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What is Guyanese Creolese?

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Published: 6th of January, 2023 by Patrick Carpen

Last updated: August 30, 2023 at 16:15 pm

Did you know….that people in Guyana who can’t speak English properly are not “dunce” or “illiterate”? Instead they are struggling to phase out their original mother tongue which had been ingrained in their subconscious for generations upon generations to learn this new language from which they are completely disconnected.

The Creolese Language is a form of substandard English spoken by people across the Caribbean in countries that were once colonized by the British Empire and which share a similar history. Guyanese Creolese is a Creolese dialect unique to Guyana and different from other variations of Creolese that are spoken in other Caribbean countries such as Trinidad and Jamaica.

To understand how the Creolese Language was born, we need to understand the history of the European colonists, the African slaves, indentured East Indians, Portuguese, Chinese, and indigenous peoples of Guyana. Each one came with their unique mother tongue. The Creolese Language was born when Africans, East Indians, Portuguese, Chinese, and Indigenous peoples tried to learn and speak English with only limited success.

When African slaves were brought from Africa, they tried to learn English but only achieved limited success. Their version of English was filled with mispronounced words, poor grammar, and fused somewhat with the accent and influence of their original African mother tongue. The same thing happened with the East Indians, and consequently, the Creolese dialect spoken by Guyanese of East Indian descent is different from that of the Africans, but both groups can understand each other’s version of Creolese clearly. The Chinese, Portuguese, and indigenous peoples had a similar result when trying to learn English, resulting in Creolese dialects that were slightly different between each group.

As time went on, intermingling between the East Indians, Africans, Chinese, Portuguese, and Indigenous peoples gave rise to even further variations of Guyanese Creolese.

Here are some examples of Creolese expressions you might hear in a predominantly East Indian community:

Wah yuh doh? = What are you doing?

How yuh deh? = How are you doing?

Weh yuh goh? = Where are you going?

Here are some examples of Creolese expressions you might hear in a predominantly African community:

Wah yuh doin? = What are you doing?

How yuh doin?= How are you doing?

Way yuh goin? = Where are you going?

Although standard English is taught in schools across Guyana, some form of the Creolese dialect is spoken most of the time when Guyanese talk to each other. Most Guyanese can readily switch to standard English when they are talking to a foreigner.

Guyanese Creolese sometimes incorporate words that are entirely of the East Indian language along with broken down language. One example is the word “pagaly.”

The word “pagaly,” is a word of East Indian origin used mostly or exclusively by descendants of East Indians in Guyana. It means, “having a tendency to act inappropriately,” “having a tendency to make stupid mistakes,” “lacking awareness,” etc. English words with similar meaning include “crazy” and “stupid.”

The word “pagaly” is difficult to translate to English because it doesn’t exactly match any of its English counterparts. Synonyms in English include mad, stupid, crazy, and silly. But none of these English words convey the exact idea that pagaly conveys.

Adults sometimes say to children who make a mess or an accident, “like yuh pagaly.”

Although it can have an offensive connotation, the word is often used jokingly or playfully.

Documentation of Guyanese Creolese

Sometime back, a group of linguistic experts contacted me asking me to help them document Guyanese Creolese. I refused saying that Guyanese Creolese is nothing short of a failed, dysfunctional, dying language. I had some reasons for saying this. For example, you had to be a master of standard English to receive academic qualifications. People respect you more when you speak standard English, generally speaking, and standard English opens up more doors in terms of work and education. Speaking Creolese gets you nowhere. In fact, even the people who speak it tended to frown upon it, encouraging each other to “do better.”

However, recently, I’ve been having second thoughts. I think Guyanese Creolese should indeed be documented and preserved to some extent because, although a broken language, it does contain some powerful expressions that can’t be expressed in standard English.

This publication will be making efforts to document and explain the Guyanese Creolese dialect in depth. Be sure to sign up to your mailing list (above) to stay updated.

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