Say it like d' Belizean

By Silvana Woods
Edited by Naturalight Productions

NB: Remember to click on the links in the article to see all the images.

It's the glue that holds Bileez together. Yes, Bileez. That's the Kriol language spelling and pronunciation of the English word Belize. The Bileez Kriol language, both its oral and written usage, continues to be the single most identifying characteristic of what makes up Belizean culture. And yes, you guessed it, "kriol" is the Kriol language spelling of the word spelled "creole" in English.

Well, as they say in Belize, "yu kyaahn travl pahn emti stomak" (Literally, this means you cannot travel on an empty stomach). So let's embark on this journey through the Belizean Kriol language with a food analogy. There is a Belizean dish called 'cow foot soup', a staple of many restaurants that specialize in Kriol cuisine. Many kow fut soop lovers claim it is the 'gumption' that is sooooo good - that grizzly, sticky sticky part of the cow foot after it's been stewed down and boiled up with countless tantalizing herbs and spices. Well, that is what the Kriol language is, di stiki stiki paat - the glue that holds Belize together.

In speaking about a Chinese immigrant to Belize, the Belizean author Karl Tillett said, "The Chinese man did not have the best command of the English language. In fact, he had even more problems speaking the fluid corner cutting Creole Belizeans spoke." It is no wonder then that the Chicago Tribune, in one of its Travel Guide sections in 1987, once described the Belize Creole language as "a language that teases but just escapes the comprehension of a native speaker of English."

The Belize Kriol language is part of the Caribbean family of Creole languages. From the 2000 census for Belize, one notes that while 24.9% claim Kriol as their ethnicity, an increase to 33% claim Kriol as their first language. Note too that the Ministry's 1999 School Effectiveness Report (p. 84) notes that "Creole is spoken as the first language in most homes." If you can speak, read and write English, you can have fun practicing these brief Kriol phrases with the accompanying MP3 Clip Kwik Kwik Guide to pronunciation and spelling:

Greeting someone: EnglishBelize Kriol
My name is Ah nayhn (or) Mee naym
What is your name?Weh yu nayhn?
What's up? Hello (informal)Weh di go aan?
Good morning.Gud maanin.
How are you?Da how yu di du?
Fine, thank youAarait.
How much does this cost?Humoch dis kaas?
What time is it?Weh taim yu gat?
I've had a wonderful time.Ah mi gat wahn gud gud taim.
It doesn't matter.Ih noh mata.
Is that so? Fu chroo?

A kwik kwik Guide to the Belize Kriol spelling system:
'long a' = 'ay'
as in
'long e' = 'ee'
as in
'long i' = 'ai'
as in
'long o' = 'oa'
as in
'long u' = 'oo'
as in
'tr' = 'chr'
as in
'x' = 'ks'
as in
'hn' = 'nasalization'
as in
nayhn; wahnname; will, want, a
'double short a' = 'aa'
as in

Creole languages were birthed by the clash of masters and slaves in the holding cells of Sierra Leone in West Africa all the way to the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas. The contact situation of colonialism and slave trade routes that forced people from western Africa across the Atlantic to the Central American Caribbean coastal areas of Belize, Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica further contributed to the development of the language. In the Caribbean, a Creole language can be thought of as the offspring of the union of a colonizer's vocabulary base with the grammar of an African language - or a family of African languages.

The Caribbean and Atlantic Coast regions have Creole languages with vocabulary bases that are either English, French, Dutch or Spanish; it depends on which colonizer that country had. This article has limited itself to the Belize Creole language (di Bileez Kriol langwij), which is an English-based Kriol language.

Since 1993, a standard orthography for the Belize Kriol language has been in existence. After almost a dozen years of its use, revision and promotion, the 'one symbol equals one sound" phonemic-based spelling system has increasingly become popularized. Other national languages are Garifuna, Spanish, and three varieties of Maya. The official language is English. An official language is the language used by a government in official situations; a national language is - like Kriol, Garifuna, Spanish or Maya in Belize - a language that the government recognizes as having significance in the country's social life. This might mean that the government may allow one or more national languages to be used in education. The Belizean government has already enacted this policy (1996 Language Education Policy); it simply has not formally engineered its implementation yet. Note too that although Belize only boasts a population of some 250,000 people, several other languages are also spoken. These are the immigrant languages, not yet considered national languages in Belize, and these include Mandarin, Hindi , Arabic and German.

The basis of Kriol literacy is that literacy is, after all, not a language, but a skill. Once the skill of knowing how to read and write is mastered in one's native language - one's mother tongue - transition to the much-needed international languages of English and Spanish would begin. The stress-free and cultural benefits of mother tongue literacy are based on sound educational principles.

Today, two generations since UNESCO declared in one of its 1953 monographs on education that "the best medium for teaching a child is his mother tongue", the mother of all tongues in Belize continues to have a dynamic, public face. Many faces: there is the Garifuna-Kriol Belizean, the Taiwanese-Kriol Belizean, the Maya-Kriol Belizean, the Mestizo-Kriol get the point. Belize is a tiny representative slice of multi-ethnicity at its best. Come...keep on visiting us and who knows, you may become an honorary Belizean if, in response to the first welcome or hello you receive, you answer back, "Helo...weh di go aan? Mee laik Bileez!"

Images Courtesy of:

  • Tony Rath Photography
  • JC Cuellar
  • Cindy Blount
  • E. Roy Cayetano

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