“Languages are not like artifacts in a museum that we put in a glass cage for people to watch them. We have to use them if they are to live. We must use them in spaces that matter,” St. Martin linguist Dr. Rhoda Arrindell stated during the 2022 Alphonsus “Arrow” Memorial Lecture on Friday, November 18.
The lecture was part of the 14th Alliouagana Festival of the Word which ran from November 17 to 19 in Montserrat. Moderated by former Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Shirley Osborne, the St. Martin linguist, and author, along with cultural practitioner Ann Marie Dewar discussed “Language as Protest: How does preserving our dialects serve as a tool for nation building?”
Arrindell said the word dialect has many nuances within the Caribbean. In linguistics, she explained it refers to a specific form of a language from an area and serves as an identity marker. For instance, saying ‘he is from Dominica’ because of the way someone speaks.
The linguist, who wrote Language, Culture & Identity in 2014, says that in the English-speaking territories the varieties in how we speak came about due to contact with English slavers, colonisers, and Africa. She said the education system we inherited was “designed to preserve British and other European culture and interests.”
“Through these systems, we have learned that the Queen’s English is predominant. That is the standard all colonial subjects would have been told to master. The school system told us to love the king or queen’s English and to separate ourselves from anything of African heritage. If you can’t speak it (i.e. the Queen’s English), then there’s something wrong with you. There’s a broken transmission…to show ‘Africans can’t get it’,” Arrindell added.
“When we have a conversation about nation building and resisting, what are we resisting? Africans have used all forms of resistance. What is the nation that Montserrat is trying to build in the context of a colony? What is the place of Montserrat dialect in terms of policy and planning? Every decision we make is based on our choice and world view. What is the world view of the government policy makers in terms of nation building?” she questioned.
Panellist Ann Marie Dewar, who regularly performs using the Montserratian language, welcomed the discussion, which she said was challenging some of her own ideas about the usage of words like dialect and creole.
“Arrow would have been very pleased with this discussion as he admonished us to use our Montserrat English more and more,” Dewar said of the late soca king about his popular track Montserrat English.
“We still have a tendency to say, ‘speak properly’. We perpetuate the idea that there is a very low value attached to our language. This is something we have grown up with. If you want to get ahead, you speak the Queen’s English. I think the time has come for us to own, value, and celebrate our language,” added Dewar. We must “appreciate the fact that we are bilingual.”
Dr. Arrindell says she prefers to use the nationality as the definition of the language. Such as Montserratian, Jamaican, Cruzan, or American.
“Creole is a process that the language went through. My St. Martin dialect is no different than a Scottish dialect. All languages of all people are languages. I don’t refer to it as a creole. Irish, Gaelic, or Scottish. It’s just another dialect of English.”
Our languages, the author explained, have the same features as other languages. She encouraged the moving away from racist terminology that these are creole languages.
“When we separate it for Caribbean people, we are saying there is something different about the way we acquire languages than other humans,” Dr. Arrindell went on to say. “Within the St. Martin language you get the nuances depending on whether they went to school in the North where French was the language of instruction or in the South where it was Dutch.”
Ms. Dewar said the belief is that “Montserratian is fit for the street and certain circumstances” and used only by those on “the bottom rung of the society. We have been so conditioned that everything that was European was good and everything African was not. People should be free to use the language that they are most comfortable with, and that other people can understand wherever.
“The more we have people who are regarded as influential, the elites, the people who ‘run tings’. The more of those who embrace the language, once they are heard to be using it, I think it breaks down some of those barriers,” added the poet, who will release her first collection in Montserratian in the new year.
Dr. Arrindell who is also an instructor at the University of the Bahamas said she makes it a “point that people know that my language is part of my identity. There are times when you do ameliorate to be understood by a broader audience, but it is not something I do too often.”
She encouraged Montserratians to write down their language as certain structures are lost over time and the only way they will be preserved is if future generations learn how to speak it.
Arrindell also said that using a nation’s language shouldn’t be only for the artists and entertainers. It should be put into the national policy and planning that spells out how its use will be promoted and how it will live beyond us.
Dewar added that every Montserratian school child should know how to speak the language. It need not be a pivot away from English but the usage of both.
Montserrat’s 14th edition of the literary festival was presented in partnership with Montserrat Arts Council, goldenmedia, Governor’s Office, Montserrat Public Library, and the Department of Environment.
Learn more about the Alliouagana Festival of the Word at litfest.ms.
Watch the full lecture at