Thesis Statement

Language Matters

(tentative name)
Can I teach the history of the islands of Trinidad and Tobago through its living language?

Can I teach the living language of the islands of Trinidad and Tobago through its history?


This is an online dictionary.

As a result of colonization the Trinidad and Tobago creole language was formed. This language is a mix of words, phrases and mannerisms of our ancestors. It is a living language that is spoken daily. While nationals are well versed in the language, not all of us know the etymology of the words that we chose to speak. The language is a mixture of English, French, Spanish, African languages, Amerindian languages, Indian languages, Portuguese and others. There is direct correlation with what we speak and our history.

I aim to create an online platform that teaches the history of the islands through the language. I will create an API with the language and its historical references and use this API as the source for the online platform. The platform will be interactive as it aims to teach the etymology of the words in the language alongside the history of the country.

My website will provide historical context for users, who are citizens. Non-citizens, through the use of the video and sound features would be exposed to language usage and context.

Key features and usage
Drawing from the API, the platform will marry words from the dialect with their history (culture the word or phrase is derived from). There will be a timeline to show when in history different cultures were introduced to the islands, and thereby different words.

By interacting with the timeline, respective words from each inhabitant (culture) would be displayed. The history of the inhabitants would be shown as well. By engaging with the words, a video will play. This video will show a conversation with locals using words of that genre (as we use it today). The user will have the option of singling out words or phrases they wish to explore. Engaging a word or phrase will produce a sound sample of the pronunciation, text with the meaning, and historical references.
If the user, for example, selects the word ‘Bazodee‘ from the conversation. The pronunciation will be played, the meaning and etymology will be shown: ‘light-headed or in shock; from the French word abasourdir – to daze‘. This will then point to the historical reference of French inhabitance of the island and other words of French origin.

The goal is to create a platform that entices users to dive in to learn more about the history of the country through the language. While a dictionary will fuel the backend, I want to display this data in a more visually appealing way.

Phase two of this project entails creating a google-translate-type platform. This aspect of the platform would appeal to non-nationals as it would provide the opportunity to learn how to use our language in conversation.

Research Approach
Identifying if a resource like this would be a valuable contribution to my culture prompted initial research. This process was completed by speaking with nationals and non-nationals and assessing the extensive research that has been completed about the dialect by Caribbean linguists. I need to engage linguists to get a better sense of what they deem a valuable technical contribution to the language would be. Also, how they envision their research will be represented and used – beyond the written text.
Understanding how my approach to an online dictionary is different to what exists was key. None of the online sources communicated the origin of words or provided detailed context about usage. They were just lists of words and meanings. Understanding the nuances and rules of language is another aspect that is pertinent to my research for creating the translation platform. Using Natural Learning Processing, I can train the system to recognize patterns in the creole speech.I acquired a copy of the English/Creole Dictionary of Trinidad and Tobago. This corpus contains the etymological information that I seek, in addition to other references that can be used. I need to get this physical book in a database. I will also crowdsource for additional content. Sayings/phrases from the language will be sourced and placed in an online API. This mix of information will be used as content for my online dictionary.
Technical references

Daniel Shiffman (ideation, API and visual application of language)
Ben Moskowitz (ideation and technical references)
Allison Parrish (Natural Learning Processing, API, linguistics)
Dr. Nicholas Wolf (NYU Data Center – OCR technical reference: for scanning the dictionary into a database)
April Hathcock (copyright librarian: permissions to use dictionary and other published text)

Linguists and Cultural References
University of the West Indies Linguistics Departments
Dr. Maureen Warner-Lewis (Caribbean Linguist)
Dr. Lise Winer (Linguist and author of English/Creole Dictionary)
Jennifer Lutton (Anthropologist)
Herbert Seignoret (Anthropologist) 

Personal Statement

I slowly came to the realization that my culture defines me, significantly. It should be expected, but this realization occurred as I started exploring the music and language of the islands and determined that there is much I am ignorant of. The visible aspects of my culture are celebrated and acknowledged by me more easily (i.e.) the food, carnival, the dancing, the liming and the music. The intangible parts are those that I am not in touch with. The language of Trinidad and Tobago happens to be one of those intangibles that I appreciate, but don’t have much information about. I love the fact that I can listen to someone speak, instinctively identify a fellow Trini and simply ask “what part of home are you from?”

Colonialism left its mark on each island in different ways. Our language is a representation of that influence. While we are now an english speaking nation, it was not always that way. I am interested in the history of how this language that I speak today with my people was created and how it evolved (and is still evolving). My project aims to explore that. This project goes beyond articulating the popular words and phrases that are distinct to our language but will dive deeper to revive the history behind each word. I now ask, was that word (or phrase) French? or Amerindian? or Spanish? or Congolese? or Dutch? or a mixup? It is about embracing the parts of me that I do not know – like the fad of taking an ancestry DNA test. Either you know or you don’t know. I want to know. To know where I am going, I need to know where I came from.

Being a visual person, I want to showcase this spoken dictionary in an interactive and visually stimulating way.

Regarding using technology to preserve and articulate this information: Generally, the Caribbean lacks resources to create platforms like this to more broadly showcase and essentially preserve our culture. There is no lack of creative vision in my nation, but I don’t see resources like the one I am proposing on our market. I want to utilize what I have learned at ITP to create works for the Caribbean market – back home. Sure, I can create something that Americans or Europeans will enjoy, but I cannot ignore that most of what I am being taught here is not even on the radar of folks at home. I have to “come good” to even present something like this to a Trinidadian and I think I am ready for this challenge.