January 31, 2006
Dock Ants and Turkles - Bocas English
Any idea what a "dock ant" might be? As in "De dock ants dem ya eat de ud plenty."? Well, something that looks like an ant and walks around your dock and eats wood. A termite!
This is just one example of the continuous joy of discovering more and more about one of my favorite languages -- The Bocas variety of Jamaican Creole English, locally known as Guari Guari. There are actually two varieties -- one is spoken exclusively on Isla Bastimentos, and the other everywhere else.
It's very simple english, with very little grammar, various spanish words mixed in, and some strange pronounciation exceptions. It is used mostly for everyday conversations and work -- Man Hing and Emiliano are amazingly efficient at using it to communicate work-related ideas. This ranges from an easily understandable "Go where de tree top com down and mash op de plants dem and clean dem and fix dem op." to a more context specific "Him supposed to reach" ("I think that board is long enough"). But as soon as things get more complicated (for example, when discussing how to fix the generator or how to enroll kids in school) they switch to spanish.
Vocabulary is very limited, but used in very ingenious ways... For example, the word "mash op" is used very frequently... partly because of a rather liberal definition of what it means, and partly, because, well, there is plenty of things that can get mashed op, such as wood taken to poorly maintained saw mills with incompetent operators, coral when driven or paddled over, sweet potatoes or boiled plantains, saplings when a giant tree falls on them, small trees in the nursery when leaves fall on them, recently planted tomatos when the dogs play in them, etc. The spanish translation, intestingly, sounds a bit similar "machucar".
Another favorite word is "reach". It is used all the time, in diffent contexts; for example "She no reach?" or "I want to aks im when i reach dat side".
This takes us to some pronounciation peculiarities -- "ask" becomes "aks", but "school" stays "school". "tl" becomes "kl" as in "turkle" and "likle" (which then becomes "liki", as in "liki bos" = mini van")
After spending a while in bocas, you catch yourself using some of the rather unusual vocabulary. For example, the word "molest" is incredibly useful... it is used to mean "to bother, to disrupt, to be in the way" etc. Pretty close to "stoeren" in german. English doesn't have a good translation, and it is a very useful word....
In the same category is "mind", as in "Mind you fall" or "dere have shoal, mind you mash op de coral". By the time you somebody says "Be careful not to slip and fall" it's usually too late...
One of my all time favorite quotes: "Dem aks plenty questions. Only ting que falta is dem aks you how you lie down wid you wife". Roberto was refering to a census team from the UN that came through the area a while back... Another good one: "How you umen?" "She plenty sick." "What happen?" "She have rocks in she liver." (gall stones - they eventually came out and she is fine now).
The dock ant example illustrates how closely tied the language is to the life style and the environment... take, for example, the following definition of a chisel: "Dat ting you use when have hole in boat, knock wid hammer". De boats dem use have plenty soft part where com in wodah. To fix you mos take ot de soft ud dat spoil and den shov a timber in dere wid pegamento for fill de hole.
Next story dat plenty fonny: Have plenty time me see in de mapa have place dem call "Hope Well". It right where Buena Esperanza. (ok ok ok enough... see how certain things ca only be expressed properly in standard english?)
I only recently I made the connection -- Even though "Hope Well" was most likely named after a well (e.g. a spring) probably belonging to someone named "Hope", this got lost in translation, and became "Buena Esperanza" -- Good Hope.
But I digress, to the local spanish, which deserves its own separate writeup.