Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Writing in an unwritten language

My author bio mentions I love writing short stories and poems in the Kittitian language.  Well the problem is there is no written Kittitian language.  It is simply a dialect of English with a few words derived from other languages of our ancestors and many who influenced the history of the island.  For most of my life I spoke and was totally surrounded by that “language” or variations thereof.   Thus when I wrote in the Kittitian dialect, I just had to write the way I talked.  I never quite considered syntax or format or that there were even rules to that language.  I just wrote how it sounded phonetically. 

Fast forward to today.  I have migrated to another country.  I am married to another Caribbean resident who speaks a French based dialect rather than an English based dialect.  I am not hearing or using the Kittitian language as often as when I was at home, and even my accent has been neutralized for clarity.  Worst yet, it’s been a while since I’ve written one of my short stories or poems in my native tongue. 

Since my daughter learned to talk she has been harassing me to teach her to talk Kittitian.  And I kept saying, you can’t teach it because there are no rules to speaking it.  You just have to hear it and pick it up.  A few weeks ago, after a visit to my family my daughter was trying to speak Kittitian.  In a very awkward, abrasive sounding accent that is totally unrecognizable to me, she said, “Me a winnin’ man.”  

Automatically I corrected her, “Me a win, not me a winning.”

“Why?” she asked.

I thought for a moment.  Then it hit me.  There were rules for our unwritten language.  “A” placed between the subject and the verb is actually the present continuous tense.  So “me a win” is literally translated “I am winning” in English.

I realized then that writing in the Kittitian dialect, even though it is an unwritten language, is more than just dropping the ends of words and replacing them with an apostrophe.  It is bound by rules that for me just “sound” right.  That’s the reason you say, “A gon’ go cook” instead of “a gon’ go cooking.”  “A gon’ go cook” is the future tense.

When it hit me I wanted to do a little jig, because now my unwritten language could actually be written in a consistent fashion and I can actually teach it to someone else, if I can figure out the rules.

What’s the take home message?  Even unwritten languages with all their dynamic changes and rhythms have their rules and when you break those rules it does not sound right.  So whether it’s Ebonics, Southern, Cajun or Klingon, or some made up language of your characters, there are rules to writing it. 

I guess that’s my New Year’s Epiphany.  What’s yours?


Liane Spicer said...

Jewel, a friend and I were having this same discussion last week. He said that our dialect is not a language and I had to set him right, seeing that I found out only about two years ago that Caribbean Anglophone dialects make up the Caribbean Anglophone Creole language. This language has a consistent structure, vocabulary, grammar... It is by no means random and erratic--I learned.

It was a bit of a surprise after a lifetime of being told that Creole is 'broken English' and just plain 'bad'. Lovely that your daughter has taken such an interest. I'm trying to think of Caribbean Creole novels (not just Creole in dialogue) and I'm coming up blank. But there's a lot of poetry (Paul Keens-Douglas, Louise Bennet and Lorna Goodison, for example) as well as short stories in Creole.

Jewel Amethyst said...

There are lots of lovely short stories in Caribbean Anglophone Creole but I too am yet to see a full length novel. I suppose that would be a bit difficult because each island has a unique variation of it that keeps changing as the dynamic cultures incorporate new words, expressions and sentence structure from other more current influences.

Spoken language, after all, is dynamic unless we standardize it by writing and teaching it. Quite a circle don't you think?