What is the meaning and use of “seh” in Caribbean dialects of English?

I have heard “seh” used in Jamaican English but I think it’s probably used in other parts of the Caribbean too. I know that in many cases, it is simply the equivalent of standard English “say”. However, it is also used in sentences like:

“Mi know seh dem nuh like mi”, meaning “I know that they don’t like me”

In this case, “seh” seems to be used as an equivalent of standard English “that”, rather than “say”. But I would like to know whether I’m right, whether it has any other uses, and when people might choose to use “seh” instead of “that”.

I’d also be interested to know about the etymology of the word.

Hopefully there are some Caribbeans on here who can shed some light on it.

Answer

This answer draws from the answer by Dan Bron, and the comments from Janus Bahs Jacquet and Michaelyus. However, I have decided to draw up my own answer, as I feel Dan Bron’s still only touches on the meaning of “seh” I am familiar with. I’m also grateful to RukiyaMeria for providing confirmation as a native speaker.

“The word “seh” (also spelled “se” or “say”) is used in various ways in various Caribbean dialects. The most obvious of which is its use as an exact equivalent of the word “say” in other varieties of English, which does not need definition here.

However, it appears that the use of “se” can range from a simple verb to a complementiser (a word, like standard English “that” which can turn a clause into the subject or object of a sentence). This is analysed in detail by Donald Winford (1993).

In it’s complementiser role, “se” can be used to turn a clause into an object. e.g:

“Jan pramis se i go kom tunait” – John promised that he would come tonight

However, it cannot be used to turn a clause into a subject. Sentences like the following do not occur:

“Se Jan kom tunait strenj” – That John has come tonight is strange

Most often, “se” is used in conjunction with verbs of speech, thought and emotion, as in the above example with the verb “pramis”. Other typical verbs used with “se” include “wari” (worry), “biliiv” (believe) and “fuget” (forget).

“Se” can also be found alongside subordinating conjunctions like “iivn if” (even if) and “laka” (like). e.g:

“Im ron laka se dem set daas afta im” – He ran as if dogs had been set on him.

The origins of this use of complementiser “se” are unclear. However, it is worth noting that “se” is found in a very similar context in African pidgins and Creoles (as shown in Michaelyus’s comment). There is some suggestion that it may derive from an Àkán verb meaning “to be like” (Farquharson, 2012). However, it appears most likely to be a grammatical influence from African speakers of Benue-Kwa languages (possibly Gbè (Farquharson, 2012)). In Benue-Kwa languages complementisers homophonous with the verb meaning “to say” are commonplace, and specifically introduce complements after verbs relating to speech or mental action (Winford, 1993).

Thus, the English word “say” may have been reanalysed by speakers of Benue-Kwa languages as having a complementising role.

Further evidence that “se” stems directly from standard English “say” is that it is often reported that se (complementiser) can never follow se (verb) (Winford, 1993; Farquharson, 2012). But, just such a use is reported in San Andres Creole, here https://apics-online.info/parameters/95.chapter.html:

“Taiga se se him neva de kech no fish” – Tiger said he wasn’t catching any fish

So perhaps the complementiser function of “seh” is expanding or varies between creoles.

References:

Winford – “Predication in Caribbean English Creoles”, 1993

Farquharson – “The African lexis in Jamaican: It’s Linguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics”, 2012

Chapter 95: Complementizer with verbs of speaking, APiCS Online, https://apics-online.info/parameters/95.chapter.html

Attribution
Source : Link , Question Author : Tim Foster , Answer Author : Tim Foster

Leave a Comment