When regional Englishes got their words

When regional Englishes got their words

Oxford English Dictionary entries for words and meanings peculiar to regional varieties of English can be browsed or searched via OED Online’s ‘Categories‘ page. This kind of search looks for regional markers in the dictionary’s background code (other markers, such as italicized labels, are visible in the dictionary text online). By working directly with that background XML code, the same regional markers can be systematically cross-compared with other information, such as part of speech, etymology, or date of first documentation of a word, sense, or sub-sense.

In this post I want to take a bird’s-eye-view of the historical profiles of a number of regional Englishes as they are documented in the OED. I will then take a closer look at the OED’s record of Caribbean English, as a way of highlighting some of the relevant lexicological and lexicographical issues at stake.

It’s important to remember that what the OED records as the date of first documentation is rarely the actual first ever printed instance of a word meaning, and even more rarely the first occurrence of that meaning, points which regional Englishes demonstrate acutely. For one thing, new meanings almost always occur in speech before they are recorded on paper, and the lag between oral and written use can vary greatly depending on the era and the region in question. Finding evidence is also an issue: current practice, which takes advantage of large digital text databases, has achieved an antedating rate of about 60% over earlier editions, showing just how provisional a date of first attestation can be. But large, high-quality digital repositories are not uniformly available for all regions where a standard regional English is spoken.

Bearing these caveats in mind, OED data still represents a very large curated and annotated historical dataset of regional English words and meanings, treated on roughly the same basis.

For this experiment, using an XML version of the OED from December 2018, I isolated every word meaning that bore a regional designation (or fell under a regional designation – e.g., if an entire entry was marked ‘regional’, all meanings were counted separately), and grouped them according to the date of the first quotation evidence for that sense.

Below are graphical representations of this data for eight broad regional classifications used by OED, showing in dark blue bars the count of new senses recorded for each year from the year 1000 to 2018 (measured on the left Y axis), and in grey the running total of all such senses (right Y axis).

There is, of course, much that could be said about these charts relative to each other, including the disparate scales of the Y axes. But in this post I’m focused on the ‘when’ as opposed to the ‘how many’, so it’s the X-axis that I want to draw attention to.

It might chime with one’s intuition to observe that many of the regionalisms recorded for non-British-and-Irish Englishes are relatively recent, clustering near the later, right-hand side of the charts (the median year for North American Englishes, e.g., is 1891: half come earlier, half later), while Britishisms (many or most are Scotticisms) are more evenly distributed, and on the whole tend to fall earlier (median = 1626).

However, all of the regional vocabularies shown above have at least some bars in the earlier (middle and left-hand) parts of the chart. Caribbean English is a good example. As the enlarged chart below shows, something like 1 in 7 senses marked regionally ‘Caribbean’ in the OED are first attested before the earliest lasting British settlements in the region, some as early as the very earliest English anywhere:

What we see on the left-hand side of this chart are pre-settlement English words and senses which were preserved in Caribbean English, but fell out of general use outside of the Caribbean (or, in some cases, were transmitted from British regional use directly to Caribbean use without ever gaining general currency). The dictionary label might say something like ‘Now chiefly Caribbean’ or ‘In later use Caribbean‘.

Locally preserved senses make up one class of lexical items distinctive to regional Englishes. Additionally, regional Englishes (outside the UK especially) often acquire a significant amount of distinctive vocabulary from language contact, borrowing and adapting terms from indigenous languages, as well as other languages spoken in the region. Finally, new regional words and usages can be formed locally by the usual processes of vocabulary growth, including derivation, blending, compounding, and sense extension, based on any of the words in the local vocabulary.

To illustrate some of these processes, below is an annotated version of the previous chart, showing examples of newly recorded words for a selection of years:

This chart shows clearly the difference between pre- and post-settlement vocabulary: among the oldest terms that today characterize Caribbean English are the preserved pronouns weself, heself, youself, themself (attested in Ælfric, the Wycliffite Bible, Cursor Mundi, and so on), the verb to full meaning ‘to fill’ (used by Langland) and the first sense of self, used emphatically after a noun, as in the Old English, ‘Nu is rodera weard, God sylfa mid us’, or, somewhat more recently, in Lawrence Scott’s 1993 novel, Witchbroom: ‘And Leo self dress up in one of Master Jeansie old suit, looking spruce up.’

