A guide to the language of Caribbean poetry

This guide by Pauline Christie is an excellent aide for anyone reading Caribbean poetry who wants a little extra insight to the language. Christie clearly explains the grammar and vocabulary of Caribbean Creole with examples from a range of poems. 

Click here to download a pdf version of this article.

​English is the official language of all the Caribbean territories which were colonized by Britain.   However, the everyday usage of most Caribbean speakers differs from Standard English (SE) to a greater or lesser degree. There is in fact a wide range of usage stretching between Standard English and what is often referred to as Patwa (Patois) or Broad Creole.  This range is sometimes described as a 'Creole continuum'.

The language of the poems

Most Caribbean poets write in both Standard English and some level of Creole, but in varying proportions. On the one hand, while most of the poems by Mervyn Morris, Edward Baugh and Lorna Goodison, for example, are entirely in Standard English, a few others are in Creole. Poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah, on the other hand, most often use language relatively close to the Broad Creole end of the continuum, although they occasionally intersperse this with a few Standard English forms and/or structures.

Since Caribbean Creole has traditionally been confined to oral use, there is no generally accepted spelling system. The spelling used is therefore largely ad hoc. Thus, a given word might be written in more than one way. Its spelling might:

  • be identical with the spelling of its English cognate, even where the Creole pronunciation is very different, for example, this for what would very likely be pronounced dis.
  • represent an attempt to reproduce the Creole pronunciation as in, for example, di 'the', mi 'me', likkl 'little', waak 'walk', gawn 'gone'.
  • combine features of Creole pronunciation with the usual spelling of the Standard English cognate, as in de 'the', bwoy 'boy', cyar 'car', dyamn 'damn', eediot 'idiot', perfec 'perfect'.
  • suggest that the writer is patterning it on that of an unrelated Standard English word which is pronounced similarly, e.g. ole 'old' (cf. SE hole), sum 'some' (cf. SE sum).
  • follow one or more long-established conventions for representing Negro speech. For example the addition of 'h' after a vowel, as in yuh 'you', soh 'so', fah 'for', nevah 'never', lettah 'letter', wahn 'want'; the use of an apostrophe which indicates that the Creole word in question lacks a sound that is represented in the spelling of its SE cognate.  See, for example, 'ave, 'have', t’ee 'three'.

It is the case that some sounds that regularly occur in SE words are consistently absent from their Creole cognates, though the spellings used by the poets do not always reflect this. They include, as well as the initial sounds of SE the, thing (replaced in the Creole by d and t respectively as in, for example, de ‘the’, ting ‘thing’) the final sound of SE singing ( replaced  in Creole by ‘n’, as in singin).

Creole Grammar

The following sketch of Creole grammar focuses on Jamaican, the most widely used of the vernaculars. Many of the features described here are shared with other Caribbean varieties.

Parts of Speech

Articles

Definite:      di (often written de
Indefinite:     wan/ a

Personal pronouns  

Singular
1st person: subject: mi/a  object: mi  possessive: mi (often written as 'me')
2nd person: subject: yu  object: yu  possessive: yu (often written as 'yuh')
3rd person: subject: (h)im  object: (h)im  possessive: (h)im 

Plural
1st person: subject: wi   object: wi  possessive: wi (often written as 'we')
2nd person: subject: yu  object: yu possessive: yu (often written as 'yuh')
3rd person: subject: dem  object: dem  possessive: dem 

It should also be noted that in ‘Dread Talk’ the variety of Creole used is associated with Rastafarians and the pronoun is used for the object as well as the subject of the sentence. This is illustrated in: Dem tings stimulate I mentally.  ‘Those things stimulate me mentally’ ('Reggae Head', Benjamin Zephaniah

Relative pronouns
dat    that
w(h)e    which
hu     who

Demonstratives
Singular
dis (ya), dis       (ya)     this
dat (de), dat      (de)     that

Plural
dem (ya), dem   (ya)    these
dem (de), dem   (de)   those

Nouns
In Creole, where a noun refers to a class of persons or things, as  such, or where it is preceded by a number or some other expression of quantity, nothing is added to indicate plurality. 

Possession
This is expressed by the simple placing of the noun/noun phrase indicating the possessor in front of the one indicating the thing possessed.      

