[Caribbean Literature]

Polyrhythm and the Caribbean: Language

In the introduction to his Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage, Richard Allsopp charts the difficulties and problematics of lexiconography in the Anglophone Caribbean. One challenge he must reconcile is the diversity of forms (dialects) of English found within the Caribbean. Here he charts how the English of certain islands developed separately from that of the Caribbean at large. --DPL

Richard Allsopp on Inter-Island Linguistic Diversity

Territorial Distinctions

Whereas Canadian English and Australian English, benefiting from the single land-mass of their respective homelands, can each claim general homogeneity, Caribbean English is a collection of sub-varieties of English distributed, as the list in the previous essay shows, over a large number of non-contiguous territories of which two, Guyana and Belize, are widely distant parts of the South and Central American mainland. Their history, both pre- and post-Columbian, joins with their geography to further complicate the language picture in the territories covered in this work.

Through Guyana came hundreds of nouns, necessary labels of an 'active' ecology, from the languages of its aboriginal indigenes of the nine identified ethnic groups, two Arawakan -- Arawak (Lokono) and Wapishana; six Cariban -- Akawaio, Arekuna, Makushi, Patamuna, Carib, Wai-Wai; and one Warrau. (Information from W. Edwards, Amenndian Languages Project, University of Guyana.) From these sources Guyanese have scores of names of commercial timbers -- mora, crabwood karapa, simarupa, tauronira, wamara, wallaba, etc.; fishes -- arapaima, hai- mara, paku, yarrow, perai; birds -- curri-curri, powis, sacki, etc.; animal life -- abouya, labba, maipuri, yawarri, etc.; everyday life -- matapee, tacouba, warishi, etc.; pests and crawling things -- kabaura fly, acoushi ants, labaria snake, camoodi, etc. This is a vocabulary that amounts to hundreds of everyday words known to Guyanese but not to other Caribbeans.

In the same way through Belize come words from the three Mayan languages -- Kekchi, Mopan, Yucatecan; and from the Miskito Indian language; and from Garifuna, the Afro-Island-Carib language of Vincentian ancestry. Therefore again much Belizean everyday vocabulary -- craboo, gibnut, waika, wari-tick, wowla, ziricote, dugu ceremony, and scores of Central American Spanish loan-words -- habanero, panades, relleno, tamales, punta, etc. -- all these are generdly unknown to the rest of the Caribbean, yet many can suddenly come to regional attention, for example through literature such as Zee Edgell's Beka Lamb.

Taino, Tupi and other Carib and Arawak remainders also survive isolated in some Caribbean islands -- bacha, boutou, colibri, titiri, zandoli, etc. They are similarly unknown, except by chance, in the wider Caribbean. One of the jobs of this book [Allsopp's Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage] is to make one package of as many as possible such disparate items of Caribbean English, showing them to be of equal status with those more widely known -- agouti, barbecue, mauby, canoe, manioc, etc. and scores of fruit -- avocado, guava, papaya, sapodilla, etc.

In the post-Columbian era the settlement history of St Lucia (which changed political ownership no fewer than fourteen times between the English and French) and to a lesser extent of Dominica, Grenada and Trinidad, has left a powerfully operative vocabulary of Francophone loans, diminishing in presence in the order given, it is true, but 'powerful' because it includes adjectives, verbs and many elements in idioms. Some examples have been given in the list of areas of 'Content' in the previous essay, but the actuality of literature is always more convincing. As example, in Roderick Walcott's play The Banjo Man (pub. I976) he gives his characters typical lines of St Lucian English with free inmixes of French Creole. Thus

ADOLPHUS: Bring some [anisette] let me goutez.

You know well Pascal is mamapoule, coquade that cannot even talk, making 'baa-baa' like cabritte.

Now remember as Magistrat, anybody who behave bad have to pay a fine of one pound to me. So gardez cor-ou.

MA STANIO: So who'll give mépuis for us now? Who going to give joke, and beat tamboo?

And you too old to get jalou, Pappa . . . Is old malfinis that prefer young chicken.

That story fini, Pappa.


As these samples will show, this aspect of Caribbean English presents a problem in the quantity of French Creole loans in free operation especially in St Lucia, so that a limitation, to a large extent subjective, had to be put on their selection for entry into this Dictionary. Differences in settlement history have made for differences in the present-day English of the Caribbean territories in another way. St Lucia and Dominica (where the French cultural presence has been kept far more alive by their proximity to Martinique and Guadeloupe respectively) have marked similarities in their English at all levels. Grenada and Trinidad with only the older 'French Revolution' French connections may also be paired as to their English. For the same reason there are many lexical and other differences between Trinidadian and Tobagonian English, Tobago having had no French influence. Tobago, Guyana and Antigus, on the other hand, have notable linguistic similarities surfacing out of their Anglophone Creoles. For reasons such as these Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada and Carriacou, St Vincent and The Grenadines, St Kitts and Nevis, must be treated in linguistic terms as they are in this Dictionary, as ten separately identified linguistic areas, notwithstanding and fully respecting the political reality that they are five nations.

Again, Dutch ownership or presence in Guyana for nearly two centuries (1621-1803) has left marked lexical influence on its low-lying Holland-type coastal landscape, and Roman Dutch Law also on the legal vocabulary of plantation land tenure, with terms unknown elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Danish ownership (1672-1917) of today's US Virgin Islands, admittedly with an early and lasting presence of Dutch planters and missionaries, and later of American traders, has left Danish place-names and a few words, together with many traces of Dutch in the present English of those islands.

Irish influence, through the early 'barbadoesing' (a unique place-name verb in the English language) of post-Cromwellian bond-servants and their being quartered next to slaves, played the particular role of distinguishing Barbadian pronunciation of English; and ultimately from that base Irish English played a wider lexical role, especially in idiomatic input, in general Caribbean English.


Allsopp, Richard, editor. Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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