“sunte”
Posted: 14 June 2012 02:49 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Hi.  This is my first post, so apologies if I’m asking a question in the wrong place - this may not be about an English word at all, although it occurs in an English context. 

The word is “sunte”, and it occurs in an article in The Times in 1824 about the trial of a Jamaican, Andrew Marble, for possession of items used in Obeah.  At points in his article the reporter tries to render the dialect used by Marble and other Jamaican blacks, and in particular twice quotes him using the word “sunte”.  From the context it seems to mean small items used in the practice of Obeah, such as shells, berries, hog’s teeth, broken glass etc.  (Obeah belief was that such articles, if buried with due rites, would reappear in the body of the cursed person and cause disease.)

“Witness asked[Marble] why he bit his mother?  He[Marble] said, to get out the sunte....Witness asked how these things could catch his mother.  Prisoner replied, “If you take a hair out of person’s head, and put it in the ground with them sunte, it will catch the somebody the hair came from.”

The paper prints the word in italics, which may indicate it’s non-English: elsewhere though it also prints “toots” (teeth) in italics, and the words ”done” and ”did”, used by witnesses in the particular sense of “cursed, bewitched”.  So I don’t know whether “sunte” is an African word or just an English word (sundry? something?) which is being pronounced in such a way the reporter didn’t recognize it.  Has anyone come across it before?  I’ve tried OED under various spellings. 

The transcript of the news report is available online at http://www.law.mq.edu.au/research/colonial_case_law/colonial_cases/less_developed/jamaica/r_v_marble/

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Posted: 14 June 2012 04:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I found one article on JSTOR that addresses the word, but it’s not much help. It’s an article about this very case.

Murray, Deryck. “Three Worships, an Old Warlock and Many Lawless Forces: The Court Trial of an African Doctor Who Practised ‘Obeah to Cure’ in Early Nineteenth Century Jamaica.” Journal of Southern African Studies, 33:4, (Dec., 2007), pp. 811-828.

In a footnote on p. 821 Murray says, “The author has not been able to ascertain the meaning of this word [sunte], which is probably derived from an African language, but it is known that this work often included bits of broken glass, and metal that was subsequently found under the victim’s skin, to which the word probably referred.”

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Posted: 14 June 2012 06:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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This might be a stupid suggestion…

Any possibility that “sunte” is a transliteration of “sante” (with the short u representing /ʌ/).

Sure sounds like a stupid suggestion but I thought I might as well throw it up there.

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Posted: 14 June 2012 10:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Thanks, this is helpful.  At least the JStor reference means I’m not the only one scratching my head.  OP, I too wondered about a sunte-santeria link, but when I tried to get at the origin of santeria in OED it seemed the “santo” part referred to a person, either a spiritual entity or practitioner, rather than a thing.  Still, I don’t suppose poor Marble learned his obeah in college.  Avoiding being executed was more a priority than getting the terminology right.  It is very close, isn’t it?

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Posted: 15 June 2012 01:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I thought this might make the context a bit clearer:

... Witness deposed that his mother was sick. She and the prisoner were conversing together, but did not know what they were talking about. Witness asked prisoner, as he was sent to his mother by the overseer, why he would not go? Prisoner told him he was not a doctor. Witness told him that he did his mother so (made his mother sick). He (prisoner) said he was going to see what he could do, whether he could get her better or not. Prisoner told him the iron in his mother’s back stood cross, and if it came out she would be better. Witness explained, that the prisoner meant that there was an iron bar across his mother’s back-bone, under her skin. Prisoner said, “she had too many things under her skin, besides the iron bar, for there was toots, and glass, and nough sunte.” Witness carried him up to the overseer, who asked prisoner if what witness told him was true, and witness said, “you can’t deny it;” prisoner only answered, “I hear you.” Heard prisoner say he took teeth from his mother’s back. When prisoner first began, he stripped his mother naked, called for water, then rum, and put his mouth to his mother’s skin, sucked it, spit out teeth, then glass, and was going on. Witness asked why he bit his mother? He said “to get out the sunte."…

[bold emphasis by sobiest]

From http://www.law.mq.edu.au/research/colonial_case_law/colonial_cases/less_developed/jamaica/r_v_marble/

.

Header/title information:

Slave Court, Jamaica

Smith, Bicknell and Townshend, 9 July 1824

Source: Morning Chronicle (London, England), 25 August 25, 1824, issue 17271, from the British Library’s 19th Century Newspapers site

TRIAL FOR PRACTISING OBEAH.

St. Catherine’s, (Jamaica,) July 9.

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Posted: 15 June 2012 03:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Sounds like it might have been a confusing case for all involved, not least for the stenographer.

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Posted: 15 June 2012 03:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Yes, there may be a transcription error. But the web site appears to be a faithful transcription of the 1824 article as it appeared in the Morning Chronicle. (A facsimile of the article is available online through some subscription-only services.) You’d really need to look at the original court records, if they still exist, to see exactly what was recorded.

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Posted: 15 June 2012 05:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Obvious question: can you find other references to sunte?

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Posted: 15 June 2012 09:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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No, I haven’t found any other references to “sunte” in an Obeah context.  I suppose it’s either an unknown African word, or it’s “santos” used by Marble in a loose sense of “enchanted objects”, and not recognized by whoever was reporting the trial.

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Posted: 15 June 2012 10:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I’m inclined to think that it may be a transliteration of a garbled phrase.  Consider “toots” in the snip below:

“...toots, and glass, and nough sunte."…

I think that’s likely to be “tooths” as in “teeth"--the text I saw seems to indicate this is the case.

If I could find the time, I’d make a list of possible pronounced phonemes in both “nough” and “sunte,”

then make likely combinations, and, first considering that these are two words that commonly appear together, do some searching for a phrase that might fit. 

If, after searching, nothing struck me as a likely candidate, I’d next consider them as two separate words not commonly seen together, and search for these individual words.

My first guess was that “sunte” might be “sundry” but I still wouldn’t bet on it.

This is an interesting puzzle.

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Posted: 15 June 2012 04:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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I’d’ve thought nough must be enough.

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