An academic has just published the first known dictionary dedicated solely to the branch of English known as Caribbean. But the pioneering work, which has taken almost 25 years to compile, is out-of-date almost as soon as it hits bookshops because Caribbean English is not static.
According to Richard Allsopp, who compiled the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage while teaching at the University of the West Indies, the lexicography was the inevitable result of the failure of imported British and American dictionaries to address the questions of linguistic "norms" in the region.
The dictionary covers more than 20,000 words and phrases, many differing from standard English. Some are easily understood such as "like you vex" (you seem to be annoyed); others are far harder to penetrate. There is no one English spoken throughout the 18 territories from Guyana in South America through the Anglophone Caribbean islands to the Bahamas and further round to Belize in Central America. Vocabulary, meaning and idiom vary considerably.
Drawing data from sources such as song lyrics and recorded interviews at teacher workshops, Professor Allsopp, born in Guyana, designed a system of labelling which provides four levels of identification from Creole to Formal and with labels to denote social or grammatical register. "Matters as simple as spelling are often conjectural for the same item in the same country," he explains. "I am providing a common reference."
Professor Allsopp's wife Jeannette, also an academic, adds an English-French- Spanish supplement which provides foreign language equivalents for flora and fauna listed in the main work.
Professor Allsopp gives particular focus to Indic and French Creole-loan words and views his work as a potential cultural agent. "Some words, when shown to have an African language pedigree or an archaic English pedigree, will serve to enlighten the user or the critic to the heritage of the West Indies - that's all I can hope."