Cayman dialect alive and well

James Watler is just about as well informed about his roots as a man can get.

James Watler

James Watler discusses Caymanian Dialect, Words and Phrases at the Family Life Centre

Mr. Watler helped design the history syllabus for Government schools, for years he has held senior positions in the Education Department and he is a wealth of knowledge about the past.

‘You should be proud of your dialect. It is a mark of one’s identity. It is your cultural heritage.’

Recently Mr. Watler invited the public along to the Family Life Centre to learn more about Caymanian vernacular, words and phrases.

‘It is important to know and at times use Standard English, but by the same token we should not feel or think that our dialect is inferior. All societies have their own particular dialect.’

The sentence structure of Caymanian is considered unique, quite often nautical terminology is thrown in and some words are considered old English. For example measurements are still sometimes described in cables and lengths.

Some people can even detect a difference in aspect from one district to another; there are subtle nuances in the speaking style of Brackers, West Bayers and the people of East End.

In the meeting Mr. Watler gave some examples of the way Caymanians traditionally expressed themselves. ‘Com ya boy, wah ya don? This means: Come here boy, what are you doing? Another example given by Watler was ‘Look yah, doh mek mi fetch yah a lik’ which means: look here, don’t make me slap you.

Recently in North Side, I overheard a Caymanian saying after the rain that ‘Sand fly came out, big as pigeon pea,’ which clearly refers to some big, bad, biting sand flies also Mr. Watler noted that ‘any big mosquito is called a ‘gal nipper’ and ‘breadkind’ is the name given to local produce such as yams, pumpkins, cassava and breadfruit.

Caymanians speak a similar style of English to the people in the Bay Islands of Roatan, Bonacca and Utila. This is not surprising, because in the 1830s these Islands were almost exclusively settled by Caymanians. Today these people are considered to be Honduranians (or officially Hondurans), but this was not always so. In the 1852 the Bay Islands were officially recognised as a British Crown Colony and over the years it is estimated more than 4,000 English speaking people from the Bay Islands have returned to their ancestral home and are living back here in the Cayman Islands. Because of marriage, family connections and other reasons many of these Bay Islanders now have Caymanian citizenship as well.

There is evidence that shows there has been a fairly consistent flow of people going back and forth between the Bay Islands and Cayman for a long period of time and some of these population movements are linked initially to a treaty in 1788, when England evacuated all the British settlers from the Bay Islands (as well as a five hundred mile stretch of the Mosquito shore of Honduras and Nicaragua).

The next big migration back to the Bay Islands occurred following the abolition of slavery and later there have been periodic migrations going in both directions following visitations by major hurricanes and finally economic reasons have driven many Bay Islanders to come to Cayman over the past 30 years.

Historically Caymanians were maritime people and scattered about the entire Caribbean coastline of Spanish Latin America there are still pockets of English speaking people.

They often have names like Ebanks, Bush, Tatum, Hydes, Walter, Bodden, Arch and Jackson. These settlements in places like the Isle of Pines (Now the Isle of Youth) in Cuba, Port Royal Jamaica and Big Sandy Bay and Bluefield’s Nicaragua may date back hundreds of years to the times of privateers, wreckers and log wood cutters and more recently to schooner builders, bird egg gatherers, shark rangers and turtlers.

It is known for example that some of the people who abandoned the Black River Settlement in Nicaragua in the 18th Century migrated to Cayman.

In recent years in places like Roatan, English is no longer taught as the first language in the Government schools. As a result, the modern generation is growing up speaking predominately Spanish. This is unfortunate in some respects because it creates societal break down and severs the links with the past. Often you find there are children today who can no longer communicate with their English speaking grandparents and the elders in the community.

The older people in the Bay Islands confirm that prostitution and the prevalence of guns and crime has increased since the Islands became economically attractive to people from the Spanish speaking mainland.

Successive waves of immigrants came looking for work and depressed the level of the wages for the local English speaking inhabitants. It is only in the past year that efforts are being taken to protect the culture by putting some limits on the number of people that can come from mainland Honduras to work in the Bay Islands and there are also new measures to control gun ownership. Strong holds of the Caymanian cultural style of English language still exist (outside of Cayman) in places like Saint Helene and Utila.

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