January 2017

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The stellar contributions to Caribbean linguistics made by Mervyn Coleridge Alleyne will indefinitely resonate among language and identity scholars in the region and his presence will be missed for a long time.

At the start of his academic career, Alleyne taught French dialectology and French medieval literature. He acknowledged the influence of the anthropologist Sidney Mintz on his transition from Philology, French Dialectology and Medieval French Literature to Linguistics more broadly, the field in which he became a pioneering academic and scholar.

Alleyne was a fervently Caribbean person and it was not long before he applied his skills and the discipline earned from exposure to French dialectology to address problems of what he later termed “oppressed languages of the Caribbean.” For him, “Caribbean” included the “Francophone and Hispanic” Caribbean. The vision embraced in his definition has eroded, albeit slowly, the linguistic parochialism that has characterised academics in the Anglophone (or English-official) Caribbean.

His seminal work, “Comparative Afro-American,” exposed the major areas of similarity across the languages described as “creole” by other linguists. He himself did not consider the term “creole” adequate for the languages it attempted to describe. For Alleyne, the similarities were brought on by the circumstances and experiences of the persons who speak these languages rather than by their exemplifying an exotic typology. He used the national names for these languages – he insisted that he spoke “Trinidadian” even though he lived virtually all of his adult life outside of the country of his birth; Jamaicans spoke “Jamaican,” not Jamaican Creole; and Haitians spoke “Haitian,” not Haitian Creole. It was a statement of empowerment through language.

Alleyne had an abiding disrespect for orthodoxy, a fiercely protective attitude towards the African heritage in Caribbean languages and a facility with argument that was difficult to defeat. He was supportive of creative and imaginative thinking, tolerant of views contrary to his, gentle in his rebuke and resolute in his personal beliefs and perspectives. He treated all persons with considerable respect for their humanity even though he might have been very opposed to their expressed positions.

His graduate students were marked by his mentoring. He urged them to go for the extra bit of information, to answer the fringe question that could embarrass their certainty about an analysis. One could grow impatient with him but the insights that came from responding to his skepticism were always rewarding, making his resistance a motivator for the improvement of one’s work. He was not easily diverted from his positions but after the argument, he lived comfortably with your own decision to be different.

Alleyne’s conviction that understanding acculturation processes was critical to understanding Caribbean languages led him to explore themes beyond linguistics. His 1988 “Roots of Jamaican Culture” added a new dimension to his scholarship, a dimension that found equally powerful expression in his 2002 publication “The Construction and Representation of Race and Ethnicity in the Caribbean and the World.”

This illustrious Emeritus Professor of The UWI, was born in Trinidad and Tobago on June 13, 1933 and died on November 23, 2016. He was schooled at Mucurapo EC School (now St Agnes EC School) and Queen’s Royal College, and entered the then University College of the West Indies (UCWI) on scholarship in 1953. After completing a Bachelor’s degree, he proceeded to a doctoral degree (Docteur d’Université, DU) at Strasbourg University in France. He returned to the Caribbean as a lecturer at the UCWI in 1959, rising to the rank of Professor of Sociolinguistics in 1982. He retired from the Mona Campus of The UWI in 1998 as Professor Emeritus. Although based primarily at The UWI for the majority of his career, he wasa frequent long-term visiting faculty member at other universities, notably the State University of New York at Buffalo, Indiana University at Bloomington, University of Amsterdam, and the University of Puerto Rico, Stanford University, the then Université des Antilles et de la Guyane, and was the Langston Hughes Visiting Professor at Kansas University.

Following his retirement from Mona, Professor Alleyne taught for three years at the St. Augustine Campus of The UWI until 2003, after which he began a new career at the University of Puerto Rico where he functioned until 2014. He was also the Humanities Scholar (2007) at the Cave Hill campus of The UWI.

He was a member of the advisory committee on the “Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage” and served on several campus and university committees. He had a central role in establishing the language laboratory at the Mona Campus and charted the way for the programme in Caribbean Dialectology. The Society for Caribbean Linguistics, of which he was one of the first members (1972) and of which he was a former President (1990- 1992), conferred honorary membership on him in 1998 n recognition of his outstanding scholarship and his contribution to the disciplines under its purview. He was also one of the founders of the “Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages,” and was also an honorary member of the Linguistic Society of America (1997).

Mervyn Coleridge Alleyne lived a rich and meaningful life as an academic and influenced many people.

Lawrence Carrington is Emeritus Professor of Creole Linguistics of The UWI and was Professor Alleyne’s first PhD student in the 1960s

Ian Robertson is a retired Professor of Linguistics at the St Augustine Campus