If you look at the faces of Belize they represent a diverse cultural landscape. There are Creoles, Mesitzos, Mayas, Garifunas, Mennonites and many newly immigrant groups such as Chinese, Lebanese and East Indians. Despite their different cultural roots, the one thing that everyone who grows up in Belize has in common is the Creole language. It is one of the cornerstones of being Belizean.
But isn’t the official language of Belize English? Yes it is. Our educational, legal and political systems were adopted from our colonizer, Britain. Every child who goes to school learns to read and write with English textbooks. However, it’s when the bell rings and children storm out to the playground that they learn a different language. Playing marbles, catch, football or hide-and-seek, kids communicate in Creole. Take as an example a newly immigrant Chinese family. Their son is born in Belize and goes to a local school. At home he speaks Mandarin with his parents, in class he learns English, but with his peers, outside of school, he learns Creole. And it’s this way that a language unites so many different cultures in Belize, no matter what you’re background, when you grow up in Belize you learn to speak Creole.
What is a Language?
But is Creole really a language? To answer this question we must delve a little into the science of linguistics. The linguistic definition of a language is a form of speech used by a group of people with a unique set of vocabulary combined in uniform patterns (syntax) to convey meaning (semantics). By this definition, Belizean Creole is a bona fide language. On the surface Creole might seem like just a dialect of English, because it borrows a lot of its vocabulary, but in many ways its grammar is different. Let’s take 2 simple examples, of saying the same thing in Creole and English:
English: Let me do it. (Use of an object pronoun)
Creole: Mek ah du it. (Uses a subject pronoun)
English: Where is he? (Verb in the middle of the question)
Creole: Da weh ih deh? (Verb at the end of the question)
There are many different Creole languages, many of which are found in the Caribbean and South Pacific. There’s even a Creole spoken in Louisiana (USA). Although they are all referred to as Creole languages, they are each unique. For example, someone speaking Belizean Creole cannot converse with someone speaking Hawaiian Creole. So what are Creole languages and how are they formed?
When speakers of different languages come together and have to communicate, but don’t have the opportunity to learn each other’s language, they develop a makeshift jargon called Pidgin. There are two examples in world history in which this happened at a large scale. They are the Atlantic slave trade and indentured servitude in the South Pacific. In the Hawaiian sugar plantations, indentured workers were brought from China, Japan, Korea, Philippines and other varied countries. They had no way of communicating in their native languages, and so they put together words as best they could, and this is Pidgin. According to the linguistic definition, Pidgin is not a real language. It is just a few vocabulary words thrown together with no real grammar. They don’t have consistent word order, no prefixes or suffixes, no tense or other temporal and logical markers, no structure more complex than a simple clause, and no consistent way to indicate who did what to whom. As a result, a lot of the meaning conveyed in Pidgin is inferred by the context rather than any real meaningful grammar. However, it is in the minds of the children of subsequent generations, with their innate instinct to create language, that the birth of a new language begins. They turn a crude form of communication and essentially create grammatical rules to turn it into a richly expressive language. These new languages derived from Pidgins are what are termed in linguistics, Creoles.
In the case of Belize, it was slaves from West Africa brought by the British that gave birth to its Creole language. Although much of the vocabulary is borrowed from English, there are still words in Belizean Creole which come from native African languages. For example Pinda, which means peanuts, is borrowed from an old African word. And the African roots go even further; Belizean Creole follows more closely the grammar of African languages than English. With time, the Belizean Creole has also had small influences from other languages. Surrounded by Spanish speaking countries like Mexico and Guatemala, it has adopted some Spanish words, like goma, which is Spanish for hangover. Another example is konkas, meaning house fly, adopted from the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua. The history of Belize as a country is embedded into its Creole language. It tells the story of how many different cultures came together to coexist in one land.
In the past, the Creole languages of the world were regarded as “uncivilized” or “broken” speech – imperfect, childish copies of the colonial languages from which they were derived, whether English, French, Portuguese or Spanish. Today, with a better understanding of linguistics, these languages are being recognized for what they are: new linguistic creations with fully-fledged, highly nuanced grammatical systems.
Wap a li Kriol
For native English speakers listening to Belizean Creole you might be able to pick out a few familiar words and infer some meaning from the context, but full comprehension always seems to slip away. So for those of you who want to wap a li Kriol (speak a little Creole) when you’re in Belize, here are some common phrases you can try:
English: My name is…
Creole: Mi naim da…
English: What time is it?
Creole: Da weh taim?
English: What’s up?
Creole: Weh di go aan?
English: Good morning
Creole: Gud mannin
English: Let me have a Belikin beer.
Creole: Mek ah get ah Belikin.