INTERVIEW: Dr De Lisser on preserving Jamaican Creole in Costa Rica + lessons for Guyana

Go to Costa Rica and you’ll most likely expect to speak to people in Spanish or English. But in a city called Limon there is a community of Jamaican descendants who speak what is called Limonese Creole – a dialect of Jamaican Creole. 

Dr Tamirand de Lisser, a member of the Guyanese Languages Unit (GLU) and a linguistics lecturer at the University of Guyana, visited Costa Rica in August 2018 for the 22nd Biennial Conference of the Society of Caribbean Linguistics (SCL), held in collaboration with the Society for Pidgin and Creole Languages (SPCL) at the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica (UNA) in Limon and Heredia.

Herself Jamaican by heritage, Dr de Lisser shares some of her experiences and explains how what she discovered could help influence the work of the GLU in Guyana…

How did the opportunity to visit Limon come about? Had you heard of them before you went?
The visit to Limon was organised as this was a designated host site of the conference. Unfortunately I had no idea that the people of Limon spoke a language called Limonese Creole, which is a dialect of Jamaican Creole. If I had known I could have prepared beforehand, which would have included taking copies of my books for the community. It’s also unfortunate as this is my area of interest and I had no idea that it existed. But so it is, you live and you learn… no regrets!

Tell us a bit about this community i.e. how they came to be there.
Jamaican migrant workers went to Limon to work on the railways and banana plantations and managed to maintain their language.  

Courtesy Dr De Lisser

From a linguistic perspective, what was the most exciting part about the visit?
The realisation that this community existed and that linguists at the UNA are moving forward to develop and give status to the language e.g. establishing a writing system and alphabet, working on descriptive grammars, promoting positive attitudes towards preservation of the language etc.

What linguistic challenges (if any) are they still dealing with in the community? 
The linguistic challenges they are facing are similar to those of many Caribbean communities e.g.
– Negative attitudes towards the language, primarily among the younger generations
– Restricted domains of use (mainly at home among families and friends)
– Suppressing the use of the language in schools/education in general
– Non-recognition of the language as a language by the government

Courtesy Dr De Lisser

How does the visit relate to your work in Guyana/Jamaica and with the Guyana Languages Unit?
The visit is very relevant to my work and research interests in Guyana and Jamaica, and in particular the works to be carried out by the Guyanese Languages Unit. As the challenges faced by the Limonese-speaking community are similar to those faced in Guyana, the GLU can use this as an example and implement similar procedures and mechanisms for uplifting the status of the Guyanese Creole language. We could partner and collaborate with the linguists at UNA on various research initiatives for the  holistic development of Caribbean Creoles.

Do you plan to keep in contact with the community, visit again or follow up in any way? 
I plan to keep in contact with the community primarily via the linguists at UNA. Collaborating on linguistic research with this community is definitely a priority for me. I would love to visit again, and to follow up on the progress of the linguistic developments of the community. I would also like to make a gift available to the community in the form of my translations – Di Likl Prins and Alis Advencha in a Wandalan, which are written in Jamaican Creole but to which they will be able to relate.

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