[Caribbean Literature]

Polyrhythm and the Caribbean: Language

Symbolizing a great stride towards widening traditional notions of English, Richard Allsopp's Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage includes a massive number of words not found in traditional English dictionaries. Where do these words come from? Although many words in the Anglophone Caribbean have their source in the influence of different imperial powers clashing together (as in St. Lucia, which went back and forth between French and British control at least fourteen times), Allsopp looks elsewhere for roots of this version of English. In particular, he parallels Kamau Brathwaite's work in culture by locating Africa as a prime source in the development of Caribbean English. --DPL

Richard Allsopp on Diversity of Linguistic Roots

The Work As A Cultural Agent

As a cross-referencing exercise in the labelling of the Caribbean ecology and the idioms of the regional life-style, as a record, through the large availability of citations of the sameness-with-differences in the historical and social background to the wide spread of Caribbean literature, Caribbean lexicography is equipped to function as a cultural agent. No different in this regard from other non-British regional dictionaries when they emerged at landmark times in their nations' history -- Webster's in the USA in I828, the Dictionary of Canadian English in I967, the Australian National Dictionary in I988 -- the DCEU should be an inward and spiritual operator of regional integration even more powerful as a signal of unity than a national flag would be. The design of the dictionary therefore seeks to answer at least some important needs at the material level of inter-territorial data for schools, at the academic level of areal linguistic information, and at the executive level of mutual neighbourly knowledge of regional states. If this work helps, as it indeed can, to break down insular barriers, set up bridges and link up cultural roadways through the Anglophone Caribbean for a start, it will have served ultimately its highest purpose.

Related to its regional function there is an even stronger call on, and, one hopes, an equally strong response from the work as a cultural agent. The weight of evidence supplied in this work should provide sufficient ground to build Caribbean pride to replace the earlier colonial shame- facedness and inhibitions bedevilling this region. The great value of the etymological investigations recorded is their demonstration that although the dialects of the British Isles (and Wright's English Dialect Dictionary has been my major authority) have played a predictable part in the development of Caribbean English, the linguistic and social forces originating particularly in sub-Saharan Africa have also played a striking part in that development; so striking indeed as to raise the question whether their influence has not been much greater. Later and to a much lesser extent forces from the Indic sub-continent and a little from southern China add their share.

[Allsopp thus notes the important, and previously ignored fact, that the language (and culture) of the Caribbean springs not just from the conqueror, but from surviving remnants of the tradition and spirit of the conquered civilization.]

With the Chinese input I am wholly unequipped to deal, but the little I have done with help from my friend John Tjon-A-Yong of Guyana, earlier cursory contacts made at Ohio State University in I970, and later at the SOAS (London) through Hazel Carter, suggests that scholarly rewards await investigations into Chinese loans -- only a few nouns have been detected so far -- in Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica.

The expansion of the Indic sub-culture in the mainstream of Caribbean culture is, however, relatively on a much larger scale and wider spread, especially in the Eastern Caribbean, and this is reflected in the Dictionary. By expository glosses of the names of Hindu and Muslim religious festivals, ceremonies and related items and expressions, customs, foods, domestic items, apparel, etc., that have become or are becoming part of the everyday life of Guyana and Trinidad (and are spreading northward in the region) the work cuts a path, for the first time routinely available, towards a necessary understanding and cultural integration of the East Indian West Indian. In gathering information in this exercise I was much assisted by Kuntie Ramdat in Guyana and Patricia Lalla-Aquing in Trinidad. The Hindu sub-culture is, however, massively Bhojpuri and the etymological explanations of this cousin dialect of Hindi and of Perso-Arabic are owed to Satesh Rohra (University of New Delhi on loan to University of Guyana) and Peggy Mohan (Howard University). Here again there is a huge demand for scholarly investigations into the Indo-Creole cultural and linguistic syncretisms in Guyana and Trinidad. Such work would be both enlightening and fraternally valuable especially in those countries, indeed in many other places.

