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A Signature of Tobagonian Speech

By Winford James
April 29, 2001

There are ways in which Tobagonians and Trinidadians are culturally similar, if not identical, and there are ways in which they are culturally different. One way in which they are similar is that they both speak the same variety of Creole English in normal daily public communication; this variety is called a mesolect. One way in which they are different is that Tobagonians speak a variety of Creole English in their normal daily private-group communication that Trinidadians do not; this variety is called a basilect. From a sociological perspective, it is interesting that Tobagonians and Trinidadians understand one another in the mesolect, but that Trinidadians do not understand Tobagonians when the latter speak the basilect.

The basilect sets Tobagonians linguistically apart from Trinidadians and in this column I will discuss one of its grammatical words that is a signature of the Tobagonian in our national sociological space. The word is a restructuring of the metropolitan English word say and I will spell it se (pronounced SEH) to show that it is a different item from its etymon or source word.

Se is a report introducer. It connects the first and second clauses of a sentence that reports a speech or a viewpoint, as in:
1) [Hi tell mi] se [hi naa come agen]. 'He told me that he wasn't coming any longer.'

2) [Mii no believe] se [hi a go marrid shi]. 'I don't believe he's going to marry her.'

3) [Hi de a hi room] se [hi a study]. 'He is in his room (ostensibly.) studying.'

4) [Hi garn home] se [hi a go du hi homewok]. 'He's gone home (ostensibly.) to do his homework.'
Each of the sentences above has two clauses (in square brackets), the first of which functions as a background for reporting a speech or a viewpoint in the next. Se stands as a one-way bridge between them to relay or report the speech or viewpoint to the hearer. The second clause contains such a speech or viewpoint. Se is a signal that the second clause complements, and depends on, the first by carrying the report; it introduces the report. It can be left out in sentences (1-2), because of the presence of the speech/point of view verbs, 'tell' and 'believe', as, e.g., in sentence (5):
5) [Hi tell mi] [hi naa come agen].

But it cannot be left out in the absence of such verbs, as, e.g., in sentence (6):

6) *[Hi de a hi room] [hi a study]. (The asterisk denotes that the sentence is ungrammatical)
The verb in the first clause of the sentence is de, which is a locating verb that translates into English as is. Se must occur in sentences like (6) (and 3-4 above) for them to be grammatical or acceptable. In the sentences in which se is obligatory, it carries the connotation of disparagement of the action of the clause introduced.

Sentence (6) can be made acceptable in the absence of se, if the subject of the first clause (hi) is not repeated in the second, as in sentence (7):
7) [Hi de a hi room] [a study].
But then, the meaning of the original sentence changes; that is, the negative connotation disappears.

Se can be replaced by that (or, more accurately, dat) in sentences (1-2), but what can it be replaced by in sentences (3-4)? The fact that it cannot be replaced by dat everywhere it occurs stamps it as an item from English that is not only restructured in sound (the vowel sound in se is shorter than the vowel sound in say), but also in grammatical function (English say is not used in the same contexts as se, and nor is that for that matter).

Se is an elegant restructuring of an English word in the contact of West Africans and British speakers of (mostly) non-standard English at the foundation of the plantation society of the New World and elsewhere.

The Caribbean lexicographer Richard Allsopp, in his Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage, labels se 'CarA', by which he means that it belongs to six or more Caribbean territories, and gives it the syntactic label connective particle. Trinidad is not included among the territories that have it. Nor does Denis Solomon, in his book The Speech of Trinidad: A Reference Grammar mention it.

I therefore take se, in its report introducing function, as one of the grammatical signatures of Tobagonian speech in Trinidad and Tobago.

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