A sign written in Kriol protesting a proposed port for cruise ships in the town of Placencia
Yu no taim hyaa weh Ai di chrai tel yu: On Not Understanding in Belize
English is the official national language of Belize. It is the language used in the schools, it is the language heard on the television, and it is true that most Belizeans today speak English. However, English is not always a Belizean’s first language, it is not always the language spoken in the homes of Belize, and it is not the language that is necessarily heard on the street. Just like the diversity of people here, there is an equally diverse set of languages.
On any given day here in the south of Belize, I can hear up to seven different languages. I walk through the market and I may hear Q’eqchi’ or Mopan spoken by the Maya women selling vegetables, local fisherman chatting in Garifuna while hawking their fish, vendors selling plastics and household goods speaking Spanish, and I even occasionally hear Plautdietch among the few Mennonite farmers that come to town on market days. The small grocery store nearest my house is run by a family from China, and Chinese can be heard there as well as in the many Chinese food restaurants around town. And I can’t forget English, most audible from American tourists or volunteers walking around town.
Most of these different languages are only spoken among friends and family, so typically they are only overheard, and people easily switch to English when talking with me. However, there is one language that is heard above all others, and one that makes this language experience very strange at times: Kriol. Kriol is a Belizean creole based on English and a number of African languages. According to some, it is the most widely spoken language here in Belize, and after spending eight months here, I would tend to concur.
Kriol is everywhere, especially here in the main market town in the south of the country. It is a language that is complex and foreign, yet familiar at the same time. The familiarity stems from its English base, such that every sentence might have a word or two in English. However, unless you know Kriol, you can’t understand most of what is being said. Take the title as an example: “Yu no taim hyaa weh Ai di chrai tel yu.” If you say this out loud, you may get parts of it, and it could be translated literally as “you never hear what I’m trying to tell you.” However, it means something more like “you don’t understand me” – a slight difference perhaps, but an important one. As a native English speaker, hearing Kriol was one of the stranger sensations I have had abroad: hearing someone speak to me and getting some of it, but quickly realizing that despite the sprinkling of English, I have no idea what is being said to me.
It has taken a while for me to “get” Kriol. Since most people speak English, they almost always speak in English with me. However, as an anthropologist, I get to spend time hanging out with people. I spend time with them in their everyday moments, and during these times, people easily slip into their “normal” language, in this case, Kriol. I still don’t speak in Kriol – that would feel somehow phony when everyone speaks English just as easily – but I am finally picking up most of the conversations (and jokes!) being held around me.
Along with that understanding of Kriol has come another realization, one that I probably should have had before I even started my research. As with any language, the way Kriol is used reflects on how its users view the world around them. And while English is the official language in the country, Kriol is probably used more frequently in peoples’ everyday lives. Coming here for long-term fieldwork, I assumed that knowing English would suffice in understanding the things I had come here to study. Having been here for a while now, I know that working in English will provide me with adequate and even insightful data, but I do believe something will be missing. While I don’t quite have my finger on it yet, I’m pretty sure that something will be revealed as I continue to explore this place through its other first language – Kriol.
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Photograph by Doug Reeser
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