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American Speech 77.4 (2002) 383-397



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Kiss-teeth

Peter L. Patrick
University of Essex

Esther Figueroa
Juniroa Productions, Inc.

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A quarter century ago, John Rickford and Angela Rickford (1976) described and examined two everyday Caribbean gestures, "cut-eye" and "suck-teeth," as overlooked examples of African cultural continuity throughout the diaspora. Despite that oft-cited paper and thecontinuing interest in historical links between Caribbean and African systems of communication, linguists interested in the history and description of creoles have rarely studied these systems' paralinguistic, pragmatic, and discourse markers. In this paper—only the second ever to examine "kiss-teeth" (as we call it)—we map the distribution of the gesture and its names in detail and explore previously unresolved problems of their meanings and use.

We consider a small segment of a broad spectrum of pragmatic particles and paralinguistic gestures, common (though not identical) across the diaspora, which we are interested in for synchronic as well as diachronic reasons. Each element or complex in the spectrum comprises a range of expressive functions and possible meanings. Moreover, linkages on the levels of both form and function suggest a complex history of geographic diffusion.

We have identified a small range of related elements to study, favoring the forms with which we are most familiar and experienced: those from Jamaica and the western Caribbean. We are also investigating other forms often used to negotiate moral standing in Jamaican speech—for example, evaluative use of interjections Hi!, A-oh!,Eh-eh! or Eenh?—which may turn out to be related to the kiss-teeth gesture in function and use.

Reflecting our regional bias, we sometimes use the folk label kiss-teeth and the technical one (KST) to stand for a number of closely related terms. 1 (Several spelling and pronunciation variants are subsumed under these terms; see the appendix.) These are:

1. kiss-teeth, suck-teeth, chups, cho!,and kst!

We describe each of these individually, but our working hypothesis is that in performance they construct meaning in broadly similar ways. The core gesture is a conventionalized set of sounds which vary considerably in form, but all involve a velaric ingressive airstream modulated by a dual closure: one velar, one further forward. Parameters include point and type of articulation, duration and punctuality, tongue position, pitch, intensity, lip [End Page 383] tension, and so forth (for details, see Rickford and Rickford 1976; Figueroa and Patrick 2001). All the terms in (1) refer to or re-create this complex of sounds; despite wide phonetic variation (individual, community, and regional), at one level all realizations may be labeled and interpreted as the same conventionalized, paralinguistic sign.

Labeling is itself complex, however. Kiss-teeth and suck-teeth are metalinguistic terms which name the gesture; chups is both label and ideophone 2 —and all three can be used as both noun and verb (or verb phrase). Cho! and kst! are pure interjections with no naming properties, though cho! has enough lexical content to appear invariably in print, unlike kst! On the rare occasions when this sound is represented in print, it tends to be realized in wholly idiosyncratic ways. (Indeed, kst! is our own idiosyncratic spelling for this sound, which has no lexical content.) To complicate matters further, in speech cho! may freely accompany or alternate with the exclamation kst! or chups!, or it may stand in for them with roughly the same range of meanings. We show below that the degree of lexicalization correlates with frequency of use in different linguistic genres.

Brief examples of each illustrate some typical uses:

  1. Mum go out and say, "How it go?" Him KISS HIM TEETH, "Me kick down de gal. . . ." [Jamaican; Ford-Smith 1987, 56]
  2. "The great people-them!" Malvern exclaimed and SUCKED HER TEETH. "They's like the poor. We'll always have them with us." [U.S./Barbados; Marshall 1991, 181]
  3. From the time Slim reach my house he start to STCHOOPS. He say the place too small, the turntable bad, the needle need changing. . . . [Grenadian; Keens-Douglas 1990]
  4. "Is so you wan you pickney behave. CHO woman. Yu was always...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2133
Print ISSN
0003-1283
Pages
pp. 383-397
Launched on MUSE
2002-12-19
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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