By contrast, the terms first attested in 1774, after a century and a half of British rule, are formed in various ways, from local extensions of existing English terms (e.g. ruinate, originally from Latin, but adapted in Jamaica to refer to ‘formerly cultivated land which has reverted to the wild’) to borrowings from other languages, notably West African languages (goombayJohn Canoe [now s.v. junkanoo], Quashie), but also from other colonial languages of the region (dunder, meanings rum dregs, from Spanish redundar).

Indeed the colonial imprint on this recorded vocabulary is impossible to overlook: all of these terms, some of which are marked as offensive or derogatory, are related in some way to the slave trade and the agricultural economy it underpinned in the Caribbean from the mid-seventeenth century to the early nineteenth. It is thus not surprising, though it be somewhat dismaying, to learn that all eleven terms first attested in 1774 are to be found in a single work, Edward Long’s viciously racist History of Jamaica.

This fact re-engages the question of historical sources, mentioned above, in a regional context, because for most of the colonial period the large majority of extant printed source material containing Caribbean vocabulary was generated by white British colonists and settlers, or white British missionaries and other visitors to the islands. These authors were using or reporting local language, but they were doing so from a narrow range of perspectives and interests.

The situation is somewhat different with more recent vocabulary, which for the most part can be documented with local sources written by people with a broader range of local perspectives. Newspapers such as The Daily Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica, 1834-present) and the Express (Trinidad & Tobago) play an important role, as do academic and cultural journals, and works by Caribbean folklorists and lexicographers, which record and report unwritten oral usages which would not otherwise be available to the OED. A good example of the latter is the entry for Shango (‘a syncretistic cult’; entry last updated 1986), which cites an article in Caribbean Quarterly from 1953, the quotation itself implying a much longer history of oral use: ‘In 1916 I had the first experience of the Shango.’ Language preserved on the Internet is another valuable resource: Usenet (the original ‘social medium’) provides the first evidence for two Caribbean terms: to big, meaning to praise or promote (soc.culture.caribbean 1992); and bashment, meaning a party with music (rec.music.reggae, 1996).

However, we may not be fully out of the woods when it comes to local documentation. One notes in the call-out from 1985 that belonger, a re-appropriation of a British colonial administrative designation to mean, in the Caribbean, a ‘native of a particular island, a non-immigrant’, is attested in OED by three non-belonger sources (a quick Google turns up several local examples).

In any event, as big, bashment, belonger, and respect indicate, the more recent terms in Caribbean vocabulary tend to be formed within Caribbean English according to regular processes of language growth. When borrowings do occur, they are often from other varieties of English, as with rapso, a blend of rap (originally U.S.) and calypso (originally Caribbean), or from other languages spoken in the region, e.g. parang (1962), a type of Trinidadian folk music, from Spanish parranda manicou (1953), an opossum (originally indigenous Tupi, but borrowed into English from French); and the only true English naturalization of French oui; (1968), used as an emphatic marker (in the most recent quotation, from Nellie Payne’s Jump-up-and-kiss-me (1990): ‘Blarst! Is only boiled corn and split peas dey eat dis week, oui!’).

About 50 words and meanings in the OED record, including previously mentioned big, bashment, rapso, and respect, are labelled ‘originally Caribbean‘ (or the equivalent) in the dictionary text, implying that they have since acquired a degree of currency outside the region. A number of these, like bashment and rapso, are associated with musical styles that became popular globally in the late 1960s and after: reggae (1968) most iconically, but also dubplate (1976), pannist (1983), riddim (1974), selector, (1980) sing-jay (1984), skank (1971), skanker (1973), and soundclash(1989). Though the subject domain of these words may be particular, the period when they were first attested is quite typical of words marked ‘originally Caribbean‘ – half are first attested (usually in local sources) after 1950; by contrast the median date of first attestation for all words marked Caribbean is 1838.

So, while Caribbean English displays preserved words, borrowed words, and locally developed words, by and large it is the latter (later) terms that have been circulated back into the current Englishes of other places.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.