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).