- Da Inna Who Fa Mout' Mi Tongue / In Whose Mouth is My Tongue:Writing As A Belizean American
"But Aunt Ingrid, dat nuh soun' like we! Dah nuh so we talk! Hm! Da mussy wah American Belizean Creole yuh de talk."
When my niece Karen responded so insightfully to first reading my short story, "Tears No Have To Fall," she exposed the heart of my own "battle with language."1 While for Grace Nichols, this battle had been with standard English and Guyanese Creole; for me it has been a battle with my memory of Belizean Creole and the various African American and Caribbean English that I acquired over the years of living in the north and southeast regions of the US.
Years ago, when I arrived in the US, I lived with my great-aunt Essie, and her daughter Mary on Bergen Street in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York. In the apartment above theirs lived Jerry, a young man from Chattanooga, Tennessee, whose wife Jane was also from Belize. Amid this extended household, I was introduced to my battle with language. My great-aunt still proudly spoke what we call "broad" Belizean Creole (bBC), but her daughter, then in her mid-twenties, had already become proficient at "lightening up her tongue," which is to say, she spoke a version of New York English that sounded like a mixture of Jamaican English and Belizean Creole, but the kind of Belizean Creole spoken by radio announcers. [End Page 94]
I quickly realized that this radio announcer language was one of the ways to "lighten my tongue" (LT), for this was also how Jerry's wife sounded. Compared to her, Jerry's slow, southern drawl was another language to me. When I further compared it to the tough, clipped sounding English of our Bed Sty neighbors, he did sound like he was from another country. Of course, I was encouraged by both my cousin Mary and Jane to lighten up my tongue, and I tried because there were immediate benefits to doing so: fewer fights with my school "friends" at I.S. 321, who were less hostile the moment my tongue began to lighten up. Bearing in mind that I am not a linguist, this is sort of what lightening-up sounded like:
(bBC) "Weh yuh wa' "? to (LT) "Wat you want?"
(bBC) "Ah nuh wa' dat." to (LT) "Ah don't want dat."
After a year in Bed Sty, I relocated to Hampton, Virginia, to live with my uncle and his wife, who was from Petersburg, Virginia, but had spent most of her adult life in Harlem, New York. While my uncle spoke (bBC) very astutely, wickedly exploiting his "exotic" sound to attract female attention wherever and whenever he opened his mouth, my aunt spoke in a soft, soothing, sing-song drawl. Naturally, my aunt picked up where my cousin Mary and Jane had left off in encouraging me to lighten up my tongue. I struggled to do just that, for as before, there were immediate rewards to sounding more like those around me: the approving nods and smiles from my aunt, the ceasing of the disdainful "What did you just say?" from my new cousins, and even my uncle's comments that, "Ingrid de start to soun' educated; she de soun' American," all made me feel that I was beginning to belong.
Awash in the sea of tongues around me at home first in Bed Sty and later in Hampton, and at schools in Brooklyn, Hampton, and back again in New York City, and in my various travels up and down the south and northeastern shores of the US, I clung to the familiarity of my mother's voice. Over the years, she had never stopped writing numerous letters to me. Her sound was always so reassuring, and while my tongue migrated to a variety of new US landscapes, the sound of Belizean Creole in my heart was the one that I heard in my mother's letters.
Over the years, depending on to whom I was speaking, I became adept at switching tongues. I could move from speaking my newly acquired Virginian Belizean-sounding English...