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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.

  • The standard English is not equivalent. It should be something like: "I know they say they don't like me" which has a slightly different meaning. – JimmyJames Dec 3 '18 at 17:49
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    On a side note, the thing that helps a lot in understanding these dialects is understanding that 'them' (or 'dem') is often used to pluralize. E.g. "Horse them" meaning multiple horses. Once I learned this, phrases that were previously indecipherable to me became understandable. – JimmyJames Dec 3 '18 at 17:55
  • "I know .. say them .. don't like me". "say them" is "they are saying". (A bit like "Say's who? - say's me!") – Fattie Dec 4 '18 at 8:48
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The meaning of seh

In Jamaican Patois at least, seh is a cognate of say.

For example, from JamaicanPatwah.com¹:

seh

English Translation
say

Definition
Saying

Example Sentences
Patois: Wah yuh seh?
English: What are you saying?

and from The Poetry Archive:

Nouns

In Creole, where a noun refers to a class of persons or things, as such, or where it is preceded by a number or some other expression of quantity, nothing is added to indicate plurality.

Dem seh / wi commandeer cyar
They say / said we commandeered cars
('Di Great Insohreckshan', Linton Kwesi Johnson)

So in your example, Mi know seh dem nuh like mi, I'd read this as I know they say they don't like me, rather than your reading of that.

Etymology

Linguists have used the term "lexifier" for the relationship between English and Jamaican patois or creole: that is, English supplies most of the words to the patois. Then they're subject to the phonology of that dialect.

Patois does interesting things with word-ending vowels, but I'm not versed enough to name the specific phonological alterations that produce "seh" from "say"; sufficed to say, the source (etymology) of "seh" in patois is "say" in English.

But, just like any other word, seh has evolved organically over time, and diverged from straight English say. Below, I'll review a couple of these extensions.

In set phrases

In certain set phrases, it has a different meaning, but that's more a function of the idiomacity of the phrase (taken as a whole) as opposed to the word.

From TheCultureTrip.com, 15 Jamaican Patois Phrases To Know:

Weh yuh ah seh

Literally translated as what are you saying, but actually meaning how are you doing. For example: Weh yuh a seh? Mi deh try call yuh means, How are you doing? I’ve been trying to call you.

To make the difference between a standalone word and a set phrase clearer, consider an AmE example: you could say "bucket" has a different definition in the phrase "kick the bucket", but that's misleading: it's the set phrase which has a specific meaning, and should be treated as a indivisible word (technically a lexeme).

Other

Here's a case where seh apparently has an entirely different meaning, and I don't know how to class it.

From Paxton Belcher-Timme, Rhetoric of Reggae, Patois: the language of Jamaica (December 1, 2009):

Patois: cooh deh, dem ah galang lakka seh dem nuh ha nutten
English: Look at that! They are behaving as if they do not have anything.

Cooh Deh! = Look at that!
Deh ah = They are
Galanga lakka she = Behaving as if

Here, note the example sentence has Galanga lakka seh, but the "English translation" has Galanga lakka she.

So I don't know:

  • which is the typo (meaning, this might not be discussing the word seh at all, but rather she),
  • or whether this is a set phrase,
  • or an entirely different meaning for the standalone word seh.
    • Though I find lakka seh for like saying a plausible semantic broadening to "acting like" (it's like they're saying for acting as if²).

Possibility as a function word

Janus Bahs Jacquet, one of our resident linguists, in a comment, made an interesting connection to generic complement markers in Japanese:

I have nothing really to back it up, but it seems likely to me that ‘say’ has been reinterpreted as a generic marker of certain types of complement clause in Jamaican.

It ‘feels’ similar to how the marker と to functions in Japanese: its primary use is to mark direct speech, but it’s also used for things that can sort of be loosely compared to direct speech, such as the objects of sense and impression verbs, loose comparisons (act like, be like, look like), etc.

Assuming that seh is the right word in the last example, I think that and the one in the question are actually the same usage.

I'm in no better position than Janus to corroborate this theory, but from the few examples I've examined today, it feels plausible.


¹ Patwah here being patois for Patois

² I didn't look this up, but if I had to guess, galanga is derived from "going along", "proceeding". Thus, galanga lakka say would be "going along like they're saying", i.e. proceeding as if. But again, this is speculation.

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    I have nothing really to back it up, but it seems likely to me that ‘say’ has been reinterpreted as a generic marker of certain types of complement clause in Jamaican. It ‘feels’ similar to how the marker と to functions in Japanese: its primary use is to mark direct speech, but it’s also used for things that can sort of be loosely compared to direct speech, such as the objects of sense and impression verbs, loose comparisons (act like, be like, look like), etc. Assuming that seh is the right word in the last example, I think that and the one in the question are actually the same usage. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 3 '18 at 15:33
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    In this Patwa grammar guide, point 8.6 notes that se is a complementizer "after the psychologically-related verb-types of speech, thought, emotion or perception", and that it cannot co-occur with the verb se "to say". – Michaelyus Dec 3 '18 at 18:41
  • @Michaelyus Niiiice! Thank you! I’ll edit this in later today. Great stuff, thank you for finding it an bringing it to us. – Dan Bron Dec 3 '18 at 18:41
  • "Say" in English is also used as "for example" in the sense "[one might] say", so "galang lakka seh dem nuh ha nutten" -> "Going along like, one might say, they don't have anything". – Ben Dec 4 '18 at 9:22
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Seh means 'is the case' or 'that', as well as being a way to say 'say'. Hence, "galang lakka seh" = behaving as if X is the case, and "me know seh" = I know that this is the case.

  • Native Patois speaker
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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

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    Interesting finding on San Andres Creole! Thanks for that. Underneath, it mentions that in Jamaican Creole, the complementiser se does not co-occur with se nor piik. I wonder if there's an iso-gloss that can be drawn...? – Michaelyus May 22 at 11:46
  • Yes, didn't notice that, but it backs up what the other two sources say. Perhaps there is some sort of isogloss, but I wouldn't be able to draw it! It would be ideal if APiCS had included that as another variable in their map here apics-online.info/parameters/95#2/30.3/5.0. I myself was wondering whether the difference in San Andres is to do with Spanish speakers learning creole imperfectly. – Tim Foster May 22 at 14:07

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