for some time among the African and East Indians of the villages and the sugar plantations.

If you travel throughout Guyana, you will notice that Creolese varies from region to region. When I was a teacher at Port Mourant, I visited the home of one of my pupils one afternoon. I heard him say to his mother: ‘maa, come out me eat.’ Although we never said it like that in Demerara, I understood that he was asking his mother to dish out his dinner. The creolese spoken by the East Indians varied somewhat from that spoken by the Africans.

Creolese may appear inelegant to the English speaker, but it is a fascinating language. To listen to a conversation between intelligent speakers is entertaining. I heard speeches by intelligent illiterate men on political platforms. In the thirties, the Daily Argosy, a newspaper in British Guiana carried a Creolese feature “Uncle Stapie pon the people.” This feature boosted the sale of the paper. I remember reading it regularly. Once when I was a young teacher, teaching in Baracara, I read it to some Bouvianders and it caused loud laughter and great amusement.

In Buxton, a village in Guyana, teacher George Arlington Young, a school teacher, was an expert in the language. I can recall his quoting the proverbs: “Ashes col’, dawg lay down” can be a metaphor for: I am old now, anyone can take advantage. and “ Houri tell patwa, abi go meet a stap aff.” E.F. Fredericks, a lawyer and Joseph Eleazer, a solicitor, both of Buxton, quoted creolese on occasions in their speeches. There were also poems written in Creolese by Mahadai Das, Wordsworth Mac Andrew and a few others. Rooplall Monar, a poet and novelist has written a few stories in Creolese, but in the language spoken by the young Creole where the English influence is much evident.

Creolese appears to be a dying language, and some day it will cease to be spoken. That may be so, but its proverbs should never be allowed to die, but should be researched by scholars for their wisdom and uniqueness.

Randall Butisingh



1 Comment »

  1. Linz said,

    This is fascinating (although I did stumble upon it quite late!)
    I’m off to teach in Guyana for a year next summer, so reading anything I can about creolese is interesting. I just hope I can pick some up to, if not perpetuate it, spread it a little.

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