May 2017

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“So as I see, it is necessary, Trinidad should have its own dictionary...
Webster shoulda come to Trinidad to complete he dictionary, Doh doubt Conquie”
(Trinidad Dictionary, Mighty Conqueror, 1962)

Professor Lise Winer, the foremost authority on Trinidad and Tobago (spoken) language(s), is the 2017 recipient of the prestigious biennial Frederic G. Cassidy Award for Distinguished Achievement in Lexicography or Lexicology for her Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad & Tobago: On Historical Principles (DE/CTT, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009).

As Prof Michael Adams, past president of the Dictionary Society of North America and Chair of the Award Committee, noted: “We so greatly admire your work on Caribbean language generally, but especially your great dictionary, more great in our minds because it was the work of you and you alone. As at least one reviewer has noted, no one else is ever likely to be brave enough to do such a dictionary solo; as another noted, you have gone where Webster [the early 19th century American lexicographer] did not, which just goes to show that Webster isn't the only great lexicographer.”

So our very own Webster, or Winer, did come to Trinidad (to reference the Mighty Conqueror’s 1962 calypso), and produced a world-class dictionary, a labour of love and passionate devotion, now gaining international recognition. It is the nation’s first comprehensive historical scholarly descriptive dictionary of the national language(s) of Trinidad & Tobago (English and our two English-lexicon Creoles), based on the historical principles of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), itself the definitive record of the English language, featuring 600,000 words. Winer’s word-hoard therefore adds to the records of both the English and English Creole languages.

Prof Winer recalls a conversation with Cassidy himself, after whom the prestigious award is named: “In 1980, as a doctoral student in linguistics at St. Augustine, I travelled to Paramaribo, Suriname, for my first meeting of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics (SCL). There I met Frederic Gomes Cassidy, co-editor of the Dictionary of Jamaican English (DJE), and editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English. I told him that in conjunction with my work in T&T, I seemed to be making a dictionary. ‘Good! Much needed!’ he replied. ‘But I have no lexicographical training, and don’t really know what I’m doing,’ I said. ‘That’s fine,’ Cassidy replied. ‘Anyone with any lexicographical training wouldn’t touch this project with a ten-foot pole!’”

This dictionary, now in its eighth year, has become the single essential and indispensable tool for linguistic, literary, cultural and botanical research, one that should occupy pride of place on every desk, on every coffee table, and in every library. The dictionary blurb puts it succinctly: “the dictionary comprises over 12,200 entries, including over 4,500 for flora and fauna alone, with numerous cross-references. Entries include definitions, alternative spellings, pronunciations, etymologies, grammatical information, and illustrative citations of usage. Winer draws from a wide range of sources – newspapers, literature, scientific reports, sound recordings of songs and interviews, spoken language – to provide a wealth and depth of language, clearly situated within a historical, cultural, and social context.”

Calypsonian, the Mighty Conqueror almost didn’t think it was possible to trace the origin of T&T’s rich lexical heritage.

“Well, no one could state how these words originate

But who invent them, they really great.”

But through years of painstaking research, Winer has managed to provide etymologies and origins of the vast majority of T&T’s words, and proposes reasonable ones for those still shrouded in some mystery. She occasionally provides addenda and updates, and welcomes new information, suggestions and corrections.

Winer has also co-edited a series of Trinidad’s earliest known novels with historian Bridget Brereton and other scholars, and is the author of Badjohns, Bhaaji & Banknote Blue: Essays on the Social History of Language in Trinidad and Tobago (School of Continuing Studies, 2007). Badjohns is an excellent companion to the DE/CTT, tracing Winer’s engagement with T&T’s language(s), documenting her many experiences and insights in articles that are both scholarly and accessible.

So what next for Prof Winer? Now retired and Professor Emerita of McGill, she continues to make annual visits to T&T from her native Canada, and hopes to develop a suite of apps for mobile devices – translations, pronunciations, etymologies, meanings, games, aids for spelling bees and much more.

As Conquie noted,

“And I feel the time go reach, the government will teach
The school children to use them in speech.”

These apps would be useful for teaching and capturing the imagination of present and upcoming generations – many are losing aspects of our national linguocultural heritage, particularly at the level of our vocabulary (lexicon), having much more exposure to and familiarity with external norms through social media. National norms are now being threatened with extinction or exoticism.

Jamaican-born Frederic Gomes Cassidy is also known for having developed, along with Robert B. LePage, the standard orthography for Jamaican (also known as Jamaica English Creole or Jamaican Patwa), known as the Cassidy-Le Page writing system. He was the first President of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics (SCL) in 1972. Prof Winer also became President of the SCL, 30 years later in 2002.

Jo-Anne S. Ferreira, PhD is the Deputy Dean of Programming and Planning, a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics; and Coordinator of the Portuguese and Brazilian Studies programme in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics of the Faculty of Humanities and Education, St. Augustine Campus.