Sunday, September 16, 2012

Using English and Creole in writing books for children

My last blog on English and Creole sparked a lot of interest and interaction, until  I lost some of the replies (including one of mine), which were really very interesting.  There was a good TV panel discussion on the matter, on All Angles hosted by Dionne Jackson Miller, and letters continue to be written to the editor in both newspapers.  It’s emotive. The main thing is that all the persons involved in the emotion want the same thing, the very best for our children and our nation, and that is good.
As with many matters affecting the nation, use of language  may be reflected in the writing of children’s books. I discussed my approach to language in my writing in a guest blog I wrote for Geoffrey Philp’s blog (Do you hear me? Do you see me? Considerations on the responsibility of the author of children’s books in post colonial societies like Jamaica and the Caribbean:).  Language reflects the writer, the audience,  and the message. It is, after all, one of the main tools of message transfer, and it reflects the culture and cultural beliefs.
In what language shall we write?   To answer this, the following questions must be addressed to the satisfaction of the writer. I say satisfaction, because the writer has to be comfortable with the medium.
1.What is the language of Jamaica?
2.Who is  the target audience?
3. What language do they use?
4. What language do they want the author  to use?
5. What is the author’s purpose for writing in a particular language?
1. The official language of Jamaica is English. Many English speakers really speak what is called Standard Jamaican English (SJE), which allows for the variations in vocabulary or pronunciation which may occur in any country which uses the English Language. However the home language of the majority of Jamaicans is Creole or patios.  This is their everyday language.  Some speak English also; some only use English for official activities like interaction with the public in  offices. The use of Creole has increased over the years and is more accepted than it once was. It is of note however, that many so called English speakers and Creole speakers, speak on a continuum of English and Creole. Any one sentence can contain aspects of both, depending on the occasion and the audience, the formal or the familiar.
2.  We presume that the target audience  can read English, even if they are  Creole speakers most  of the time. What is their socio-economic  level? I really think that they come from  a wide cross-section of incomes, from working class homes, middle income groups, upper income; simply put, all the children in schools. However there are so many differences within these groups, the realities of  their lives, from those who are finding it hard to find ‘a lunch money’,  to those who have an abundance of everything; and with varying interests (which include American influences, and these are not only present in the upper income groups;  many children from all walks of life go to relatives/mothers in the USA, Canada and Cayman for the holidays. Whether we like it or not, many children from all walks of life see America as the ‘promised land’, to which to migrate or go to college.)
3. The language which the majority of the target audience uses is probably Creole; the rest of the target audience are on the continuum; and then there will be some  who may speak SJE all the time.
4. What language do they want the author to use? They does not only consist of the children, but includes their parents and their teachers, the stakeholders. Without fear of contradiction, they want the author to use English, because that is the language of books; because they want the children to learn to use English; because they think that Creole is talking down to their children (for the Creole speakers), and for the English speaking, it’s teaching their children what they do not want them to learn.  We ignore this ‘they’ at our peril. This is a complex society. In  1980 when the Ministry published  Why Dog Don’t Like Puss as one of the Dr. Bird Reading Series, there was  distress amongst some educators. However, we, the writers of the series, stood by our belief in the value of using Creole. Fortunately, good sense has  evolved, and all would appear to have understood that it is  acceptable for the dialogue to be in Creole.
5. What is the author’s purpose in writing in a particular language? To tell a story, to entertain, to engage the emotions of the audience, to spin a fantasy, to talk about  real- life, as we know it; without  antagonizing the stakeholders (this is not writing for adults where you can do as you please). The writer of children’s stories has a responsibility to many people on many levels. The use of language also has an impact  if the author hopes that the story will travel to other islands in the Caribbean or the world, where, fascinated as they are with us, they do not know enough Creole to be able to read a book if much of it is written in Creole.
So the author takes all of the above into consideration and then writes his/her story. But even when the  dialogue is in Creole, depending on the setting of the story, the characters, the situation,  it is up to the author to decide to what extent Creole is used.  We are not unique in that regard.  This applies in many other countries. Have you ever tried to read an English novel where the local dialect is used for dialogue?  For example, (from Midnight is a Place by Joan Aiken, Hodder Modern Classic, 1998)
‘Well I’ll be ganning,’ Bugle said at length… ‘Never tell ‘em what you’ve got … Tain’t owt o’ their business, the prying skivers.’
Creole is also often used to define the social class of characters. The above excerpt would be an example. When I use Creole, although like people in other countries, I may use it to indicate  social class, I try not to use very deep Creole solely in this way. This is to avoid  stereotyping the characters which may be all too real in a child’s background. Instead, I try to use it to define situation, so the same character may use more Creole if excited, angry, etc. Therefore,  in Island Princess in Brooklyn, (Carlong Publishers, 2011) Princess’s mother, who speaks in Jamaican English most of the time, uses more and more Creole the angrier she gets.
 ‘… I know she is not your chile but I cyan tek it no more. Tell her she cannot bear witness to what she does not know for sure. Tell her she is a foreigner. Foreigners are to keep themselves quiet.’ …

 'You…You! You dat  in a fight  and bring shame on you’self, on me, on you people …!  Pickney,  is facety  you trying to facety wid me?’  
An interesting use of  Creole/speaking on the continuum of Creole to English can be seen in our contemporary children’s books, e.g. Bernie and the Captain’s Ghost by Hazel Campbell, published by Carlong Publishers, 2010. Many other contemporary local books approach language in this way. 

Finally even when I write in English and modified Creole, if I include folk songs they are of course in Creole. Here is the folk song from Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune, Heinemann Caribbean, 1990):

O Cordelia Brown whe mek you head so red? (Repeat)
For you siddung ina de sunshine
Wid nuttin’ pon you head
O Cordelia Brown dats why you head so red.’ 

However, the American version of the book (Harcourt, Brace & Company) did a ‘translation’.

Oh Cordelia Brown, what makes your hair so red? (Repeat)
You sit in the sunshine
With nothing on your head.
Oh Cordelia Brown, that’s why your hair is so red. 

Oh dear! Hopefully with the acceptance of  more multicultural  books in the USA, Canada and the UK, the folk song could have been retained in its original form, but who knows? Join the conversation.


  1. Another thought provoking post, Diane. In my experience of teaching reading, children (unless they are in a special programme) learn to read standard English and learn that it is the language of the printed word. They get confused if they are presented with alternative spellings; e.g. they may pronounce ‘dog’ as ‘dawg’ but wouldn’t recognize that spelling. Another dilemma is the spelling of patois. Carolyn Cooper would have us write the Jamaican dictionary version, but many authors write for readership outside Jamaica, who would find it incomprehensible. Olive Senior’s writing captures the essence of patois, but can still be read by non-patois speakers. Your mention of dialect in other countries reminded me of rereading ‘Wuthering Heights’ some years ago, when I found myself stumbling over the Yorkshire dialect. Most of the present-day ‘how-to’ books on writing advise authors to avoid too much dialect, explaining that it can slow down the reader to the point of frustration. Whether that advice holds true for children’s books, I don’t know.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Helen. As writers of children's material we do have to take a lot into consideration because we do have a great responsibility, apart from that of always witing an engaging story.

  3. Interesting Blog for writing about children's............

    Thank You
    Nell Jones

  4. After listening to Prof. Hubert Devonish on Hot 102 this morning, I'm prompted to make another comment. Focusing emergent readers, (it probably doesn't apply to more competent readers), perhaps another question we should ask ourselves as authors is "What language can the children read?" If they haven't been taught to read patois, they won't be able to do so.