What are language rights?

What are Language rights?

As human beings, we use language to do a variety of things on a daily basis. Try to come up with a list of all the purposes for which you use language in one day. The list below could be a start.

  • We greet each other and exchange pleasantries: How are you? How are the children? When last did you see so and so? Is your father better? etc.
  • We conduct business with officers of government and others: We may need to register the birth of a child; get our child admitted to a school; find out what the new law says; write a will; get information about how to protect ourselves from diseases and natural disasters, and information on how to lead a healthy life; etc.
  • We need to educate ourselves and our children
  • We need to participate in the running of our communities
  • We need to give creative expression to our feelings and ideas
  • We need to take part in the rituals of our ancestors and to celebrate and develop our traditions
  • We need to preserve the knowledge and the creative works of our culture and we need to be able to access any documents or other recordings of our history, our folklore, our culture.
  • Etc, etc, etc.

Now imagine a situation in which we’re all allowed to use our home language to do all those everyday things. That demonstrate the ideal example of what we mean by language rights.

Nations that try to respect the language rights of their people, do so by first identifying the language communities within their nation. A rough definition of a language community is a group of people who speak a common language and want to be identified as such. In the case of Guyana, this would mean that speakers of Creolese (Guyanese) would make up one speech community. Speakers of each of the different Amerindian languages would represent different speech communities. And speakers of English will form another speech community.

Each speech community will have the same language rights; the language of each such community will be given equal treatment. This means that Creolese and each of the Amerindian languages will be treated just like English is now treated. Each group will be able to use its language to conduct its everyday affairs.

In Guyana at this moment, only the language community that speaks English enjoys all the language rights. To extend these rights to all, it would require that we provide what is necessary to allow this to happen. For example, documents will have to be written in each of the languages, education will be offered in each of the languages, and materials and facilities will be provided so that each community can broadcast in its own language.

 The European Charter for regional and minority languages is one document that details the rights which it recommends that member governments give to the minority groups within their countries. 

http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/en/Treaties/Html/148.htm  (Council of Europe: European charter for regional & minority languages)



English once had low social status!

The social status of a language is NOT set in stone.

Mention the value of Creolese in the classroom and someone is likely to point out that Creolese is a low social status language while English is a high social status or prestige language. The assumption seems to be that high or low status is part of the “genetic makeup” of these languages. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The social status of a language is often tied to the social status of its speakers. When a group changes its social status, its language may follow suit.

At one time, Greek was the language of high status in Europe; later, the title passed on to Latin. For most of its 1500 years, English speakers regarded their language as having lower social status than Latin or Greek and then, a little later, lower than French. It was only in the last 150 years or so that English has become a language with high social status.

French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Rumanian are now respectable languages but in their earliest period, each would have been identified as one the low status Latin dialects labelled Vulgar Latin. In a sense, Latin, that is Classical Latin (the high status dialect ), preferred death rather than acknowledge that these Vulgar Latin dialects were its legitimate siblings.

So the dialects called Vulgar Latin survived and they each got a name change and a change in status.  (NB: vulgar  meant ‘belonging to the common people’.)


How did the social status of English change from low to high?

British Imperialism and all that it entailed could be said to be the most important factor in the rise in status that the English language now enjoys. Imperialism contributed significantly to Britain becoming a wealthy nation and with that wealth, its political and military power increased as well. It was soon joined by its eldest daughter, the USA, and together their combined wealth and power (political and military) secured the continued high social status of the two largest populations of speakers of English. This increased the political and linguistic status of English speakers in Britain.

More importantly, British Imperialism laid the groundwork for the spread of English around the world. Through its policies and practices, it created English-speaking elites in all its colonies and these elites continued the same policies and practices to perpetuate new English-speaking elites in their countries.

BBC radio broadcasts and British Council programmes maintained the language in all these places long after the colonies gained (regained) their independence. The Voice of America joined in later. American programmes via cable television continued this process and later advances in various types of communication media found a ready-made audience in all these “English-speaking” countries. By this time, it was difficult to stop the myth that there is something special about the English language.


There is nothing about the structure of English that gives it its social status. All languages are equally capable of expressing the thoughts, emotions, and aspirations of their speakers. Ironically, the British Council is now advocating for children to be educated in their home language.




