Language and Ethnicity in Belize

by McNab Editorial Team
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The country of Belize, though small in size and population, is surprisingly diverse in many ways. Although it is the only country in Central America with English as its official language and is generally used and understood by all, other languages are alive and thriving, thanks to our unique ethnic mix. Try to imagine an early British logwood settlement populated by African slave laborers, mestizos, and native Maya, under English speaking “Masters”, trying to communicate and work together and with different regional accents…Scots, Irish, Northern English, Spanish, and Maya!! This situation could easily have turned into a true “Tower of Babel”. Instead, it merged into a melting pot of ethnicity with differences that eventually became indistinguishable, with everyone able to speak (albeit with his own regional cadence) and understand each other. Throughout our Historyother Immigrant groups emerged, coming for various reasons: Hindus, Asians, German-speaking Mennonites, other Central Americans, as well as Arabic speakers from Lebanon and Palestine. So that today among ourselves, Belizean accents vary, but among ourselves, can easily pinpoint in which district we grew up or which school we attended.

EAST INDIANS:

Also known as Hindus were brought to British Honduras as far back as 1838. They came as indentured servants to work for a master for a pre-determined period of time. At first, they were called “Coolies”, which is a Hindi word for servant, but recently fell out of use as considered not politically correct. Many East Indians settled past their work service. Afterward, in the 1850s, an Englishman known as Mr. Young, brought East Indian workers from the Caribbean to work on plantations and ranches in Corozal and Toledo. By the 1930s more East Indians arrived and established stores and businesses. Eventually, they assimilated and formed communities throughout the country, while conserving some of their customs, their native language, and dress.

CHINESE:

In the early 1940s, China was invaded by Japan. They emigrated to Central America and then to Belize. Most settled in Belize City, Corozal, and Punta Gorda, and later, Stann Creek. Some took up farming and some were merchants. They retained their surnames, but many took Christian first names, many in Spanish. Most younger settlers became Catholics and retained some of their customs. They speak their native language among themselves as well as English, Creole, and Spanish. More recently, Belize has established ties with Taiwan. Hundreds of Taiwan Chinese have emigrated to Belize, buying land, building communities and establishing businesses.

CENTRAL AMERICANS…

Came to Belize during the 1970s and 1980sto escape political violence and civil unrest. Approximately 25,000 came in search of a livelihood, bringing with them their skills and know-how and a strong work ethic, and of course, the Spanish language. Like all true Belizeans, their children learn English in school and also speak Spanish and Creole.

MENONITES…

Are an Anabaptist sect that originated way back in the 16th century in the Netherlands during the Reformation. They came to Belize in the early 1960svia Mexico, and their native language is German. Thanks to them and their agricultural acumen, Belize now enjoys Dairy and Poultry products. They provide fresh vegetables and grain and build beautiful furniture. Most are in the North or firmly established in pristine, thriving rural communities in the Western District.

MIDDLE EASTERN:

As early as 1870 groups of people from Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan began to settle in Belize, coming mostly from Mexico, along with other Yucatecans coming to escape the Caste War. At first, they settled in the western district of Cayo, working in the chicle and logwood industries. Later they also established businesses in Belize City. Many still speak Arabic and place much value on hard work, family marriage and education.

CREOLE:

Some of the ancestors of the Creole People of the present day came from different ethnic groups in Africa, such as the Eboes, Ashantees, Congos, Mandingos, and Mongols. The Creole language developed when the Africans came in contact with the British woodcutters who were Scots, Irish and English, as a way to speak in code among themselves. The slave masters tried to keep slaves speaking the same language apart, to force them to speak English. Out of these conditions came Belize Creole, a language which differs significantly from standard English. Creole evolved as the only means of expression through which African values, proverbs, and folktales could be preserved and passed down. Today the Creole language is used throughout the country by all ethnic groups. Double negatives are allowed and repetition of adjectives like “blue blue blue” or “sweet sweet sweet” used for emphasis. Foreigners may not understand it, but will certainly enjoy its picaresque spontaneity, and rest assured that we understand you!

Written by Nelita Castillo

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