SXM Book Fair June 2-4

Recently an interesting book was published by native Saban Theodore “Teddy/Ted” Johnson on the English dialect spoken in Saba. The book – A Lee Chip: A Dictionary & Study of Saban English – is the first time the Saban dialect has been fully documented with regard to its vocabulary, grammatical structure and pronunciation.

The main part of the book includes an extensive dictionary on the Saban dialect, which was compiled by Johnson starting in 1998 while he was still residing in the Netherlands.

"I was inspired to start collecting words and phrases from Saba when my late uncle Eric Johnson and his wife Wilda Johnson were visiting Wilda's brother Milton in the city of Alkmaar. During one of our conversations, I heard a phrase that I hadn't heard from when I was growing up in Saba. At that moment, I realized that our dialect was something very special and needed to be preserved for future generations," Theodore told WEEKender.

What started out as a hobby gradually grew into a collection of words, phrases and sayings of over 200 pages. Many Sabans living in Saba and abroad were interviewed over the years and helped to form the body of the collection. Theodore also reviewed dictionaries from other islands in order to expand his collection since the English dialect on Saba has a lot of words in common with other islands, as part of internationally recognized Caribbean English.

"I was able to glean a lot of information from the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage by Richard Allsopp (Oxford University Press 1996), which was compiled by the late Professor Allsopp and a team from the University of the West Indies. This book has a wonderful collection of words and phrases. However, it did not include Saba, Statia or St. Maarten, which further inspired me to create more awareness of the English dialects used in these three islands," the writer added.

Besides interviews and dictionaries, he also reviewed the Saba Herald (a monthly newspaper published from 1968-1993), and some interviews that were collected in the late 1960's in a book entitled Saba Silhouettes that was published by the late Julia Crane, an anthropologist from the University of North Carolina. Crane also published a similar book, Statia Silhouettes, with interviews of native Statians.

The dictionary contains roughly three main categories of words and phrases with several overlapping sub-categories.

The first category contains words and phrases that are no longer current in English as internationally accepted today. Some examples in this category are barra (local pronunciation of "barrow" meaning a castrated boar), chamber (bedroom), let (leave or abandon), man o’ war (warship), rear-mouse (bat) and spyglass (a pair of binoculars).

Another category that can be distinguished is words and phrases used in Saba but also in other Caribbean islands and territories. Johnson mentioned that obviously you can have words used throughout the Caribbean but also words that will only be heard in certain islands or areas. For example, the word boot meaning fine, which comes from the Dutch word “boete” can be heard in the Dutch Windward Islands, in the US Virgin Islands and in San Nicolas English in Aruba, but nowhere else. Some examples of words heard throughout the Caribbean but also used in Saba are coal pit (a large pit containing green timber burnt to create charcoal), mauger (skinny or thin), Old Year’s Night (New Year’s Eve), stupidness (nonsense) and woodslave (gecko).

The third main category of words and phrases found in the book are those unique to Saba, e.g., guavahorse (a walking stick insect), jilly (slime from a spoiled tuber), knock your hoe off the handle (to stop working for the day), macaw (red-tailed hawk), scraper (a locally made garden tool to clean out weeds and loosen dirt from around plants) and wad (head cushion for carrying burdens on the head).

The book also contains two chapters on grammar and pronunciation of Saban English written by Caroline Myrick, a linguist at the department of English Linguistics at North Carolina State University, whose maternal great-grandparents were from Saba.

"We got in contact several years ago and decided to team up in order to create a full study of Saban English that would be interesting to the layman but also to someone in the field of language studies and/or education," explained Johnson.

The chapter on grammar will give the reader a good idea of different grammatical usages which are not considered Standard English. Many examples are given to the reader, some of which are very uncommon in Standard English and others that are typically heard in other Caribbean English dialects, such as St. Maarten/St. Martin English.

In Saban English, a habitual action will often have an “s” added, e.g., We walks a lot in the mountain instead of “We walk a lot in the mountain.” You will also notice that the past perfect tense (had + past tense verb) is often used for simple past (one-time and/or permanent) events, e.g., He had gone to the Windwardside to pick up the boxes rather than “He went to the Windwardside to pick up the boxes.” Sabans also tend to use a lot of double adjectives instead of the standard “very + adjective” form, e.g., “Man, he got a good, good price” or “That car is red, red.”

In order to create more awareness of the Saban dialect, while at the same time promoting a similar extensive project for Statia and St. Maarten and more recognition for the dialects spoken there, the authors will be giving a lecture on each island next week. They will be holding a lecture on Saba this Monday, May 30, at the Eugenius Johnson Center in Windwardside starting at 7:00pm.

A St. Maarten lecture will be held at Philipsburg Jubilee Library on Wednesday, June 1, starting at 6:00pm, and finally one in Statia at the Caribbean Netherlands Science Institute on Thursday, June 2, starting at 6:00pm.

Johnson will also be attending the St. Martin Book Fair at University of St. Martin on Saturday, June 4. The general public is cordially invited to attend these lectures and the presentation of the book during the book fair.

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