Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Do you speak theish? : Relearning my mother tongue in the Caribbean

I don't know about you, but for me there are few things in this world more enjoyable than travelling. It is always an experience that stays with you. The excitement of seeing things up close that you may have previously only seen in a magazine or on a cinema screen.The introduction to new cultures, new people and very often new ways of looking at the world. However, I find as exciting as discovering and exploring these things can be, there is always a slight feeling of trepidation when you touch down in a country or city for the first time. This begins from the time you enter the airport arrival hall, something as simple as not knowing exactly which door you should be going through or which line you should be in  can be unnerving. These feelings of being lost are increased ten-fold if you happen to be visiting a country where you don't speak the native language. The awkward feelings that accompany smiling and nodding at taxi drivers and red caps; laughing at their jokes, hoping against hope that you will leave their presence well before they get an inkling that  you haven't got the foggiest idea what they are talking about.

It may come as a surprise to many that this issue of language has affected me as I have returned to life in the Caribbean over the last two months. After all, I have been mainly in the anglophone countries and English is the language I speak all the time in Canada. It is not because of varying accents and dialects, though these can sometimes present challenges even to those of us who grew up in these West Indian isles.  No, there is a language spoken on every island in the Caribbean and you can really be at a loss if you are not familiar with the lingo. You may not find it in the Oxford dictionary, but it is called 'theish.' I used to speak it very fluently when I used to live in this part of the world, but you know what they say about language. You use it or you lose it.

Theish is basically 'God language.' Just like any other language out there it has certain rules that you have to adhere to. The central rule is the assumption that a God exists who created the world and dictates ultimately everything that happens in it. He, she or it loves you, protects you and will one day judge you. You can communicate with this God and he will sometimes grant you what you ask for if it is his will. For many atheists this seems like total jibberish, which is not surprising since all languages you are unfamiliar with sound jibberish at first. 'Atheish' is the counter language to this and has only one simple assumption; that Gods do not exist.

It's been a bit scary, but since I have returned to the Caribbean I realise that I am a bit rusty on my theish. These days in Canada I speak almost purely atheish among my friends. It was particularly bad at first when I came home to Barbados. I would be having a conversation which would seem like a normal exchange of pleasantries, a general catching up on things  when suddenly a person would say something in theish that I would not understand. I  asked one friend, " What are you looking to do now that you have decided to leave the teaching profession?" His answer was a simple, " Well, that depends on what God wants."  I went silent,  I realised for that moment I had no idea what he was talking about. What God wants? What the hell does that mean? I was so knocked back that day that I just smiled wished him good luck and went away. I reflected afterwards, that that was the language of theish. I had forgotten how to speak it. Translated into atheish, what he meant was  "I will just go with the flow and see how things turn out. I will wait and see what opportunities come my way." Now had he said that, it would have made perfect sense to me. I realised that once I made these translations to atheish in my head as I talked to people here I would be ok.

It strikes me now that perhaps the reason why it is so difficult for people to give up their religion is because it is like a language to them. Languages are something we speak naturally, we learn our native tongue from the time we are in the cradle and basically it stays with us for life. Language is also a means of self identity. When you meet someone in a distant land and you start to speak their language or dialect you are telling them that you are one of them. We are brothers or sisters because we can understand this language that the others around us can't. We have a special connection which creates a strong emotional bond within the first few seconds of the exchange. Many of us as we get older will learn other languages but as competent as we become in these adopted languages we will always slip back to our mother tongue when we are acting instinctively. Religious belief is something we don't question generally here in the Caribbean because it is our language and an essential part of our identity. It is something we need to understand even for the most basic of communication. If we don't speak theish we will be ostracised, not necessarily because people don't like us. They just won't understand us  and we won't understand them.

An object with a gender

Many of us laughed at first when we went into Spanish classes and were told that every object has a gender. The idea that el lapiz- the chalk was masculine and la naranja- the orange was feminine was to many in my class a ridiculous notion. Does the chalk wear a collar and tie? Does the flirtatious orange have a mini skirt in her wardrobe? When we atheists make fun of magic apples, talking snakes and global floods, we are doing the same as we did when we laughed at our Spanish or French at school. Speculating about where God's genitalia is that can makes us so sure he is a boy is no different than wondering where the 'sweet spot' is on the female orange.

