Sunday 2 October 2016

Caliban's Original Language

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.

Shakespeare’s Prospero patronisingly claims that he taught Caliban to speak:

                      I pitied thee,
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

Caliban is 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? 

The most 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.

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