Two areas of Guyanese Grammar

Linking verb or copula

All of the Guyanese sentences below will translate into an English sentence containing a form of BE. In these examples, that form is the verb is. Look closely and you will find three ways by which the Guyanese sentences do the same job as the English BE. See if you can find those three ways.

  1. Joo a wan dakta                            (Joe is a doctor)
  2. Joo de pan tap a di hous tap      (Joe is up on the roof)
  3. Joo pan di hous tap                        ( Joe is up on the roof)
  4. Joo honggrii                                       (Joe is hungry)

For sentence (1), English BE (in the form of is) translates into Guyanese a.

Sentence (2) has two options in Guyanese: some speakers use de, others use nothing and sometimes we use both ways.

English BE translates into nothing, zero, in the case of sentence (4). And zero can have a value in language.

Three ways of doing the same job?!  Sometimes we use a, sometimes de, and sometimes nothing. Looks like anything goes.

Well, not so fast. Let’s take a closer look. Can we switch them up? Can we use de or a in front of hongrii? Can we use de in front of wan dakta? Or a in front of pan (tap) di hous tap? Try to switch them and you will find that the result is an ungrammatical Guyanese sentence.

So why did we get ungrammatical results? The answer is that these three sentences have three different kinds of predicates and the Guyanese rule requires a different “linking verb” for each of the three kinds of predicates. (English requires just the one linking verb, the verb BE (in one of its six forms: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.)

In sentence (a), the predicate is a Noun Phrase; in sentence (b), the predicate is a Preposition Phrase indicating a location; and in (c), the predicate is an Adjective Phrase. (Note that phrases can contain just one word or they can be several words long. Consider these two examples: Joo a dakta and Joo honggrii baad baad.)

Why do we have two ways of translating ‘Joe is up on the roof’? Well, some speakers who have had more exposure to English may become self-conscious about using words that are obviously different from English. The word de is one such case. It marks the speaker as a genuine Creolese speaker. By dropping de, some feel they are using a more English form of speaking.


Number-marking: Does Guyanese Dem mark plural Nouns?

Examine the use of dem in the sentences below. The English translations would require the plural –s. Can we add dem to all of the noun phrases below? Does Jaan dem mean ‘several Johns’? Why is dem not allowed in three of these sentences?

  1. Di buk dem faal dong                    (‘The books fell’)
  2. Di tuu buk dem faal dong             (‘The two books fell’)
  3. Mi buk dem faal dong                    (‘My books fell’)
  4.  Mi invait Jaan dem                         (‘I’ve invited John and the others’)


  1. Tuu buk faal dong                            (‘Two books fell’)
  2. Nof buk faal dong                             (‘Many books fell’)  
  1. Da shap a sel buk                              (‘That shop sells books’)


You may have noticed that dem comes after definite Noun Phrases (di buk, di tuu buk, mi buk, Jaan). It doesn’t come after indefinite Noun Phrases (tuu buk, nof buk) nor those with non-specific reference (buk). The challenge is to find an explanation for these facts. Why should dem be restricted to definite noun phrases? Why is *tuu buk dem ungrammatical?

 One writer (Stewart 2011) would argue that languages such as Jamaican and Guyanese are not number-marking languages. She argues that what we mark with the use of dem is “inclusiveness” (belonging to a group); that inclusiveness is a feature of definiteness and that plural is just part of the meaning of “inclusiveness”, that is, being part of a group implies plural.

(Note: Inclusiveness and/or exclusiveness is marked in many non-European languages.)


  1. Jaan a dans wid gyal                        ‘John is dancing with a girl/girls’
  2. Jaan a dans wid tuu gyal                 ‘John is dancing with two girls’


  1. Jaan a dans wid di gyal dem           ‘John is dancing with the girls’
  2. Jaan a dans wid Sali dem                ‘John is dancing with a group that includes Sally’


In the sentences above, gyal does not refer to any specific girl or girls; just to the set called “gyal”. The set may be represented by any number of entities; the number is irrelevant. Jaan a dans wid gyal communicates that John is interacting with the opposite sex (a sign of his age or of his precociousness, etc). The sentence with tuu gyal refers to a set of two.

 On the other hand, di gyal dem, refers to a group of entities. This is obvious in Sali dem.





Stewart, Michele M. 2011. The expression of number in Jamaican Creole. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages. 26:2. 363-385.


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