Reflections on Cliff Lashley

February 2023

In 1983 de English department at de St. Thomas campus of de College of the Virgin Islands announced a faculty vacancy for a English position. The assignments for the position involved de teaching of four courses: at least one freshman English course, one or two sophomore English course, an at least one 300 or 400 level course. All English faculty had to teach at least one freshman composition course.

My friend an colleague de late Leslie Reovan told me that I mus try an recruit Cliff Lashley, a Jamaican scholar who wuz at dat time wukkin at Rutgers University. Wen I contacted Cliff Lashley, I introduced meself to ’im, telling ’im dat Leslie Reovan had suggested I contact ’im regarding de opportunity to apply for de English position. I found dis first interaction wid Lashley so engaging dat I became excited bout de prospect of having ’im fu a colleague.

In couple weeks, we decided to call Cliff Lashley to come to de University fu an interview. Lashley had an excellent interview an wuz hired.

Lashley immediately established heself as a charismatic intellectual wid de gift of eloquence, poise, an a penchant fu humor among frens. He quickly mek frens wid members of de Virgin Islands community from virtually all walks a life: hotel an restaurant chefs, landscapers, real estate personalities, media personalities, musicians, calypsonians, medical doctors, nurses, an business people. Wen Cliff Lashley entered a room—whether shared by colleagues or by members of de general public—he diminutive physical size wud quickly be upstaged by he magically expansive personality.

For Cliff, all de world wuz not merely a stage. For ’im, all the world wuz he stage. Cliff wuz not only full a congenial energy—he wuz de inexorable, ubiquitous life a de party. Cliff demonstrated a mastery in conversation—artistic, literary, political, culturally related, based on cuisine, an fashion. Cliff presided over arwe discourse on hedonism an haut couture.

Many a Professor Lashley’s students dem admired he blunt honesty, he sense of fairness an justice fu all groups a people. He reinterpreted many a de popular stereotypical conclusions bout de merits a characters from de criminal demimonde. He highlighted de positive dimensions a de movie-world Godfathers an Robin Hoods. Lashley’s conversation dazzled wen he engaged in de discourse of de dispossessed.

As a young friend an colleague of dis eccentric personality who I regarded as a mentor of sorts, I wuz fascinated wid de stories he told me about he parents’ background: one parent wuz Jamaican, de oda Cuban. He also shared with me de secret to he upper-class Jamaican English accent: as a boy he did use a tape recorder to drill heself in de mimicry of BBC RP register.

Just before Cliff Lashley left St. Thomas, toward de late 1980s, we talk bout he future plans. He mek a point of explaining to me that from he perspective, he considered arwe intellectual discussions an points of difference important. However, he exercised little patience wid me attempts to appreciate de viable coexistence a de two following theoretical perspectives: (1) de “two Jamaicas, two languages” view, along wid (2) de “Jamaican language continuum” view. Cliff saw Jamaican Creole as a complete separate language from Jamaican standard English. He saw Jamaica as having two distinct languages—Afrocentric West Indian Creole an upper-class educated English—each associated wid a separate worldview and value system. He ain agree wid me attempt to reconcile, at de level of underlying language structure, de notion of a multidimensional language continuum wid he binary structuralist separation of de Jamaican language phenomenon.

He view wuz unrelentingly binary: Jamaica had two totally different languages and cultures—de language an culture a de “have nots” an de language an culture a de “haves.” For Cliff Lashley, de Jamaican language divide paralleled de cultural divide. From he perspective, de Creole language—de grass-roots language—reflected de Jamaican roots culture a Afro-centric ancestral consciousness an resistance to rampant, Eurocentric, culturally materialistic ideology. De upper-class English represented a Jamaican worldview a international business an capitalistic profit. Meanwhile, it important to note one point on which Cliff an I agree: de construct a academic standard written British, or American English, is an arbitrary, imperial construct dat stands outside de context of de essential Jamaican laborer-class mother tongue. He did not spend much time discussing de exceptional cases of unschooled Jamaicans who were linguistically gifted polyglots who code switched effectively from one idiom to de oda. Lashley also seem suspicious dat such considerations as de relationship between educated Jamaican English an international educated English was not relevant to explaining de theoretical models proposed on de question of de language competence a de Jamaica child’s ability to understand, to read, an to write academic English. Lashley also made flippant remarks bout de controversial relationship between competence an performance as conceived by Noam Chomsky and he students.1 Lashley wuz skeptical as well a de gradual philosophical migration a Derek Bickerton to generative grammar an philosophical linguistics.2

Meantime, this is how I was thinking bout this dynamic language continuum system wid de basilectal way of speaking that is de muos different from Standard English. For example: “Me bin nyam” (I ate; I had eaten). Den you gat de mesolectal way of speaking: “Ah did nyam” (I ate; I had eaten). Finally, you gat de acrolectal way of speaking: “I eat; I ate” (I ate; I had eaten). Caribbean sociolinguists say dat muos Kittitians speak some form of mesolect and dat de mesolect gat nuff different variety. A lat a linguists say dat de acrolect is similar to informal standard English. But I say dat de acrolect operate wid a dynamic set of Afro-English and language universal morpho-syntactic and morpho-phonemic and morpho-semantic rules. The complex nature of these rules has inspired inventive terminology like Mervyn Alleyne’s “comparative Afro-American” and Kamau Brathwaite’s “nation language.”3

Unfortunately, my friend Cliff Lashley transitioned to the world of the ancestors before we were able to continue our discourse on Afro-Caribbean vernaculars.

I will always remember my friend and colleague Cliff Lashley as one a de most irritably controversial, philosophically engaging, an amazing characters I have ever known.


Vincent O. Cooper, PhD, is Senior Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of the Virgin Islands. He is an associate editor of the Caribbean Writer; an internationally published author in sociolinguistics and Creolistics; and a translator of French and Spanish and their vernaculars. He is also a widely published poet and literary critic and is the author of the textbook An Anthology of Pan-Caribbean Poetry (Harbrace-Jovanovitch, 1995).

[1] See Noam Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965).

[2] Derek Bickerton was a linguist whose academic work focused on Creole languages and is known for his work on Creole languages in Guyana and Hawaii. He was born in England, studied at Cambridge University, and subsequently held academic positions at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana; Leeds University; the University of Guyana; and the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

[3] See Mervyn Alleyne, Comparative Afro-American: An Historical-Comparative Study of English-Based Afro-American Dialects of the New World (Ann Arbor, MI: Karoma, 1980); and Kamau Brathwaite, History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (London: New Beacon, 1984).


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