Making a “Butter” with English: When the Roots Keep Sticking out


Someone was telling to me once about a student of theirs who tends to say “living” rather than “leaving” such as “Sir I living en”. It is a mistake (my students will call it a “butter”) I have heard adults make as well, replacing the long “ee” sound with the short “i” sound. I get the feeling that there is a certain self-consciousness for many people when they approach this “ee” sound as to avoid sounding like they are from a rural area with all the disparaging names we use to distance ourselves from these areas. So much so we shorten the “ee” sound even when we don’t have to. I have found myself making some strange “butters” too. There is a certain self-consciousness with the “th” sound too. Since we usually change our “th” to “d” when it is the “hard” sound and usually at the beginning of a sentence, when we want to speak “properly” we revert to the “th” sound. Again in this case we can overdo it especially when we are not so conscious of it and replace some legitimate d’s with “th” like “Boy, throw the thart” for “….dart”. There is another one where sometimes a person may try to “soften” a “hard” “a” sound with an “r” so “bad” becomes “bard”.

Saint_Lucia_Flag                                  Flag of St. Lucia

I had an incident recently in class where I was using the word “couple” and the students kept mumbling and giggling at my pronunciation; I said “couple” rhyming with “topple”. After ignoring them for a while and getting the point across that I intended to, I then questioned them as to how I should pronounce the word. They said it should be pronounced as “cupple” so we went on about it for a bit and I resolved that it was cool for me to continue to say couple. I could go on with many other common examples such as “money” and “munnie” with the latter being the preferred pronunciation by most and “Monday” and “Munday” with the same applied. To my understanding of English phonetic sounds the former seems more accurate but after much American TV, formal schooling etc one comes to prefer the latter not just as different but as better, more refined, etc etc.

But to get to my issue. I have often wondered about this tendency which causes many to have to be on guard for laughter, correction and devaluation in perception based on so called “wrong pronunciation” and sounding like a “bookie” etc. Also the kind of self-consciousness that causes these “butters” I mentioned earlier. I also wonder whether we feel the same way about so called “bookie” pronunciation as with other variations in pronunciation such the French “Zuh” for “The” and the fairly common American “men” for “man” even if they may all produce laughter at times. Our fear of “falling back” in the “Money”(as opposed to munnie) and “duh” for “the” and all the so called “hard” vowel sounds, where does it come from psychologically, historically or socially?

I will attempt to look at it on a psychological level and from there one can postulate about its historical roots and see how socially it is supported taking it forward into our time and hopefully not into the future.

Sigmund Freud was trying to figure out the reason for something he noticed and from that came to the realization that what we call our conscious self is just the tip of the iceberg and the larger part of what makes up our mind is actually out of most people’s awareness. He also realized that what he called the unconscious, the larger submerged part of the iceberg had a significant role to play in our actions and since it was out of our awareness, we could say a lot of what we do is influenced by things we have no idea about. The “something” he noticed was a phenomenon called paraplexes (in German he called it Fehlleistrungen). Under this name he placed things such as “slips of the tongue”, misreading, mishearing, mixing up of names or other words, temporary forgetting of something ordinarily at the “tip of our tongue” and other cases where things we ordinarily know and can retrieve seem difficult to retrieve or become distorted or mixed-up when we retrieve them. Of course there will be cases of mishearing or misreading etc which is as a result of some disturbance or other or based on the distance from which we are reading or hearing. Anyway, the point is these things well up from the subconscious part of our mind triggered by something or through escaping some inhibition and comes forward sometimes to our embarassment such as calling the “wrong” name in bed or scolding a student who is not in class and I would say as well as these various “butters” I mentioned earlier.

Usually this thing which surfaces is something that is being suppressed and once the guard is let down and it is triggered, it jumps forward or some weird results arise from the attempt to suppress it. I feel this is some of what is happening with our speech and our self-consciousness generally with regard to our use and that of others when it comes to English. Historically, the way many were brought into English in many of these colonies was not the nicest. I recall a young man a little older than me from a rural area recalling that at school there was a rule which was also written visibly in the school that the speaking of Kwéyòl was not allowed and persons have been punished and or ostracized by both parents and teachers, and who knows who else, for speaking Kwéyòl(whether or not with good intentions). I remember also a relative of mine telling of how self-conscious “jan bitasyon”(people from the countryside) who were not very competent in English would feel about persons knowing that they could not speak English very well so as to avoid being cheated since their lack of competence in English would be interpreted as being lack of education and intelligence generally.

Sentence structure, pronunciation, sounds, semantics(ways of structuring meaning) etc from the various African languages which contributed to our language formation here have survived even in those who have never spoken French Lexicon Creole(basically a merger of African languages with vocabulary mainly originating from French) also called Kwéyòl. To speak what is called “proper English” we have to be able to shift to a new register (pattern of speaking). We can do this comfortably and smoothly or uncomfortably in random disjointed ways. I get the feeling that for many people it is not a comfortable transition which may be for a number of reasons. For some, there has not been enough practice and familiarization with the new language (English) and its rules through an appropriate teaching method that would treat English as a Second language to those who do not ordinarily speak using its grammar, syntax, pronunciation etc. Another reason is the internalized hierarchy or ranking which places English as superior and Kwéyòl as something to be cleansed out of your system or for you to be watchful of not to become too soiled by it. This creates an anxiety about not falling back into the remnants of these structures even while one has not developed the level of competence and confidence in both languages to make the smooth transition to and fro. But the roots beneath Kwéyòl tends not to go away so easily to the embarassment of many. Even after many years of school in English many are still poor speakers of the language and frequently make “butters” or sound awkward as if walking a tightrope even as they expand their vocabularies etc.

Persons should study the history which brought about this language, the attempts to eradicate it and how this related to the development of our societies. They should also study the history of English and other European languages to see the similarities both in how these languages were formed and how they came to a more confident relationship with their language. Under the conquest of Rome and their official Latin, these languages and the people who depended on them for communication and much else were in much the same situation as Kwéyòl(French Lexicon Creole) and the English Lexicon Creole and the people who speak it as their first language.

Sankofa is an African concept of the Akan People of Ghana.

Sankofa is an African concept of the Akan People of Ghana.

Sankofa is an Akan word that means, “We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward; so we understand why and how we came to be who we are today.” It is also important to better understand the psychological impacts of being in a society which is hostile to or neglectful of certain aspects of your self and heritage. This ambivalence of course is not restricted to language but goes on to other aspects of culture including religion and various others.

I know that Morgan Dalphinis, the St. Lucian-born linguist has edited a book called “Caribbean and African Languages: Education, Psychology and Multilingualism” which I hope looks into this area. His book ” Caribbean and African Languages: Social History, Language, Literature and Education” provides a useful explanation of the historical and social forces which have produced our language situation here in St. Lucia and elsewhere. These are things which continue to impact many and cause many “butters” to happen. Roots do not disappear because the branches are ashamed of them, so it is perhaps better to reconcile with all the roots which hold up the tree.

Roots / Wasin
Roots/ Wasin


~ by iandiyanola on February 7, 2012.

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