Learning the Caribbean Language

The Caribbean gives a certain twist to conventional English.

Illustration by Gabriel Woodham

English is not the national language of Trinidad and Tobago. Nor is it the native tongue of Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Dominica and a lot of other so-called English-speaking Caribbean islands. Guidebooks may tell you otherwise but, believe me, they’re wrong.

Don’t misunderstand me. English is the official language of these former British colonies. That’s what you’ll hear spoken in the hotels and shops. You’ll have no problem communicating with the islanders. But don’t make the mistake of believing that English is their native tongue.

For these islands have a special vocabulary. It’s a vivid collection of expressive words and phrases used by people in these parts when they don’t have to be on their best linguistic behavior. Its origins are intriguing, and these unusual words and phrases have become so interwoven with standard English that a unique Caribbean English has emerged.

However, it’s not considered “respectable”. Caribbean English is banned from classrooms where “proper” English is taught. Little boys and girls can get their knuckles rapped for using it. Nevertheless, it flourishes. It’s used by all sectors of the society as, if you listen carefully, you will hear.

Take, for example, the insights you get from the interesting and unusual use of the word foot. A regional newspaper once reported that a man had been charged in the Magistrate’s court with wounding someone in the foot, “six inches above the knee” That sounds quite impossible. As everyone knows, the foot is not above the knee, it is below the ankle.

But this seemingly ridiculous charge didn’t surprise the Magistrate or anybody else. In these islands, you see, the foot is the whole limb from the hip to the toes. Just as hand is the whole limb from the shoulder to the fingers.

And here’s the surprise. These are Old English meanings. Three hundred years ago, when Britain was carving out her empire, English colonists in these islands used the words hand and foot with exactly the same meanings as these words have in Caribbean English today.

The French, too, left footprints on the tongues of Caribbean people. An interesting example is the French word déméler, “to disentangle”, which came into Caribbean English as daymaylay. A person competent to extricate himself from a difficult situation was said to be able to daymaylay himself.

A man or woman head-over-heels in love was said to be tootoolbay. Derived from totalement bête, “a completely stupid creature”, tootoolbay perfectly describes the apparent disappearance of all common sense in the love-sick.

Caribbean English also created original words of its own. One example is the verb to lime, which originally meant to stand in the street outside somebody’s party to which one was not invited. That was “liming the fête”. Today, lime also means to sit around idly and enjoy yourself.

In the mythology of the islands, the Lajabless is a terrifying supernatural female. Deriving her name from the French la diablesse, “a female devil”, the Lajabless has a beautiful figure. Abroad at night, she wears a wide-brimmed, floppy hat which masks her face, and her long skirt hides the fact that, while one of her feet is normal, the other is a cloven hoof.

Undoubtedly, lonely wives created this myth. The story goes that some half-drunk husband, staggering home late at night, is propositioned by this seductive lady. Hand in hand, they stroll to a secluded spot at the brink of a precipice where the Lajabless lifts the brim of her hat disclosing a skull beneath. Terrified, the husband falls over the precipice and dies.

Another fearsome mythological figure in Caribbean English is the Lougarou or Lagahou. This name is derived from the French loup-garou, “a werewolf”, but the Caribbean version has special powers. The lougarou is a human who, at night, can shed his or her skin and assume the ability to fly. To get at the victim, this being can enter a room through a key-hole. But there is a sure-fire way to protect oneself. Spread a cupful of sand on your doorstep. No lougarou can get past without counting every grain. The counting will certainly take until daylight and, at that time, lougarous must re-enter their skins.

A dictionary of Caribbean English would run to several thousand words. Not to worry. Ask about words you hear but don’t understand – you’ll be sure to get explanations.

In the meantime, enjoy your lime in the Caribbean. I’m certain you’ll get tootoolbay over the islands. Don’t forget my tips about the Lajabless and the lougarou, and savour Caribbean English. It may help you to daymaylay yourself.