Caribbean Culture: DIALECT LEXICON – by Dave Martins + Videos

DIALECT LEXICON by Dave Martins- Credits Stabroek News

Dave Martins

Among the many things I discovered after migrating to Toronto in the late 1950s was the value of the Guyanese dialect I had grown up with; something in fact that I had been made to feel ashamed of in my homeland, a condition not unique to me. In Canada, in passing conversation with Canadians, and particularly in later years at a university journalism course, I had learned, in linguistic studies, that our dialect chat was a vibrant, reasoned means of communication, and indeed, in many social encounters, it was often the best way for Guyanese to communicate.     

The value of the dialect, in other words, had come clear in my mind and consequently this new awareness was operating in the music I started writing for Tradewinds – I drew on it continuously in the songs and in the introduction to songs like COPYCATS and BOYHOOD DAYS (See Videos below), explaining our terms to the Canadians in our audiences. It is something, in fact, that has expanded over the years so that I do a lot of it now, wherever I perform, as I have to come to see that audiences enjoy it.

This past week, I noticed an item on Facebook where a similar train of thought in one of the posts was discussing various Guyanese words and sayings, often treating them humourously, leading to other readers contributing items to the gaff. I even mentioned one myself. This is all to make the point today – I have made it before in various situations, regarding the very powerful tool we have in our Caribbean dialects – the situation I described above in Guyana has also produced trenchant communication tools across the region, terms we Guyanese have to learn when we go there.

I learned, for example, when I moved to Cayman in the 1980s that the colloquial word “battie” that Guyanese use to refer to the buttocks is unknown there; they have their own word, “bonkay”, to refer to that part of the anatomy, and in fact, probably stemming from the sexual connotation, it is not considered a polite word there, just as the Guyanese version is in Guyana. To digress for a minute, when I started writing an annual Cayman comedy show in the mid-1980s, I used the word “bonkay” in a script and two of the Caymanian actors in the show were offended. “I not going on stage and say that,” one of the actresses told me, and while she later relented, it shows how powerfully these words of our own making can affect us.

Fundamentally, here today, I am preaching, as I’ve done before, for the appreciation of this strong, precise, colourful communication tool we have and I am pleased that the University of Guyana is now offering courses on it. I remain particularly fond of the words and phrases that are unique to us, and in fact often require explanation to someone who is not Guyanese. I recall, for instance, returning to Guyana with my first wife, Dorothy, a Canadian, in the 1970s, and on a visit to my aunts’ house at Hague, where I was born, I turned to see her, mouth agape, at the Indian lady living next door to my aunts, who had come to see me and was jabbering away in Guyanese dialect.

I had had the same experience with Canadians in Toronto over certain words I would use that I would have to explain. “Scraven” was one I recall producing the “whaddya mean?” enquiry, and my use of the word “wutless” got the same reaction. (Indeed, as I type this, the spell check just changed the word making it read “witless”; I had to reject the correction.”) I recall a guy at Hague speaking about a friend of his who had gone to Parika in the morning and by afternoon had not returned. He said, “Wherever he is, he must be fasten.” Think about it – what an imaginative expression.

My affection here is inborn. I have been fascinated with words since my school days and remember some exchanges with foreign teachers in my time at Saints on that subject. What other persons saw as “bad grammar” or “not English”, I saw as the powerful instinctive expressions they were, something to be later sanctified by my linguistics professor in Canada. I have come to see “the Hague dialect”, the name I gave to my linguistics paper in Toronto, as something of value, something to be proud of as a gift our ancestors gave us.

The expression, “doan kay damn”, for instance, meaningless to outsiders, immediately describes a trait to the Guyanese listener, as does the word “ruction”. When we ask somebody in a crowded place to “dress down” we had better be sure he/she is not a foreigner as to that person it would sound like an insult. I know that to be true, because I got that reaction when I made that request on the subway in Canada, and I ended up apologizing to the lady and explaining.

Similarly, our expression “mek yuhself small”: dialect speakers hear it differently from other folks and each country in the region has its own verbiage. Of course, many of them can be humourous – “reverse back” for instance, or puzzling, like “boxes” which means “something extra” here but Jamaicans don’t know that word; they say “brawta”, same meaning. Dialects in the Caribbean all carry these wonderful variations. In Trinidad, something weak or having no impact, is “paypsy” whereas Guyanese may say “wash out”. We say “bradar” for some kind of expansive or boasting behaviour; Jamaicans say that person is “talawah” – that’s the name they gave their T20 team. Both Guyanese and Trinis say “reverse back”, but only in St. Vincent will you hear the word “treetree” referring to the tiny fish in their rivers.

I hope there is a book someday in this country for all these wonderful expressions and unique words we use without thinking. A classic example was the legendary Forbes Burnham. On one occasion, speaking at a street rally before a big crowd in Georgetown, he paused after a sentence, and in the following silence, a man riding by on a bicycle, shouted out “Burnham”. Without hesitation, LFSB leaned into the microphone and said, “Mister Burnham to you, boy. You have no broughtupcy.” A non-Guyanese in the audience would have had to turn and ask, “Broughtupcy? What’s that?” Speaking outside the country, the President would have answered differently. In the homeland he was talking to the home folks in their own parlance. The dialect lexicon; in its place, it is king.

Video: THE TRADEWINDS – Copycats

Video: THE TRADEWINDS – Boyhood Days

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  • walter  On 02/09/2019 at 11:23 am

    When I started working for a large American manufacturing Company in Canada, part of my job required me communicating with the engineers in Chicago. I would of course slip into my Guyanese dialect, and get lots of “Hold on did not catch that” initially. Of course after a time they would start using some of the terms and I finally pointed it out to them. They admitted getting used to the efficiency of the abbreviation. I never lost mine, though sometimes in mixed company, my kids would have to “rein” me in. Very good read, Dave still got it.

  • Trevor  On 02/09/2019 at 2:12 pm

    Tradewinds man you oughta protect the copyright of your works before the half-Jew hip hop artists from Canada appropriate your work and make millions.

    Funny how you mentioned that it was a shame to speak Creolese in the Eurocentric countries, but since every Hip Hop man is jumping the Jamaican bandwagon, even the 8 years suburban middle class white girl wants to emulate Jamaican accents.

    BTW we Guyanese speak more similarly to French speaking Trinis and Surinamese, but borrowing Jamaican slang and using it as our own. Jamaicans have a louder and more clearer voice than us who speak almost similar to Londoners and Holland people combined. We also join words together to make compound words, just as the Germans, words such as “bottomhouse”, etc.

    Our accent isn’t different compared to Surinamese and French Guianese, except for Language.

  • Trevor  On 02/09/2019 at 2:15 pm

    Berbice has a clearer history of African slaves using their native African languages and Dutch to form what is now an extinct language, Berbice Dutch creolese. They don’t teach this in schools, but emulate America’s social ills,

  • Trevor  On 02/09/2019 at 2:17 pm

    Hey, Dutch man and (((Rod Henson))) of Exxon-Mobil, remember this? My ancestors would have confronted your ancestors for treating us like animals in your Jewish owned plantations:

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