Indian Guyanese have lost their mother tongues (they brought from India) in Guyana and other territories in the Caribbean region, except Suriname. Between 1838 and 1917 around 240,000 Indian immigrants were recruited and brought to British Guiana, now Guyana, under the Indentureship scheme to provide manual labour on the sugar plantations of the then British colony. Today their descendants, accounting for about 40 percent of the population, comprise the largest ethnic group in the country and can be found in every strata of society including some of the highest political offices in the land. Over the years, they have maintained various aspects of their ancestral culture. However, with increasing creolisation and anglicisation of successive generations as they strove for upward mobility and social acceptance in the society, their ancestral language as a spoken language has been abandoned. In recognition of May 5, 2021 as the 183rd anniversary of Indian Arrival, this article looks at the loss of the ancestral language as a spoken language of Indo-Guyanese.
The loss of language is noted in a paper captioned Hindi in Guyana (A Journal of the Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, Vol. 4, 2009) by Professor, Satishkumar Rohra, a former lecturer in Hindi at the University of Guyana, in which he, “In the long period of one and half century, their (Indo-Guyanese) interaction with other races has also increased but even today due to their food habits, family relations, social system, social belief and cultural assumptions, they are Indians. One is pained for just one thing that the inheritance of language has slipped away from their hands. That is why while walking in many parts of Guyana, one realises that it is an India outside India at the same time, it pains to learn that from the point of view of language, Guyana is a dumb India. In Guyana, there are many places where people of Indian origin constitute 90- 95 percent of the population but even at these places, people converse in Creole and one rarely hears Hindi sentences from the mouth of some very old person.”
Surendra Kumar Gambhir, possibly the only academic who has studied the ancestral language of Indo-Guyanese, in his doctoral dissertation for the University of Pennsylvania in 1981 provides a listing of the dialects of the Indian indentured immigrants to Guyana. He states that the lingua franca of the first immigrants from India to Guyana (the hill coolies) was a form of Bhojpuri. He mentions that during the period 1842-1871, more than 73 percent of the immigrants came from areas where the languages spoken were Maithili, Magahi, Bhojpuri, Avadhi and several western dialects. For the period 1875-1916, he notes that a large number of speakers of Bhojpuri, Avadhi, Maithili, Magahi, Kannauji, Braj, Bundel, and Khari Boli (Old Hindi) came to Guyana. In the last period, he observed that 8.3 percent of the immigrants came from various parts like Bengal, Panjab, Native States like Nepal, Central India, Central Provinces, Bombay and Madras and adds that others immigrating to British Guiana included speakers of Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Rajasthani, Nepali, Panjabi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and perhaps a few other.
Most of the dialects listed by Gambhir are part of a dialect continuum, “a spread of language varieties spoken across some geographical area such that neighbouring varieties differ only slightly, but the differences accumulate over distance so that widely separated varieties may not be mutually intelligible”. In addition, they come from a region known as the ‘Hindi Belt’ of India, described as “a linguistic region encompassing parts of northern, central, eastern and western India where various Central Indo-Aryan languages subsumed under the term ‘Hindi’ are spoken”. According to Gambhir, over time in their new environment, with speakers of different dialects living together in the isolation of the plantation, linguistic adjustments occurred. A process of amalgamation and homogenisation took place, in which a levelled form of Bhojpuri emerged as the dominant dialect, which he termed ‘Guyanese Bhojpuri’. This became the lingua franca of the immigrants and their descendants. However, he noted too that the immigrants and their early descendants referred to their language as Hindustani.
In his 1883 book, The Colony of British Guyana, Rev. H.P.V. Bronkhurst states, “The Hindustani, so called, is spoken by almost all the natives, in addition to their own native or caste languages, in the Northern and Central Provinces of Hindustan… In fact, although properly the language of the North-West, it passes current (like French in Europe) throughout Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. Also, B. Mallikarjun, writing in Language of India, vol. 4, 2004, notes “Linguistic Survey of India (referring to George Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India concluded in the early part of the twentieth century) speaks eloquently about Hindustani as an important dialect and a ‘lingua franca’ of the greater part of India, spoken and understood over the whole of the Indian Peninsula”. Consequently, there should be no doubt that, either because of dialect continuum or through Hindustani, most of the immigrants were able to communicate with one another.
The loss of ancestral languages/dialects commenced decades before the end of Indian immigration. In his 1962 book, British Guiana, social anthropologist, Professor Raymond Smith who did extensive research in Guyana and published several papers on Indo-Guyanese cultural practices, wrote “In 1917, the system of organised immigration ceased and after that time very few people entered the country from India. Even during the nineteenth century, there had been a marked tendency for Indian languages to be replaced by the Guianese lower-class dialect of English, and now this process was accelerated until today (1962), Indian languages are practically never used except on ritual occasions when they are about as widely understood as Latin is among Roman Catholics in England.” Some of the factors that contributed to the loss are discussed below.
Indian Bhojpuri, which forms the base of the standardised dialect, Guyanese Bhojpuri/Hindustani, was an oral language. In correspondence with this writer, an Indo-Guyanese born in 1912 and who qualified in the 1920s as an Indian language translator for the Immigration department, stated that, “Hindi was studied for the translators’ examination because it was a language, written and spoken. Bhojpuri was not considered a language. It had to be learned by contact with its speakers. As long as new emigrants from India were coming into the country during the indentureship period, there was a constant supply of speakers to keep it alive. With the termination of the indentureship programme, the source of renewal ceased.”
The above explanation of the cessation of renewal being responsible for the loss of language does not reconcile with known facts. Cessation of renewal also occurred in Suriname around the same time period as in Guyana, yet Indian-Surinamese have continued to speak Surinamese Hindustani to this day. One explanation that has been offered for the difference between Suriname and Guyana is that Dutch colonial policy encouraged the maintenance of language by the Indian Immigrants because they were British subjects and they and their children were expected to return to India where the children had to be assimilated. In the case of Guyana, the British colonial policy was geared to settle the immigrants in the country to provide a readily available supply of cheap labour for the sugar plantations. Thus, language maintenance would have been a hindrance to integration. Another view is that the British were more supportive of conversion of the Indians to Christianity than the Dutch. Maintenance of language by the Indian immigrants in Guyana was a barrier to Indian conversion and could not be supported.
During the period of indentureship, upon entry into the colony, the immigrants came into contact with an existing oral language, Creolese, that was already established as the lingua franca of the majority. While in the seclusion of their own community, intra-group communication in their native dialect presented no problem. However, it would have been a major barrier for communication in the wider community. Since functioning in the wider society was dependent on knowing Creolese for a start, there was an incentive for the immigrants to learn this new language. As for their children, there was no tangible benefit of the ancestral language, which then was gradually abandoned by successive generations.
Another key factor for the loss was the stigma attached to what was termed “coolie culture”. In the colony, the Indian immigrants started out at the bottom of the established social hierarchy. “Coolie culture”, referring to their speech, dress, food and religion, was looked down upon and a barrier to upward mobility in the society where English customs, language and the Christian religion were the accepted norms. Thus, successive generation of children of Indian immigrants, seeing no significant incentive for retaining their ancestral language and, in fact being ridiculed for doing so, were not keen to learn or perpetuate it.
Rohra concludes, “to restore a language which has become out of use is a difficult task that cannot be accomplished without support of government. Maintaining Hindi as a cultural language is not a very difficult work. Although when it comes to be judged in its practical use in Guyana, Hindi has been reduced to zero yet one can realise very naturally the atmosphere for Hindi.”
By Harry Hergash