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Dreadtalk: the language of Rastafari

VSI Rastafari

An extract from Rastafari: A Very Short Introduction

In rejecting Babylon’s aesthetic of grooming and Babylon’s language conventions, Rastas have developed the iconic dreadlocks hairstyle and their own argot, commonly referred to as ‘dreadtalk’ or ‘Rasta talk’ and as ‘Iyaric’ by others.

Dreadtalk, as an in-group language that surfaced among Rastas in the 1940s, was born out of a need to have a vocabulary that could faithfully describe the experience of Rastafari and convey the evolving consciousness of its members. Finding the English language inadequate and drawing inspiration from their ganja-induced state of mind, Rastas engaged in the task of remaking the English language and the Jamaican patwa (patois) into a potent instrument for expressing their own perspective. For example, a plethora of ‘I’ words expresses their understanding of the presence of divine positive energy in the world: ‘InI’ for the divine unity of God and humans; ‘ital’ for natural or organic foods; ‘irie’ for positive feelings or vibrations; ‘Iman’ for the Rasta who is conscious of his inner divinity; ‘inity’ for unity; and ‘irator’ and ‘iration’ for the Creator and the creation. In this way, the Rastas have used language to fashion another tool in the enterprise of ‘chanting down Babylon’.

The conviction that the English language was an instrument of Western oppression that robbed Africans of their native speech was central to the creation of an in-group language. Instead of aspiring for the social mobility associated with mastering the nuances of English and mouthing the cadences of diction associated with the Oxford or Cambridge educated, Rastas have launched an ideological attack on the integrity of the English language. Drawing on an African tradition of viewing words as having intrinsic power, potent vibration, and effective agency, they articulated the philosophy of ‘word, sound and power’. Generally, this indicates that the phonetics of words should be closely aligned with their meanings. From this perspective, Rastas found pervasive confusion and corruption of sounds and meanings in the English language. The word ‘oppression’, for example, signifies the utter restriction of freedom and equality. Yet the first syllable is pronounced with the positive sounding ‘up’. From the perspective of Rastafarian linguistic sensibilities, what English calls oppression is really pressure on the poor by those in a higher social position, and therefore ‘downpression’ is the correct term to capture the significance of their activities. A word like ‘dedicate’ is also subject to change; though the definition is positive, it begins with the negative syllable ‘ded’ (dead) and is more accurately represented by the word ‘livicate’.

Velma Pollard on dreadtalk

Velma Pollard, the foremost scholar of Rastafarian speech, identifies the following features of the linguistic innovations of dreadtalk:

1. The creation of new ‘I’ words and expressions such as Irie for good or fine, Iman for I, me, or my, and InI for we or you and I.

2. The replacement of the initial syllable of words with ‘I’ as in ital for natural or vital, irate or iration for create or creation, and ilaloo for calaloo.

3. The investing of English or patwa words with specific Rastafarian meanings, so that ‘forward’ now means to leave, go, or come; ‘seen’ now means yes, I agree, or I perceive what you are saying; and ‘reason’ can mean to talk or discuss, or can be used as reference to the dialogue in which Rastas engage while they are participating in the communal smoking of ganja.

4. The replacement of some syllables considered contrary to the meaning of the words (usually based on their sounds) with syllables considered more appropriate; for example, oppress becomes downpress; dedicate becomes livicate; understand becomes overstand; UC (University College, the precursor of University of the West Indies) became ublain (you blind) to indicate that the university was not helping people to see the truth, but blinding them through Babylon education.

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