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In reading "Shift" by Nalo Hopkinson, I came across this paragraph:

In my mother and father, salt meet with sweet. Milk meet with chocolate. No one could touch her while he was alive and ruler of his lands, but the minute him dead, her family and his get together and exile her to that little island to starve to death. Send her away with two sweet-and-sour, milk chocolate pickney; me in her belly and Caliban at her breast. Is nuh that turn her bitter? When you confine the sea, it don’t stagnate? You put milk to stand, and it nuh curdle?
(emphasis added)

I'm unsure what the "nuh" means in the two bolded sentences. It sounds rather like "no", but it's obviously not just a pronunciation difference; replacing "nuh" with "no" doesn't really make sense, especially in the first instance.

What does "nuh" mean in this context?

  • I'm not sure replacing "nuh" with "no" really makes no sense there, given the boundaries of sense laid by the odd grammar to begin with. – Cahir says Reinstate Monica Aug 21 '18 at 14:35
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According to the website Jamaican Patwah, nuh has two meanings:

  1. No; example: "nuh sad story" (meaning: "no bad news");
  2. Not; example: "It nuh di deh" (meaning: "It is not there").

However, replacing "nuh" with either of the above meanings in the sentences from "Shift" still does not result in grammatical English. For example, with "not":

  • "Is not that turn her bitter?" where we would expect something like "Is it not this that turns/turned her bitter?"
  • "You put milk to stand, and it not curdle?" where we would expect something like "[When] you put milk to stand, and it does not curdle?"

However, it is not unusual for words (pronouns or verbs) to get omitted in Ariel's speech. For example:

  • "Is our mother Sycorax; his and mine." omits the pronoun "it".
  • "is a name some Englishman give her by scraping a feather quill on paper" omits the pronoun "it" and possible the relative pronoun "that" ("it is a name that some Englishman ...").
  • "But me and Brother, when she not there" omits the verb "is".

So "nuh" functions here as the negative adverb "not", but other words not to be added to create a complete sentence.

For examples of "nuh" where we would expect "doesn't" or "don't", see for examples some of Rihanna's lyrics (my emphasis):

Him ah go act like he nuh like it [He will act like he doesn’t like it]
(...)
Nuh badda, text me in a crisis [Don’t bother to text me in a crisis]

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I think you have the right answer on what "nuh" means but you haven't captured her style of speaking. When trying to read the passage aloud, I find I lapse into something like a Scottish lilt (I'm Australian, so I'm not sure why Scottish comes out here!), but there's definitely a rhythm to her spoken word.

Also, she omits the conjunction ("that"), which is quite common in spoken English but perhaps explains the confusion in hearing what she says, as it changes the emphasis. So, for the key sentences --

Is nuh that turn her bitter? When you confine the sea, it don’t stagnate? You put milk to stand, and it nuh curdle?

-- my "translation" is something like:

Isna that that turn her bitter? When you confine the sea, don’t it stagnate? You put milk to stand, and don't it curdle?

  • 1
    Ahh, the word "that" which appears in "Is nuh that turn her bitter" is actually the pronoun "that" and not the conjunction "that". Now it makes more sense. – Rand al'Thor Aug 22 '18 at 10:46

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