Yes, when we view religion as a language it is quite easy to see why it is so impervious to logic and reasoning.  The philosopher Thomas Kuhn has actually likened ideological paradigms to languages. He has asserted that a paradigm shift is like a total change of language and you cannot compare two paradigms because the definitions of terms within a paradigm have a completely different interpretation when viewed from another. So, we can see that even from Kuhn's work back in the 1970s, language and paradigms are deemed to be similar. So religion as an ideological paradigm can be viewed as a  language. The problem with  the religious language  is that people think that the rules developed for the purposes of communication are fundamentally TRUE. God  becomes a real thing not a linguistic construct. If you think about it, it is a bit like saying English is the one true language. It is just doesn't make sense.

This perceived theistic truth value is the difference between theish and other world languages such as Spanish, French German or Chinese  This of course makes conversing in theish extremely problematic and that's why I try not to speak it. This may seem to some like snobbery. How could I look down on my native language as if it is something inferior? I grew up speaking and identifying myself through it and now I seem to be embarrassed to use it.

If theish was like the other languages I would happily use it and treasure it as part of who I am. It would be no different than how I would promote reggae, soca  music or bajan flying fish among my international friends. But I know that every time I speak theish I am reinforcing among the people that their theistic beliefs are true. So, as a result I try to stay away from theish as much as I possibly can. It's unfortunate that I have to go this route. On the face of it, theish is a very useful language. The word 'God' is a simple word that can be used as a substitute, for the unknowns in nature, uncertainties in interactions, random events and things beyond our control. Simplification is, lest we forget, one of the main objectives of language. 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush' is a common phrase used in English. Everbody knows exactly what that phrase means. However, one could make the case that in some scenarios if you were in control of the bush, two birds in the bush may be better than the bird in hand. It is true, but for someone to make that point in a debate bringing along two birds in a bushy bird cage would be missing the point of the metaphor. Sadly, missing the point of the metaphor is routine in religion and often done deliberately. I have written in a previous blog post that I would love a Church with a metaphorical God. But I just don't want to take the chance of being taken even semi-literally when I speak in theish.

Still, I realise it's good to keep it handy just in case of emergency. I have always been taught that people all revert to their native languages in moments of danger and ecstasy. Perhaps this explains the liberal use of God supposedly in many of the bedrooms of committed atheists and on the other side why there is a common belief that there are no atheists in foxholes. I must say that if I was going down in a plane and the passenger next to me asked me to say a prayer with them I would oblige with out the slightest bit of reservation.

Trying to be bilingual

It is interesting to note that there are some theists that are well versed in atheish. They can follow extremely well the rules of the language. They understand that there is no word called "God" in atheish  and can converse quite easily given that as a starting premise. Atheists realising that the theists are following the nuances of the new language get very encouraged and are convinced that they are making inroads into the theists belief system, but that is seldom the case. To the theist, atheish is a foreign language. Just like a class they take once a week after work at a community college. They learn certain things by heart, know how to answer certain common phrases in the language but that's where it ends. They never intend to embrace atheish as their own. It may come in handy if they find themselves lost and need to ask for directions at a university philosophy lecture but that is as far as it goes. Once they finish their little lesson with the atheist, it's back home where they are with their families and they slip back into theish again. If they have enough exposure they will eventually become very competent in it but they generally never get to fluency. For some reason as much as many believers actually enjoy learning atheish and spouting the few words they know, they are very opposed to atheist immersion programs which could really push them over the top. A one month stint in an atheist organisation or a CFI could work wonders for these people. I studied in Ecuador and was able to pick up Spanish much more quickly than I did in any classroom. It's hard for a foreign language to stick if you separate it from its cultural context.

By contrast there are many more atheists that speak good theish than the other way around. For a lot of atheists, theish is indeed their native language They have had to try hard to block it out and the traces of it still linger. It takes a while to learn to no longer put an accent on the word 'God.' What worries me sometimes are the atheists that think they know theish well but don't really have a comprehensive grasp. I have met some of them in Canada, people who never grew up speaking the language at home. Some of them are willing to learn from us bilingual atheists but others consider going through this kind of schooling unnecessary.These people have learnt most of their theish from promotional videos on cable television and through the ever growing ' quick fix' online resources such as ' Answers in Genesis.' They think that learning the language is super easy because, at least in this part of the world, there is generally only one text book
that you are required to read. But theish is a very nuanced language with thousands of dialects. You have to be able to decipher one from the other. Christianese is clearly the dominant dialect but even within that the accents are so different that when these people  try to get together and talk they don't understand much of what each other is saying.