However, as indicated earlier, above all others it is sub-Saharan African 'talk' that emerges in this work as the sharpest, if so far unacknowledged or even rejected, influence on today's Caribbean English 'talk'. It is wrong to seek, as answer, the number of 'African' loan-words. Given the grim social history of the Caribbean they are both misleadingly few and generally of low status: bassa-bassa, jook, kokobe, kongkongsa, nyam, obeah, wunna, yabba, etc. They are utterly swamped by British and American standard words (even if with shifted usage) and dialectal items. Indeed, the fact that even Indic loan-words, after a mere century and a half, are more readily available and in such respectable domains as those listed in the preceding paragraph, itself indicates that a loan-word count is not a valid way to demonstrate the Afro-Caribbean cultural presence.

For a better start let the reader look at items like cut-eye, hard-ears, suck-teeth, etc. -- Caribbean compounds of English words as labels of Caribbean particularities of behaviour for which the etymological explana- tions are found in African languages. They are folk-translations, in word and deed, of African cultural 'modes'. Everyday phrases, too, such as You do well!, let your hand drop, got to call somebody aunt/uncle, pick up your foot/heels and run, run your mouth, etc. are ways of putting things calqued or 'copy-translated' from one or other, sometimes several sub-Saharan African languages. These idioms reflect an African life-view and there are hundreds of them surviving in Caribbean English, far more than could have been suspected when I first submitted my idiom checklist for comment by African native speakers.

Moreover many aspects of Caribbean life -- foods, festivals, ceremonies, beliefs, practices related to births, marriages, cures, burials, etc. have a massive vocabulary which is sometimes suggestively African --

dokunu; jonkunu; queh-queh; pukumina; saraca; etc.

sometimes clearly Anglophone --

stay-home soup; Carnival; big-drum dance; Nation dance; tie- heads; bush-bath; etc.

sometimes a mixture of both --

bake bammy for somebody; kaisonian; comfa-dance; Ras- tafarianism; to obeah somebody; etc.

In most cases there are related idiomatic expressions, and, especially in the case of festivals and beliefs, there is always a whole glossary of terms and idioms only some of which are recorded in this Dictionary. In every case, by unemotive, expository glossing, cautious etymological references and sometimes footnote cross-referencing, the work has tried to sensitize the reader to the reality, nature and dimensions of the Caribbean's African background, and to invite investigative intelligence to dislodge the old programmed contempt for Black African cultures.

[Allsopp again comments on the submerged bias that has prevented scholars from investigating non-western roots of Caribbean culture.]

I have only scratched the surface and found that scholarly research into the linguistics, particularly the pragmatics of the African background to Caribbean language in general has a boundless domain to explore. For these investigations have given two more, and significant indications, further strengthened when the huge domain of proverbs (of which I have used very few as illustrative citations) is added. First, in regard to Caribbean language in general, it can be demonstrated many times over that the structure and sense of a Caribbean Anglophone basilectal/mesolectal Creole idiom or proverb parallel those of a Francophone Caribbean Creole idiom or proverb. Thus for example --

koupé zié: [to] cut [your] eye [at somebody]

lafen ka tjenbé mwen: hunger holds me

ou ni djèl-kabwit: you have goat-mouth

zié-yo fè kat: their eyes make four

zòwèy-li wèd: his ears [are] hard


The significant point here is that neither are the French Creole structures modelled on Standard French idiomatic or other structures nor are the Anglophone Creole structures modelled on Standard English structures. Nor can they in fact have been modelled on each other. Their identical structure can only be accounted for by their having a common ancestor. The etymological data in this Dictionary show all the Anglophone Creole expressions in the right-hand column (and scores of others like them) to be of African linguistic origin, hence the 'common ancestor' must be the same, that is an Afncan way of putting things originating in African sub-Saharan languages, the Niger-Congo family of languages.

The consequent and second point is that these pervasive parallels send a strong message of genetic relationship among the sub-Saharan African languages, a message from the Caribbean of a oneness of African cultures from the Akan to the Zulu.


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

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