Quickly now, what is the official language of Trinidad and Tobago by law? English, right? Wrong; the Constitution does not say.
I have been pondering that answer for some time now since Trinidad and Tobago will be 50 years old next month, and when I check the most important law that we have, the Constitution, I find that nowhere in it does it state what the official language is. I hope the statement comes in one of the several amendments to the Constitution, but I am still to check even though I would have known if such an amendment had been made.
The word "English'' comes only once in the Constitution, where it refers to the language in respect of which a person before a court, commission, board, or any other tribunal may have interpretation services if he does not understand or speak it. But by policy and practice, English is our official language. It is the language of government, education and the professions. It is the language we use to officially interact with the rest of the world. And the government's website www.gov.tt says so under the topic "Language'':
The official language of Trinidad and Tobago is English, although we do have segments of the population that speak other languages, including "patois'', a slang version of French that was brought to the islands by French settlers in the colonial period.
Not a word about Trinidadian Creole or Tobagonian Creole, unless these languages are available in the phrase "other languages''. (Who wrote that text?)
So how is it that our laws do not enshrine the language we (should) speak to socialise amongst ourselves and with the rest of the world, except inferentially?
Our Creole Englishes existed, alongside Standard English, in 1962 when we gained political independence, didn't they? And since we have been speaking them since at least slavery — and quite clearly since 1962 — we have had time and opportunity to claim them as social possessions and rights, haven't we?
But perhaps we shouldn't feel bad about it because, after all, our laws do not enshrine Standard English either. And if you measure the importance of your Creole Englishes by the Standard English yardstick, then if the latter didn't make it into our most important law, then it stands to reason that our Englishes could not even approach its lofty pages...
Quite clearly, the Constitution at its inception took it for granted that we spoke "English'' and that there was therefore no need to enshrine the fact.
Further, where the inclusion of Creole English is concerned, research of its languagehood was in its embryonic stages at that time, so the framers, assuming science-derived knowledge mattered to them, could hardly be said to have had the necessary knowledge, including a name for the language.
But plenty of time has passed — time in which a lot of knowledge has been created and used socially and culturally — so we have had the opportunity to do something about this constitutional omission. Our linguists have found that our Creole English meets the definition of language in terms of phonology (how sounds are organised for the creation of words), morphology (how words are structured for meaning), syntax (how classes of words are organised for the construction of clauses and sentences), and discourse (how everything comes together to enable us to tell stories, make arguments, and provide an endless variety of information). Our cultural artistes use it in literature, song and humour. And our people use it as a matter of course in the conduct of their lives, including interactions on radio and TV.
Why then haven't we made our English part of our law?
If language is one of the most important tools of human culture, and if Creole English is one of the most important tools of the cultures of Trinidad and Tobago, why don't we set about incorporating it in our most important law, the Constitution? We would be opening up a world of unprecedented opportunities for expansion of national pride, national learning and national wealth.
This golden anniversary of our independence offers a golden opportunity for us to elevate one of our most vital cultural possessions — Creole English. But we have to have the right reorientation, which is a story for another column or two.
Before I close this week's discussion, let's go back a bit to the solitary mention of "English'' in the Constitution. In the text, persons who do not understand or speak English may be provided with interpretation services. This may not have been the intention of the framers but I interpret the text to be saying in part that some local persons also, and not simply outsiders who do not speak English, may need those interpretation services.
In our country, 50 years after independence, there are thousands who do not speak or understand English…
• Winford James is a UWI lecturer and political analyst.