|Carib Natives through European eyes|
I write in sympathy with
Haiti and Jamaica as they brace themselves for Hurricane Matthew. That ancient
noun hurricane reminds me of the
nearly forgotten language of the indigenous people of the Caribbean. Hurricane
comes, via Spanish, from the ancient Carib word for a tropical cyclone.
Other Carib words which keep the ghostly presence of the First Nation of the
Caribbean alive in English today include canoe,
hammock, tobacco, maize, yucca (plant), maroon and buccaneer.
|Kari'nja girls in Surinam|
Carib, now an
acutely endangered tongue spoken by fewer than six thousand people scattered across Surinam, Guyana and
Venezuela, was spoken by the Neolithic natives encountered by Columbus across the
islands and coasts of the Caribbean Sea. The Spanish and Portuguese heard and
transcribed as Carib or Calina or Calinago the ethnic name today written Kari'nja.
This name was
quickly conflated with the idea of the human who eats other humans (the
technical name for which is anthropophagy), giving rise to the term cannibal: the Kari’nja’s conquistadors
alleged they had seen evidence of this practice. The name Caliban in Shakespeare’s The
Tempest is a muddled derivative, and the cruelty of the play’s colonial
agenda, as symbolised in the humiliation and debasement of Caliban, was eloquently exposed in the Martiniquan Aimé Césaire’s
1969 French version, Une Tempête.
Prospero patronisingly claims that he taught Caliban to speak:
Took pains to
make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or
other: when thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endow'd thy purposes
With words that made them known.
|Caliban in Moscow, 1905|
not impressed: ‘The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!’ What is never clarified is this: what language did Caliban ‘gabble’ so unintelligibly to white people before Prospero imposed on him instead the English of early Jacobean blank verse?
fascinating feature of Carib as a language is that there are separate male and
female dialects (the word tobacco,
interestingly, was a woman’s word). I like to think that Phyllida Lloyd knew
this when she decided to stage an all-female cast in The Tempest, which has just opened at King’s Cross Theatre. Her Caliban is apparently played as a rather crazy
bag lady by Sophie Stanton. I can’t wait to see whether hammocks, buccaneers
and tobacco feature in the production as well.