Of language, identity and cultural heritage

Regarding SK Mahadeo’s interview last week

My association, the Brindaban Linguistic and Cultural Genocide Watch Group, wishes to make a small observation concerning a couple of minor points in by Associate Professor S.K. Mahadeo’s interview that appeared last week in Mauritius Times.

It concerns his description of “Creole” as “our national and home language” and “Oriental languages” as markers of identity and cultural heritage”. Nobody is denying the universality of the Creole language in Mauritius, but we would like to be free to use the language of our choice inside our homes. That may well be Creole, but it could also be Bhojpuri or French, both widely spoken in many homes in the country, without denying that it could also be English or Urdu or Gujarati or whatever. We usually describe “Creole” as the language of the street, the schoolyard, the market and political meetings, and leave “the home language” to be whatever it may be in each case.

Even when home language is Creole, the words may be pronounced in several ways – using vowel and consonant sounds ranging from pure French through those are fully creolised to those that are used by non-Creoles as was done when many of us were still learning the language. Academics use terms like ‘acrolect’, ‘mesolect’ and ‘basilect’ to describe some of these ways of speaking, but even these do not together cover all possibilities.

Many of us, when speaking Creole inside our homes, have not totally abandoned the sounds of our languages; in mentioning the names of persons, places, festivals and other items with names pronounced with their original language sounds. In our case we use Bhojpuri sounds; this is a common practice among many families who still retain some form of attachment to the Bhojpuri language. Those of other linguistic groups may use the sounds of their languages. Close attention to MBC broadcasts shows that French sounds are often used by many speakers in situations where equivalent Creole alternatives exist. This is why we think that the Creole language script that the government has officialised falls short of our expectations. We seize this opportunity to expatiate yet again on our objections to the script, stressing at the same time that we are neither against the language as such nor its use in the education system.

There are significant differences in the way the English, the Australians and the South Africans pronounce the vowels and consonants while speaking English. Yet one phonetic script accommodates them all – the script is said to “wide”. It is perfectly possible to devise “narrow” scripts that distinguish between these three varieties of English, or indeed between the various regional pronunciations in England, but for both cultural and economic reasons such a practice is not resorted to.

We also need a “wide” script for Creole here in Mauritius. By far the best course is to leave the French spellings, when they available, unaltered: then everybody can pronounce the words as they please. The disadvantage with this system, according to our Kreolists, is that the same sound can be spelt in several ways, and therefore represents a difficulty for the learning child.

The difficulty could easily be overcome by settling on one of the ways of spelling a sound in French for all Creole words in which it occurs. For instance the sound “air” of the French words “air”, “faire”, “fer”, “guerre” and “guère” could be all be written “ère”. (The choice of “er” for the sound would be inappropriate, because it is one of the rare cases in French where the same spelling represents different sounds, often in the same word – as is “fermer”; those words like “fer”, “cher” and “lucifer” that have the “air” sound in their last (or only) syllable are very few in number. The spelling “er” for the sound approved by the government can be quite confusing for our children. It can even confuse dictionary makers – see, for instance, the word “arpanter”, which is supposed to stand for “arpantère”, in Arnaud Carpooran’s Diktioner, 2nd Edition.)).

But even so we do not think it would be advisable to adopt such a course. It would still be distorting the spelling of French words which our children must learn soon enough in any case. Furthermore, we believe that a small dose of difficulty is a good thing in the early learning stage. It is well known that bilingual children usually turn out to be brighter than the monolingual ones. But a more obvious proof is that nearly all advances in science, technology and practically all other fields of human endeavour requiring logic and thinking since the Renaissance have taken place in the English-speaking world, even though the Renaissance itself began in Italy. England has led the way right from the time that Francis Bacon laid down the principles of scientific investigation. Now English is a much more difficult language to learn than French: not only does each sound have many spellings, but the same spelling can have many sounds. These learning difficulties have served the English – and the world – very well, indeed much better than have the ease of the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese spellings helped their corresponding nations. Since World War II it is the Americans who are in the lead, but aren’t they too an English-speaking nation?

Those parents who opt for their children to use the “Kreol” phonetic script in their initial years run the risk of making things so easy for them that they are likely to develop a strong dislike to French and English spellings later on, making it more difficult for them to graduate into secondary education.

We also have some reservations about another word used in the course of the interview to describe our languages. Because of the disparaging connotation attached to the word “oriental” in Europe in the last century, we hesitate to refer to the languages of our ancestors as “Oriental Languages”. Not only has this aspect of “orientalism” been adequately covered in the writings of Arab intellectuals like Edward Said and Rana Kabbani, we have actually experienced something of it ouselves in Rome in the early seventies. Taking advantage of a free evening I took my wife out to a fun-fair where, much to our disgust, one show entitled “Notte Orientale”, a number of lascivious-looking women were continually going round and round, opening and closing their windows as they did so to reveal their scantily clad bodies. If that is the impression that European children have on seeing the word “oriental”, we could not but agree with Edward Said and Rana Kabbani. Since then we refer to our languages as “Asian Languages”.

We will return to some other points in the interview at some future date.


* Published in print edition on 6  December 2013

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