by L. Emilie Adams, St. Johnsbury, VT
Author of the best-seller, Understanding African Patois
A major transformation of the English language was effected during the traumatic era of the slave trade and slavery........ ............................................
The real importance of all such Africanized English languages to the outside world is that herein may be found some radical innovations in the grammar of standard English, which could point the way towards a modernized and streamlined international English. No reviewer has contested a statement I made in my preface to Understanding Jamaican Patois, An Introduction to Afro-Jamaican Grammar (Kingston, JA: Kingston Publishing, l991):
Afro-Jamaican English has simplified Standard English by disposing of irregular verbs, verb suffixes, stem vowel changing past tenses, case variation in pronouns, irregular noun plurals, and much else. It is possible that the various forms of African English springing up around the world may bear a closer resemblance to the international English of the coming milennium than does the encumbered and still archaic standard English of today, which may by then have been relegated to the role of the priestly language, the language of the mysteries of science, technology, and theology!
I am not going to deal with much-needed changes in English spelling, or with pronunciation, syntax, or vocabulary - just with grammar. My examples are all drawn from Jamaican or AfroJam, which has had 400 years to homogenize into a fully integrated language in a defined territorial unit. According to the historians of African-American speech, a language or languages resembling Gullah or Jamaican may have been widespread in America in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was probably the ancestor of modern Black English, which has in the meantime travelled far in the direction of standard. For an African American to study Jamaican or Gullah is to learn a language like that of his first African ancestors born in the West.
I: Reorganization of the English Pronoun System
Africans felt the need in English for a distinct second person plural pronoun, to which they were accustomed in their own languages. The Southern "y'all" is deemed to be a possible successor to an earlier African-American hoonah. In Jamaica this same second person plural pronoun takes the form uno or unu, which is the form it has in the Igbo language of Nigeria, the most likely donor language. (The h- may be due to early Cockney influence, and can also be heard in Jamaica.) This pronoun can also be found in widely scattered parts of Africa in the Nubian and Nilotic language families and indeed as far as the so-called Negrito languages of Malaysia.
The real contribution of Jamaican to the pronoun system of English, however, is not adding a missing pronoun, but vastly reducing the total number of pronominal forms by abolishing the nominative, objective and possessive cases. Pronouns in most likely Niger-Kongo donor languages also do not exhibit case. In Jamaican there is no grammatical difference between I and me. Either can serve as subject or object, though I as object is a relatively recent Rastafarian innovation: Gi I some ital ilaloo!/ Give me some pure kalaloo [greens]". Mi/me is a common Niger-Kongo form of the first person pronoun, while ai/I, found in both English and Nubian, is actually proto-Nilo-Saharan, going back probably tens of thousands of years. In the AfroJam system he, she,and her have been eliminated; "im" serves as both subject and object. And no gender, we are all "im"! Us has been blitzed, leaving wi for all cases. They is out, leaving only dem.
Is this a great loss? After all, consider, we have never had an objective case for the 2nd person, no "youm," nor have we distinguished 2nd person singular and plural. Has this caused us any great difficulty?
This Africanized system eliminates the whole series of possessive pronouns and adjectives: mine and my, yours and your, his, hers, its, ours and our, theirs and their. By simply using the preposition fi (derived from "for") in front of each of the personal pronouns (fi mi, fi yu, fi im, fi wi, fi uno, fi dem) we have our possessive series. This radically reduced pronominal system is simple to learn and soon sounds natural to the ear.
II: Noun pluralization
The very complicated noun class system considered typical of Bantu and much of the rest of Niger Kongo did not cross the Atlantic. It had already begun to drop off in the Sudanic empires of medieval Africa. In this system nouns each have a prefix (sometimes a zero prefix) indicating to which class they belong: e.g. living beings, small things, vegetable kingdom, paired objects, uncountable subtances like flour, etc. Each class then changes its singular prefix to a plural prefix. Simple examples from the Sotho language of southern Africa: mosadi/ woman, basadi/ women; sefate/tree, lifate/trees; bosiu/night, masiu/nights.
Looking beyond Niger Kongo, the Meroitic language of Kush, though still not really "cracked" or translated, has yet revealed a few tantalizing grammatical features. Meroitic had a much simpler method of pluralization by adding the third person plural pronoun -b/-p as a suffix on nouns. This exact device is also found in the Sudanic region, home of the former Western African medieval empires,in the Mande language family. It is also found in various other West African languages, such as Ewe, presumably replacing the more archaic system of noun classes.