Verbs
Broad Creole verbs do not change their form to indicate time reference (tense), number, continuous action, or passive meaning.  

Time reference (tense)

Number

Continuous action (aspect)
This is expressed by a  before the verb, or by the suffix -in(g).

Sometimes, did is placed before the verb to indicate that the action which is being referred to, took place before some other action. e.g. like dem did a wait fi mi  ‘As if they’d been waiting for me’ ('In-a Brixtan Market', James Berry)                           

Passive 

Modal auxiliaries
These include: 

  1. mos                   ‘must’
  2. kyan                  ‘can'
  3. coulda/couda     ‘could’
  4. shuda/ shoulda  ‘should’
  5. wuda/woulda      ‘would’
  6. haffi/have fe       ‘have to’
  7. maita/mite a       ‘might’
     

Prepositions
Commonly used prepositions include:

In(n)a   ‘in’ e.g. Dem put pill an potions ina me  ‘They put pills and potions in me’  ('Reggae Head', Benjamin Zephaniah)

out(a ) ‘out of’ e.g. We kick di eediot out de group  ‘We kicked the idiot out of the group’ (‘Cabal’, Mervyn Morris)

pan , pon   ‘on’ e.g. Dem lick him pan  him back  ‘They hit him on his back’ ('Sonny's Lettah', Linton Kwesi Johnson)   

a, af  ‘of’ e.g.

fahfi  /fe   ‘for’

fi   ‘to’  (before verb)

Conjunctions
These include, in addition to more commonly used forms such as an ‘and’, ar ‘or’, bot ‘but’, the following:

Cause/caw  ‘because’

do (w ) ‘although’ e.g. Dow  defeat yu kanseed  ‘Although you concede defeat’ ('If I Woz a Tap-Natch Poet', Linton Kwesi Johnson)
till, ‘until’ e.g. Still  yuh beg an yu plead till yu win a reprieve  ‘Still you beg and you plead until you win a reprieve.’ ('If I Woz a Tap-Natch Poet', Linton Kwesi Johnson)

Adverbs
Some adverbs have the same form as the corresponding adjectives.

NB. also:  deh/dey /dere 'there'                                                               

Sentence Structure 

Negation
The usual markers of negation are no,  don(t),  never/neva (with past reference).  Double negatives are frequent.                                                                                  

Note, also, that no  may combine with a, the  marker which indicates continuity, to produce naa /naw/nah.

The spelling nar in the following example is unprecedented: Dat nar stop mi.  ‘That’s not stopping me.’ ('Reggae Head', Benjamin Zephaniah)

Questions                                                                                          
The subject-verb order is preserved in questions.  Where there is a question word, for example, hu ‘who’, ‘whom’, w(h)a ‘what’, w(h)e ‘where’, this usually precedes the subject.

Adjectival predicates
Adjectives, as well as verbs, may be used as predicates in cases where SE would require a form of the verb ‘to be’  linking subject and predicate:                                               

Serial verbs                                                                                                                         
A succession of two or more verbs, at least one of which most usually expresses motion, sometimes occurs:                                                                                     

Note also sey following certain verbs and adjectives:

Repetition for emphasis                                                                                                 

  • One after the other straight straight  ‘One after the other, very straight’ ('Trick a Duppy', James Berry)
  • When smart smart  it slipped in your pocket / But duppy search search for third match stick. ‘When very smartly it slipped in your pocket / But Duppy searched hard for (a) third match stick.’ ('Trick a Duppy', James Berry)

Sentence-initial ‘Is’/’No’                                                                                                    

Causative ‘mek’                                                                                           
The verb mek (make or cause) is used as in the following:

Selected vocabulary                                                                                                          
The following are a few possibly unfamiliar words and phrases that occur in the poems:                                                                                                                              

  1. Babylan - Babylon (a nickname given to the Police by the Rastafarians of Jamaica.)
  2. backra - white man
  3. duppy - ghost
  4. ketch - catch
  5. ketch a fire - catch fire
  6. mash-up - smash
  7. massa - master
  8. peenie wallie - a kind of beetle             
  9. rack stedi - Rock Steady (a Jamaican dance)  
  10. Rastafarian - member of a Jamaican cult
  11. run-dung - a Jamaican dish
  12. Walk good - Go safely

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Glossary term

Imagery

Elements of a poem which work on the senses.

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