Commentary: Caribbean expressions — By Dave Martins

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While I don’t profess to know the origins of it, I have been aware, going back to my short pants days growing up in West Dem, of my fascination with words, whether in the subjects being taught in high school at St. Stanislaus or, in later years, in the everyday conversations with folks here or across the region, ranging from Cayman in the northwest Caribbean to my homeland here.  The influence is there, clear as day, in many of the songs I wrote, drawing on the lexicons of these various destinations I came to know from my musical visits.

It remains for me a repository of information that fascinates and motivates me, both for the specificity of the languages but also for the ingenuity of the people who created it. One should also emphasise, however, that this variety in Caribbean native expressions is only evident because of our geographical separations after we travel the region and come face to face with the differences.     

The aspect that I find most astonishing is that our forefathers were never schooled in the process but simply came to the constructions on their own, and, most astonishing of all, ended up with languages that fit perfectly into our various societies, each with their own ways of life, and, in many cases, fostering original words or combinations of words that need to be explained to outsiders for them to understand.  So that, for instance, when I went to live in Grand Cayman, I would discover that what I knew as Metemgee in Guyana (or Metagee) also existed in Cayman but known there as Rundown, and that in each society our ancestors had different words for different things.

The process has left us with an array of expressions or alliterations that deal very specifically with matters across our lives, so specific in fact that very often, upon first exposure to them, we have to ask about many aspects of what we are hearing. I remain fascinated by words, partly from the sheer musicality of some of the terms, but moreso from the highly accurate information they convey, very often surpassing Standard English in the process. The Trinidad expression “mauvais langue”, for instance, from the French, and literally meaning “bad language,” conveys, instantly, to Trini speakers, that a negative attitude or prejudice is being displayed by the speaker. Or, here in Guyana, Guyanese know that to hear someone described as “hungish” means he/she is greedy and that understanding only comes from an explanation of the word by native speakers.

Over the years, travelling the region and playing music, I have come to see these Caribbean forms of expression as a remarkable repository of creation and imagination where our people have formed language that often surpasses the specificity of Standard English for some speakers, as the “mauvais langue” example cited above.  Everywhere one goes in the region, the examples abound and dialects are alive with them.  In some cases, an original word or term is in play, but it many cases the meaning of the words themselves is shifted, sometimes by repetition, to capture some other quality or aspect in the term. So we find in Guyana the term “wata wata,” which refers to a combination from the kitchen which has been made with too much water, and as I mentioned a greedy person at a gathering with an excessively full plate is labelled “hungish” – a pejorative term, for sure, but accurate.  Or, to convey how something is in short supply, we would describe it numerically as being “only one one”.

Sometimes, our native speakers are manipulating a Standard English word, as when we describe a greedy person as being “scraven” (from the word “craven”) and we frequently discard the interdental “th” so that “bath” becomes “bat”, with a broad “a”, and “thunder” becomes similarly shortened.  Our pronunciations obviously can cause confusion, even among ourselves, but in each case the listener will ultimately understand the intended meaning and proceed accordingly.

A more difficult aspect in play would be the outright original words or combinations created in our regional dialects, from north to south, so that “bassa bassa” used in Guyana, meaning “all mixed up and confused” is not something a Trini or a Bajan would understand and the positive word “tallawah”, meaning high-spirited or formidable, is a complimentary label, not used by Guyanese, but commonly among Jamaicans.  Sometimes, the term is something created by our African, French or Spanish ancestors, where a completely new word is formed, such as “conky” in Guyana, or “pelau” in Trinidad.  Sometimes we turn to the process of creating something or to the ingredients for the label.

In all this, in the midst of this language diversity to which we’re being exposed, the Caribbean sense of humour is constantly in play as we communicate with each other.  I recall some years ago a Tradewinds interaction with a roadside mango vendor in Barbados, where Clive Rosteing, our drummer, approached the lady, with her carefully laid out parcels of fruit, and in his Trini fashion, began selecting the mangoes he wanted.  When the lady intervened, “No, no, no, skipper. You can’t just pick what you want,” Clive, typical Trini, not missing a beat, waved some dollars: “So you’re picking for me? Well try pick the money out of my pocket.” And he walked away.

Caribbean dialect… ah love it.

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Comments

  • Francis Q. Farrier  On October 8, 2020 at 10:58 am

    Hi Dave; have you ever heard any other Caricom citizen say, “Presently, now?” as Guyanese do? I have been to EVERY CARICOM country but since you have also widely travelled, I’m checking whether it is said and I’ve missed it, “Presently, now.”

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