This very same pluralizing device has crossed the Atlantic to take root in Jamaica and Haiti. The plural in Afro-Jamaican is still formed, not by the letter -s, but by the 3rd person plural pronoun dem being added after the noun: di bwai dem/ the boys; di Telwell dem/ the Thelwells. In Afro-Haitian the 3rd person plural pronoun is yo: chwal-yo/horses; fam-yo/women. A comparable example from the Ewe language of Ghana, the most likely donor language, is ame-wo/ the man-they = the men. Of course if other elements in the sentence already indicate plurality, such as the adjectives plenty or nuff, or a numeral, then there is no need to pluralize with the dem suffix.
I am not suggesting that this device is superior to the English -s plural, which is unlikely ever to be replaced. I am only pointing out that it is an African modernization, not of English, which already has a modern system, but of more ancient and complex African methods of pluralization. The fact that this much simplified system of forming noun plurals is found both in the Meroitic empire and the Mali empire, as well as in the Caribbean diaspora, suggests that the older more complicated systems may have been scrapped in the metropolitan polyglot centers of these ancient empires, as a lingua franca emerged which may have become the established language of the empire. Right now there is an academic controversy about whether the Mande language family belongs in Niger-Kongo, where it has been placed by Greenberg, or in Nilo-Saharan, home of the Songhai language. The consensus seems to be that Mande has undergone some kind of simplification process, or even hybridization process. Similarly, during the slave trade, when members of totaly unrelated and geographically separated language groups were suddenly thrown together in terrible intimacy, the system with the greatest simplicity, plus the ability to easily absorb vocabulary from the most varied sources, would be most likely to predominate.
III: Verbal System
When teaching your children to read and write, doesn't it make you wince to have to smash their innocent sense of reason and force them to learn contradictions and inconsistencies instead? Now double that problem by imagining your child speaks AfroJam. Don't say John a di bigges say John is the biggest. Don't say I a go say I am going. Don't say Wi a Jamaican, say we are Jamaicans. The poor child has this wonderful word a which expresses the verb "to be" for all persons. Teaching her to conjugate the irregular verb "to be" - what good reason can you give her for needing so many different forms? We say "am" so we know it is I, but yet (unlike Spanish) we can't say am without the I, so what is the need for "am" if we already know it is I? The only verb which English still conjugates in all three persons is the present tense singular of the verb "to be." This little Jamaican verb a relieves us of the need for conjugating. It has been suggested it may have derived from a Twi [Ashanti] particle meaning "there is, there are" [F. Cassidy, Jamaica Talk, p. 59].
AfroJam, like Spanish and some African languages, divides the verb "to be" into "to be in a place" (like Spanish estar) and "to be someone or something" (like Spanish ser). The latter, the copula, is the Jamaican verb a which we just discussed: Man a heavy load/ A man is a heavy load. "To be in a place" is expressed by the verb de (pronounced deh, like a clipped "day") which may have a double Anglo-African derivation. It may be the English adverb there deh, which in Jamaican is a homonym of the verb de. Or it may derive from an African verb de in the Twi language of Ghana, meaning "to be situated, to remain, to live, to rest." Ewe, cousin to Twi, also has de/ to be. Further afield, even Old Nubian, the language of the Christian kingdoms of medieval Nubia, has a verb da meaning "to be, to exist" and also "there is, there are." This may seem irrelevant, as no Nubian slaves are known to have been brought to Jamaica, but in fact the Ashanti and some other members of the Kwa sub-group of languages, such as the Yoruba, claim an ancient Eastern origin. We just saw that Igbo shares the pronoun unu with Nubian and Nilotic.
Getting back to AfroJam, to say "there are many people here" one would say nuff people de ya. This de ya usually becomes da ya by some ancient African principle of vowel harmony whereby a vowel is influenced by the succeeding vowel to alter its vowel color. Thus wi de a yaad becomes wi daa yaad/ we are home. Wi de ohta sea becomes wi dohta sea. If "de/ to be" is followed immediately by "de/there", one gets "de de/ to be there." But for some reason the verbal de usually changes form here to distinguish it from the adverbial de and we get di de. Dem no di de/they aren't there.