Two areas of Guyanese Grammar

Linking verb or copula

All of the Guyanese sentences below will translate into an English sentence containing a form of BE. In these examples, that form is the verb is. Look closely and you will find three ways by which the Guyanese sentences do the same job as the English BE. See if you can find those three ways.

  1. Joo a wan dakta                            (Joe is a doctor)
  2. Joo de pan tap a di hous tap      (Joe is up on the roof)
  3. Joo pan di hous tap                        ( Joe is up on the roof)
  4. Joo honggrii                                       (Joe is hungry)

For sentence (1), English BE (in the form of is) translates into Guyanese a.

Sentence (2) has two options in Guyanese: some speakers use de, others use nothing and sometimes we use both ways.

English BE translates into nothing, zero, in the case of sentence (4). And zero can have a value in language.

Three ways of doing the same job?!  Sometimes we use a, sometimes de, and sometimes nothing. Looks like anything goes.

Well, not so fast. Let’s take a closer look. Can we switch them up? Can we use de or a in front of hongrii? Can we use de in front of wan dakta? Or a in front of pan (tap) di hous tap? Try to switch them and you will find that the result is an ungrammatical Guyanese sentence.

So why did we get ungrammatical results? The answer is that these three sentences have three different kinds of predicates and the Guyanese rule requires a different “linking verb” for each of the three kinds of predicates. (English requires just the one linking verb, the verb BE (in one of its six forms: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.)

In sentence (a), the predicate is a Noun Phrase; in sentence (b), the predicate is a Preposition Phrase indicating a location; and in (c), the predicate is an Adjective Phrase. (Note that phrases can contain just one word or they can be several words long. Consider these two examples: Joo a dakta and Joo honggrii baad baad.)

Why do we have two ways of translating ‘Joe is up on the roof’? Well, some speakers who have had more exposure to English may become self-conscious about using words that are obviously different from English. The word de is one such case. It marks the speaker as a genuine Creolese speaker. By dropping de, some feel they are using a more English form of speaking.


Number-marking: Does Guyanese Dem mark plural Nouns?

Examine the use of dem in the sentences below. The English translations would require the plural –s. Can we add dem to all of the noun phrases below? Does Jaan dem mean ‘several Johns’? Why is dem not allowed in three of these sentences?

  1. Di buk dem faal dong                    (‘The books fell’)
  2. Di tuu buk dem faal dong             (‘The two books fell’)
  3. Mi buk dem faal dong                    (‘My books fell’)
  4.  Mi invait Jaan dem                         (‘I’ve invited John and the others’)


  1. Tuu buk faal dong                            (‘Two books fell’)
  2. Nof buk faal dong                             (‘Many books fell’)  
  1. Da shap a sel buk                              (‘That shop sells books’)


You may have noticed that dem comes after definite Noun Phrases (di buk, di tuu buk, mi buk, Jaan). It doesn’t come after indefinite Noun Phrases (tuu buk, nof buk) nor those with non-specific reference (buk). The challenge is to find an explanation for these facts. Why should dem be restricted to definite noun phrases? Why is *tuu buk dem ungrammatical?

 One writer (Stewart 2011) would argue that languages such as Jamaican and Guyanese are not number-marking languages. She argues that what we mark with the use of dem is “inclusiveness” (belonging to a group); that inclusiveness is a feature of definiteness and that plural is just part of the meaning of “inclusiveness”, that is, being part of a group implies plural.

(Note: Inclusiveness and/or exclusiveness is marked in many non-European languages.)


  1. Jaan a dans wid gyal                        ‘John is dancing with a girl/girls’
  2. Jaan a dans wid tuu gyal                 ‘John is dancing with two girls’


  1. Jaan a dans wid di gyal dem           ‘John is dancing with the girls’
  2. Jaan a dans wid Sali dem                ‘John is dancing with a group that includes Sally’


In the sentences above, gyal does not refer to any specific girl or girls; just to the set called “gyal”. The set may be represented by any number of entities; the number is irrelevant. Jaan a dans wid gyal communicates that John is interacting with the opposite sex (a sign of his age or of his precociousness, etc). The sentence with tuu gyal refers to a set of two.

 On the other hand, di gyal dem, refers to a group of entities. This is obvious in Sali dem.





Stewart, Michele M. 2011. The expression of number in Jamaican Creole. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages. 26:2. 363-385.