“Cultural And Linguistic Ambiguity: Some Observations On The Role Of English-Based Creole In An Antiguan Villagel”

Research Note: “Cultural And Linguistic Ambiguity: Some Observations On The Role Of English-Based Creole In An Antiguan Villagel” in Dell Hymes (ed)
Pidginization and Creolization of Languages (Cambridge U.P. 1971)
(see longer article in Szwed and Whitten,
Afro-American Anthropology)
Karl Reisman

English-based Creole on the island of Antigua exists and finds its identity not in any system of bi- or multi-dialectalism (or -lingualism), nor even in a system that can be characterized as a simple scale or continuum. Creole plays its role as part of a more general way of handling cultural symbols which maximizes and plays with ambiguities of cultural reference and of expressive and moral meaning.

There is a duality of cultural patterning, both of Creole versus English speech and of ‘African’ versus English culture. But this underlying basis is denied and covered, and the two cultural strands are woven into a complex garment of cultural and linguistic expression.

This system of ‘remodelling’ (Taylor 1964) has its roots in certain funda­mental values, first systematically noted by Herskovits, which in their West Indian form can be seen as fundamentally African. Herskovits’ notions can be summed up in the terms respect, reticence, and indirection. (A section of the paper seeks to explore these notions in their Antiguan expression and to give them a broader
and fuller content.) Associated with respect is the discipline of resignation, accepting things as they are and
adjusting oneself to them. Associ­ated with reticence is discretion, the avoidance of any act or gesture that would arouse the envy or jealousy of others or any expression of
direct antagonism or hostility. Both of these are tied to indirection; looking first to see what the situation and its forms and conventions are, then masking one’s actions and expressions in these forms, transvaluing or remodelling them to be closer to one’s own forms and meanings. ‘When in Rome’, say the Antiguans, ‘do as the
Romans do.’

One fairly superficial example of remodelling may be helpful in clarifying what I mean. The organist in the Methodist church of John Hughes village, Antigua was
named Wisemore Joseph, locally called ‘Teacher Wise’. Several years after I left Antigua I ran into Wisemore at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, where he was working. Enthusiastically I said to him “Wisemore, how are you
, and what are you doing up here?” He answered that he was doing fine, and added: “My name is Seymour now.”

In the Antiguan situation one ‘accepts’ with ‘respect’ both the status system ­ with its concomitant self-definition as ‘low’ – and the total superiority of the standards and values of English culture, all other values and forms of expression being described in terms of an absence of the quality under discussion. Yet the gamut of negative terms which result are transvalued into one way of referring to a whole set of informally held alternate values.

By this process Creole becomes ‘broken language’ or simply the absence of language. To talk Creole is to ‘make noise’.
But Creole also symbolizes that which is natural. It is what one ‘breaks away’ into. It accompanies and marks
expressions of deep and genuine feeling. To ‘make noise’, in a variety of Antiguan contexts, is to express oneself.

Like other alternate underlying values the norms of Creole cannot be found by asking questions involving translation from English. They must be found indirectly within Creole contexts, or through cases of misunderstanding and
confusion. Creole contexts are, of course, not clearly marked off. The Creole content of speech may ‘fade in’ – sometimes for purposes of disguise or expression – or it may ‘fade out’ without any sharp break in the code being used.

Features of Creole phonology aid the ambiguation process by lending themselves to the production of multi-meaning utterances which may be taken by the hearer in the way to which he is predisposed, without his ever becoming aware
of the alternatives.
Other aspects of the speech system share in these processes and serve to dramatize this interplay of cultural meanings in contexts in which alternation between English
and Creole forms plays a symbolic role.

Taylor, Douglas 1964. ‘Review of De Saramakaanse Woordenschat, by Donicie and Woorhoeve’, International Journal of American Linguistics 30:434-9

Whitten, Noman, and John Szwed (eds.) 1970. Afro-American Anthropology: contemporary perspectives, New York, Free Press

One response to ““Cultural And Linguistic Ambiguity: Some Observations On The Role Of English-Based Creole In An Antiguan Villagel”

  1. Dear Prof. Riesman. I happened to be working this up for a reading group and now discover that it is available on the web. Great news. I am also a big fan of Tom Kittle’s wake, so that is a bonus too. Haven’t got round to reading Finnegan’s Wake, so will leave that until later.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s