The Jamaican system for all other verbs is a vast simplification of that of standard English. It is modelled after perhaps the most common verbal system in modern Africa, most typically found in the Bantu languages, but widespread also in other language families. It is characterized by a single unchanging stem for each verb, preceded by a tense particle, which may be a condensation of an original auxiliary verb. Thus the vast jungle of English stem-changing and irregular verbs, which have to be laboriously memorized by anyone learning English as a second language, has been done away with at one stroke. No more "go, went, gone", "think, thought" or even "sing, sang , sung." Has any great loss occurred here? One does not need irregular verbs to discuss nuclear physics! Furthermore this system allows for easy absorption of verb roots from any and all foreign languages: a single unchanging form is borrowed and easily put through its tense changes.
|Simple Present||im say||he/she says|
|Present Progressive||im a say||she is saying|
|Past Definite||im en say||she said|
|Past Progressive||im ena say||she was saying|
|Future||im a go say> im o say||she is going to say|
|im wi say||she will say|
|Past Future||im enao say||she was going to say|
|Conditional||im wooda say||she would say|
|Past Conditional||im wooda en say||she would have said|
|Simple Present||im no say||he/she does not say|
|Present Progressive||im naa say||she is not saying|
|Past Definite||im nen say||she did not say|
|Past Progressive||im nena say||she was not saying|
|Future||im nao say||she is not going to say|
|Past Future||im nenao say||she was not going to say|
No wonder a child who thinks in this language has trouble trying to translate his thoughts into standard English, especially when this process of mental translation is given no explicit recognition in the classroom! This Afro-Jamaican verbal system has an almost exact counterpart in Afro-Haitian, which has thus cut its way free of the even more tangled jungle of French conjugations and irregular verbs. As an example of an African protype of such a stable stem verbal system, here is a similar conjugation from Swahili, itself a modern or stripped down system by comparison with many of the more
archaic Bantu languages. (Note here too the lack of a gender distinction, which I have always found very freeing in a psychological sense. Not to have one's gender continually referred to by the language when it is in fact most often totally irrelevant to the matter at hand.)
|Simple Present||a-sema (a-a-sema)||he/she says|
|Present Progressive||a-na sema||she is saying|
|Present Perfect||a-me-sema||she has said|
|Past Definite||a-li-sema||she said|
|Future||a-ta-sema||she will say|
|Conditional||a-nge-sema||she would say|
|Past Conditional||a-ngali-sema||she would have said|
The resemblance ends with the negative forms of the tenses, however. Afro-Jamaican has adopted the simple Spanish form of negation based on no.
Swahili and other Bantu languages use a negative form of the pronoun.
|ni-ta-sema/ I will say||si-ta-sema/ I will not say|
|u-ta-sema/ you will say||hu-ta-sema/ you will not say|
|a-ta-sema/ he/she will say||ha-ta-sema/ he/she will not say|
|tu-ta-sema/ we will say||hatu-ta-sema / we will not say|
|m-ta-sema/ y'all will say||ham-ta-sema/ y'all will not say|
|wa-ta-sema/ they will say||hawa-ta-sema/ they will not say|
IV: The Method of Negation
One of the commonest and most useful innovations of all the English Creoles is the use of simple no for negation. This was probably derived from one of the two Iberian languages, Spanish or Portuguese, either during the Spanish occupation of Jamaica fro m 1492-1655, or from the 15th century Africanization of Portuguese along the Guinea Coast. In English we may use "no" as an adjective: "there is no reason." But we cannot use it as an adverb, for which we have to use not. But we cannot say "We not see," we have to use "not" only with an auxiliary verb: "we do not see," "we have not seen," "we are not seeing." Isn't this clumsy? Oddly enough, I don't think I was ever conscious of this fact about English negation until in middle age I came to write about Jamaican negation. In Spanish they simply say no vemos/" we no see," which is exactly what we say in Afrojam, only we spell it wi no si.
Just the other day I learned that English originally did have a simple negation system, with ne before the verb: "we ne see". Then under French influence after the Norman conquest English began to sandwich the verb between two negatives: "We ne see not." Later, too bad, the "ne" got dropped, leaving "we see not." And now finally we can't even say "we see not" but we have to say "we do not see" - i.e. we have to have an auxiliary verb to negate, we cannot negate the main verb (unless it's the verb "to be" or a modal as main verbs.) Weird, eh? Believe me, once you start to use this simple no negator you very quickly stop hearing it as bad grammar. It's just superior and sensible grammar. This Jamaican "Iberianization" of the English system for negating verbs is a grammatical feature that could - and should - easily slip into the future English of the global age.
Finally , to quote the last paragraph in my book (p. 104, op. cit.):
The seeming ease with which the oppressed Africans of Jamaica and Haiti have streamlined, simplified, and rationalized the archaic tongues of their former slavemasters will probably be seen from the perspective of the coming third milennium AD as nothing short of revolutionary.
Africa Update. Spring, 1997
Sent: Wednesday, April 12, 2017 9:58 PM
To: Kenneth Harrow
Subject: USA Africa Dialogue Series - Pidgin
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