It may seem like confusion but I still think it is important for atheists to take the time to learn theish so that they can converse smoothly when they meet a Godly person. Even if we are advocates for secularism or atheism we cannot make any inroads unless we meet theists where they are. You have to be able to know theish to survive in today's world, or at least be familiar with  few phrases.  I think it is time we do a Fodor's Guide for the atheist traveller to theistic lands.

These phrases below I think should feature in the Caribbean edition

-God willing
-If God spare life
-Praise the Lord thank God
-I am here waiting on the Lord
-God is good all the time
-Lord come for your world
-I plead the blood
-I lean on the word
-The bible says
- The devil is busy today
- Hallelujah, thank you Jesus

Know it but don't use it

It may seem like a contradiction to encourage people to learn theish even though I have explained why I don't myself use it. I think learning it is the key rather than using it. It's just like how people encourage you to learn the curse words in foreign languages even though you would never think of using them in polite company.So, when people speak to me in theish, I think about it, absorb what they are saying and then translate in my head to give them a response in atheish. For example, I met a lady yesterday who was delighted to tell me how her  faith had been strengthened after she lost one of a twin while giving birth. The doctors thought the second one would die also but so far the younger one has pulled through and is doing well.  The lady shared with me how at first she wondered  why God was testing her, but her mother was so supportive and encouraged her every step of the way. Mum even flew out from overseas at a night's notice just to be there at her side.

The woman went on to add that she now recognises how the trials have made her stronger and it is a miracle how God has delivered  the one daughter that survived even after the doctors had written her off. She finished off by telling me that based on her experience, she now considers that anyone who doesn't believe in God would have to be a fool. I smiled, I wasn't going to  reveal to her the irony of saying something like that to me. I resisted the temptation to go on the defensive or identify any flaws in logic. I just took a breath and answered her in atheish. This is what I said:

"We live in a natural world, and trials are a part of it. It is not that we need them because many have discovered the strength in their characters without going through the tests that you have. However, it's great to know when difficulties come our way there are people such as your mother who can really come through for you and ease the burden. At  the end of it all it is great to know that in spite of the tragedy you have been able to find that inner strength, emerge with such a sense of happiness and find so much to be thankful for."

She thanked me for my words, nodded and remarked on how true she thought the things I said were. I realised there and then that even though she doesn't know it, she really understands atheish. She is even capable of integrating it into her everyday spoken language. I didn't announce that what I was saying came straight from an atheist root, after all, I never said that God was not there. However, hopefully the few words of atheish  filtered in and maybe she will recognise one day that even in her own language, she doesn't need God to give her a sentence.

I know that to ask someone to let go of the only language they have ever known and  reject their mother tongue is difficult, perhaps nearly impossible. Maybe it is not even a reasonable or ethical thing to attempt. However, we know from history that languages evolve. We may well never be able to achieve that  paradigm shift that Kuhn talks about but if we continue to slip more and more of our words and phrases into the theish thesaurus, the language from the pulpit could be virtually indistinguishable from atheish in 100 years time.


  1. This is quite possibly one of the best articles I've had the pleasure of reading lately. It's very informative, entertaining, and thoughtful. I love how you analyzed the disparity between the language of a believer and the language of a non-believer.

    I'm adding you to my blogroll!

  2. Thanks so much. I really enjoy writing and appreciate the feedback. Look forward to checking your blogroll as well.

  3. I enjoyed your article and it started some thinking. To run with your analogy, as there are different accents of English, there are also different accents of theish. I sometimes wonder why it seems the theish "spoken" by those who live on the Commonwealth islands is so much more intolerant and outright aggressive towards anything or anyone religious in nature than their non-English speaking neighbors. There was an interesting article published in Jamaica about the qualities people found attractive in potential leaders. Needless to say, faith and heterosexuality were important: http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Wanted--hard-working--honest--young--slim--married-male-heterosexual-leaders

  4. Thanks just. Interesting point you make about the different theish accents of the non English speaking territories in the Caribbean compared to the anglophone. I don't have enough experience in the non English countries yet to make the comparison but I think it is something worth looking at further. Certainly tolerance is not a common word in theish spoken in the English Caribbean, especially when it's gays we are talking about.