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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Remembering Richard Allsopp, Ph.D., Lexicographer and West Indian extraordinaire

To harness, by naming, creation around;
To label, unwritten, folk thoughts that abound;
To fight life, with language sole arm of the fighter,
Their tongue is the pen of a ready writer.

- Richard Allsopp, 1923-2009

As professions involved in the daily use, appreciation and embrace of the written and spoken word, journalism and broadcasting in Barbados and throughout the Caribbean owe Richard Allsopp a tremendous debt of gratitude for his devotion of a half-century's work to mapping the English Language as it has evolved in the Caribbean.

His crowning achievement, "The Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage", published in 1996 after 25 years of toil, remains as vitally important a reference tool as the "Oxford Concise Dictionary". Indeed, not only do we credit Professor Allsopp for ensuring the entry of authentically Caribbean words into the global English lexicon but for his insistence on the appropriate usage of English in a Caribbean context. He was a member of the editorial board of the "New Oxford English Dictionary".

Professor Allsopp was a friend and supporter of the craft of journalism, by making himself available to us to explain, amplify and educate on language usage through television and radio appearances, press interviews, letters to the editor ,even informal conversations with journalists and producers. Indeed, the BAJ fondly recalls his unveiling of "The Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage" at the association's Clennell Wickham Memorial Lecture in 1996.

Dr. Allsopp was not, as some have tried to suggest, a champion of the indiscriminate use of creole languages in formal settings. Indeed, it was his insistence on creating a dictionary of usage, with clear guidelines - standards - on formal, informal, uneducated and educated speech, that bore fruit in the "Dictionary of Caribbean Usage" - which the BAJ believes will remain a landmark in Caribbean linguistics and literature for generations.

There is such a thing, he argued, as Caribbean Standard English: an internationally accepted form of English that contained the peculiar features that distinguish it from the English of New Zealand or Newfoundland or South Africa or or America or Britain. He also reminded us of the importance of appreciating national and regional variations of words used from markets to courtrooms, from parliaments to parlours, and from the northern Caribbean to the southern Caribbean. His essay, "Caribbean English", iin "The Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage" should be required reading for journalists, educators and lovers of language and literature in the Caribbean.

His stewardship at the University of the West Indies ensured that hundreds of young Caribbean minds, many of them journalists', engaged in rigorous linguistic and intellectual pursuits that helped to define the Caribbean civilisation. Later in life, he lamented the decline of English usage, not by the abundant use of creole forms, but by the absence of effective teaching in English, particularly the absence of dictation from English Language teaching in primary schools. We share his disappointment.

To his family, especially his widow, Jeannette, herself a noted linguist and lexicographer whose life's journey with Professor Allsopp was one of shared interests, passions, intellect and effort, and his daughter and fellow journalist and broadcaster, Sophia Cambridge, sincerest condolences. Let us hope that Professor Allsopp's life work will be appropriately recognised and memorialised in the years to come. As journalists, we would do well to continue to consult his dictionary as we seek greater understanding not only of a story but the story of our Caribbean.