A regular Source feature, Undercurrents slips below the surface of Virgin Islands daily routines and assumptions to explore in greater depth the beauty, the mystery, the murky and the disregarded familiar in a bid to get to know the community more deeply.
When’s the last time you heard someone call out “Inside!” to announce his presence outside your home? Has it been “donkey years”?
Do Virgin Islanders still “make birthday” or has everyone started to “have” them instead?
If you say “Good night” are you greeting people upon arrival, or are you preparing to go to bed?
In separate interviews recently, Vincent Cooper, professor of English and Linguistics at the University of the Virgin Islands, and Gilbert Sprauve, UVI professor emeritus, linguist and former V.I. senator, reflected on the changing language in the Virgin Islands.
“There’s no such thing as a pure dialect,” Cooper said.
It’s a fundamental to keep in mind. There are just too many influences on language. What we think of as the traditional way of speaking in the West Indies “is closely tied to agriculture.” But in recent generations people have been moving from country to town, and little by little they are leaving behind some of the dialect.
Or, as Sprauve said about common V.I. expressions, “I think a good many of them are associated with another way of life.”
Early in the last century, a lot of speech rose out of the semi-communal living of families housed around and sharing the “Big Yard.” Language develops out of needs and reflects the resources available and the limitations people face.
If you wanted to preserve the privacy of people living together in close proximity in homes largely open to catch the breeze, you might call out to the folks inside to announce your presence. Today, if the windows are locked and air conditioning is running, they may not hear you; better pull out your cell and give a call.
New concepts and new technologies result in new terms added to the language. But so do “new” people. The steady migration of Caribbean peoples to the Virgin Islands – many speaking Spanish or French - sped up considerably beginning in the 1960s, as did the flow of “continentals” or “statesiders” bringing versions of standardized English. Even Caribbean islanders who shared pretty much the same English with Virgin Islanders, brought a few expressions exclusive to their home islands.
At the same time, both Sprauve and Cooper observed, generations have started to lose their closeness. Children and young adults once spent hours listening to Grandma’s stories.
“That has diminished significantly” Cooper said. “If people are dying (without this kind of interaction) the language will too.”
“All those things are taking their toll on language use,” Sprauve said.
“It’s a psychological process that takes place unconsciously” Cooper said.
Terms and expressions move into a language often with the speakers totally unaware of their origin. For instance, the common West Indies practice of forming a plural by adding “dem” to the end of a word, as in “man-dem” actually can be found in Irish and English sources from the 19th century.
As recently as the 1960s, Cooper said, “mama” and “papa” from the Dutch Creole still ruled in the Virgin Islands; now they are almost replaced by “daddy” and “mommy.”
Then, there’s the new “mommy” – a term of deference used for an older woman, generally one who is not well known to the speaker. That use, Cooper said, seems to have been introduced by Spanish-speakers and has been gaining traction the past 15 years or so.
Meanwhile, thanks to a technologically interconnected world, V.I. youths are also picking up expressions from rap artists and adding texting shorthand to their vocabularies, Cooper said.
At the same time, some of the old terms and expressions are being dropped because they have lost their meaning.
“There are quite a number of lexical items that are not likely to be understood by youth or by a person from elsewhere,” Sprauve said, adding that many of the expressions he grew up with are seldom used today.
Just for fun, he shared a number of them. Check the list below to see how many you know. Then click on the link to read his definitions.
Getting the Reeling(s)
Lappy ass years
Loff (or luff)
Pushin Lockhart’s bread cart
For definitions of these words, click here.