A note about de (deh) in Guyanese

There are two words with the pronunciation ‘de’. These are two homophones: two words with the same sound but different meanings and/or functions.

  1. de is an adverb (or a pro-adverb) meaning English ‘there’
  2. de is a verb indicating location or existence.

Pro-adverb de can be used in place of a locative phrase

  •  Di pikni sidong pan di bed -> Di pikni sidong de
  • ‘The child sits on the bed -> The child sits there’
  • Mi lef mi buk a hous -> Mi lef mi buk de
  • ‘I left my book at home -> I left my book there’

The verb de  conveys both locative and existential meanings. These two meanings are inter-related:  if something is located somewhere, it exists in that location; if it exists, it is located in the world.

  • Di goot dem de a rood
  • ‘The goats are on the road’
  • Piita de wid i fren dem
  • ‘Peter is with his friends’
  • Wan chikin haak de pan di hous tap
  • ‘A chicken hawk is on top of the roof’
  • Awi de ya
  • ‘We are here’

The combination of de + wid can be ambiguous: it can mean any of the following and only the context (including our knowledge of how the world works) will allow us to decide which interpretation is the appropriate one.

  1. X is in the company of Y
  2. X is associated with Y for work-related reasons
  3. X and Y are in a love affair (possibly sexual, possibly living together). A particular type of relationship exists between them.
  • Di pikni de wid i muma
  • ‘The child is with his/her mother’
  • (Context will indicate whether this means ‘The child lives with mother (not with father or someone else)’ or whether it means ‘The child is merely at some place where the mother is right now (e.g. shopping)’)
  • Piita de wid Anii
  • ‘Peter is with Annie’
  • (Context will determine the nature of the association.  Could be a love affair; could be merely a location or even a business association)

In the next example, no such ambiguity exists. The speaker is asserting that the parties are indeed having a love affair.

  • Di tuu a dem de
  • ‘The two of them are in an amorous (non-platonic) relationship’

The next two examples illustrate an existential meaning even more clearly.

  • No moni no de
  • ‘There is no money’
  • (How yu du?) Mi de
  • (How are you?) ‘I’m okay’ (A non-committal response. NB: A Jamaican reply would be Mi de ya ‘I’m here’)

Finally, de can combine with a verb in progressive aspect.

  • Mi de a iit
  • ‘I am in the act of (process of) eating’

The verb ‘de’ and the pro-adverb ‘de’ can both appear in the same sentence.

  • Mi muma hous de rait oova di rood-> Mi muma hous de rait oova de
  • ‘My mother’s house is right across the road’ -> ‘My mother’s house is right over there’
  • Mi muma hous de rait de (rait de-so)
  • ‘My mother’s house is right there
  • Mi muma hous de de
  • ‘My mother’s house is there

Note: It is not accurate to say that de de  (as in the last example above) is a more intense version of de. In this example, de de is a combination of the verb followed by the adverb.

On occasion, however, some speakers might create sentences such as, “i de-de de” as a joke (or word play). The intent is usually to poke fun at the language but it may also be interpreted as an intensifier. In this case, they have doubled the verb de-de.

LECTURE / The last, last Berbice Dutch speaker

On 20 June, Professor Ian Robertson gave a fascinating lecture at the National Library on Berbice Dutch, a language he discovered in the 1970s along the Berbice River (pictured above, image credit Jamaican Languages Unit / caribbeanlanguages.org.jm).

In ‘The Discovery of Guyana Dutch Creole’, the former dean of the Faculty of Humanities & Education at UWI St. Augustine – and a member of the Informal Working Group for Language Policy at the University of Guyana – took the audience on a journey through history and language.

Lit At Twilight invite

Professor Robertson explained that at least two Creole languages with a largely Dutch-derived lexicon developed in Guyana during the period of Dutch control. One of these languages, Skepi Dutch (Iskepie referring to Essequibo), was already extinct by the time he started his research.

We learned about the last-known speaker of Berbice Dutch Creole, Bertha Bell (pictured below)… who turned out not to be the last. And then the last, last speaker, Princess Sauers, who was born at Dubulay on the Berbice river – the same spot where Abraham van Peere, the leader of the Dutch settlers in 1627, established his plantation, Peereboom. Princess Sauers sadly passed away in March 2015 – just one month shy of her 99th birthday.

The ‘last’ but not the ‘last, last’ speaker of Berbice Dutch, Bertha Bell.

Professor Robertson, through his interviews with the last speakers (watch an interview with Bertha Bell), has managed to pick up the language. But those same speakers did not pass the knowledge on to their families or in their communities. Attempts to find living speakers along the Berbice and Essequibo rivers have not proved fruitful.

Just some of the interesting nuggets of info shared were that Guyana’s slave rebellion leader Cuffy/Kofi would probably have spoken the language, many core words in the lexicon can be traced back to a West African linguistic group known as eastern Ijo, and that the Arawak (Amerindian) words found tend to refer to nature – unsurprising given that they were there already and would have named the landscape.

11242337_880064238697803_498351661992375013_nExplaining the second point further, Professor Robertson says: “The language contained more than ten times the number of West African derived forms that could be found in any Caribbean Creole language. All the basic words for body parts and the more central functions like speak, walk, drink, run cold be traced directly to this West African language group. No other Creole language of the Caribbean contains such a high percentage of African derived forms.”

“The presence of so many words from One West African group also suggests that these were the earliest group of West Africans brought to Berbice. The presence of the language provides a window into the early history of Berbice, for which no early documents have been unearthed.”

You can find out more about Guyana Dutch Creole by following the links below. Please comment if you have any information you think would be of interest to other readers, or any personal stories concerning Dutch Creole in Guyana.

> Berbice Dutch Creole definition: https://www.mona.uwi.edu/dllp/jlu/ciel/pages/berbicedutch.htm

> Berbice Dutch article about Robertson’s work (in Dutch) http://nederl.blogspot.nl/2015/07/berbice-dutch-stervende-maar-in-leven.html#more

> Berbice Dutch Officially Extinct, RNW (in English): https://www.rnw.org/archive/berbice-dutch-officially-extinct (NB. This article prematurely reports the death of Berbice Dutch, as another speaker was subsequently found).