Looking for horn | Classic | Last word

Dylan Kerrigan on the subtle secrets of horn language. (And, no, it’s not what you think.) Originally published in 2004, this Beat classic was reproduced in the July/August 2018 issue

  • Illustration by James Hackett

The culture of a place — the way its people think about and do things — reveals itself in many ways. Sometimes like a silent language, or a secret handshake known only to those born into it; sometimes noisily, but no less mysterious to outsiders.

Take driving, for instance: the style, manners, and general attitude of drivers in different parts of the world — as they get from A to B on the same asphalt roads with the same traffic lights and road signs — couldn’t be more wide-ranging.

In Spain, for example, drivers speed up on sighting a pedestrian. Like waving a red flag at a bull, and regardless of your age and sex, stepping onto a zebra crossing in the land of lazy siestas is an incitement to speed. Having the green man on your side is irrelevant, unless he comes to life as a policeman. The conductores take off like Formula One racers on amphetamines, and are blind to pedestrians.

In England, conformist motorists suffer road rage should a fellow driver err from the rules, and are inclined to drive off a cliff if Highway Code rule 41B tells them to.

The Caribbean too has its own style. In fact, in Trinidad you’ll find an inventive people who’ve taken the car’s central warning device, the horn, and created an indigenous language.

There’s the two-tap “overtake” signal, useful on beach runs and in dealing with single-lane traffic moving too slowly. Akin to the verbal announcement “coming through!” used at fetes across the land, the “overtake” is as common on the road as rum is with Coke on a Friday night.

Of course there’s also a slightly faster reciprocal two-tap “thank you” that many drivers deliver once they’re clean through — often modified to an even more grateful three-tap if the other car “ease yuh up” by moving over and slowing down.

And who can ignore the vexation blast? Ouch — not pleasant to receive, but satisfying to release. In a country where “bad drive” is almost a way of life, it receives a lot of airtime on the highway, and when things come to a standstill. There’s the taxi blocking up the traffic, the man driving the wrong way up your lane, the traffic light jumper, the numb nut who thinks he can get through a gap he obviously can’t — all regularly get the long, brutal horn, often supplemented by a few choice words.


The “cautious-winding-road” one-tap is extremely useful in the hills outside Port of Spain, and used by everyone up and down the country like pepper sauce —  some like it with everything, others only when Tantie food really call for it.

Should the beep ever sound out of control — an exaggerated long horn, low and loud — beware. This could be one of three things: a) a big truck coming fast round the corner, and the road ain’t big enough for the both of you; b) a nervous or over-cautious driver, probably driving slower than your granny and with a snaking line of traffic in the rear; or c) just some limeys playing the fool after too many Caribs — probably the most dangerous of the three possibilities.

For J’Ouvert on Carnival Monday morning there’s the non-stop, in-time-to-the-music horn, most useful when, through no fault of your own, a mud truck with hundreds of dirty revellers turns the corner to confront you. Once the mudders see a clean car ahead there can be no escape — they’re coming to dance on your ride, bouncing it up and down while printing their bodies in multicoloured abstract patterns all over your expensive paint job. At these moments, while the foreigner fears for his life, locals usually know what to do. Keep tapping the horn and get it in time to the music; the mud men will soon pass, content that their call was acknowledged with some horn of your own.

For Old Year’s there is a horn symphony in C minor — so named in honour of the children of drivers who are out feteing and left their cars at home. Come midnight, every child still awake rushes the driveway, daddy’s keys in hand, and bangs the horn until their poor babysitters are forced to manhandle them back indoors.

But if eloquent horning is a Trini trait, there is no better expert than a maxi taxi driver. From half a mile away, they deploy a kind of sonar, their horns penetrating any potential passengers and assessing whether or not they’re going “Valley way”. So skilled are they that you can be deep in conversation oblivious to their tracking, but still their sonic skill determines whether you’re a weapon of mass destruction, or just going to the Croisée.

From the vast dictionary of horn semantics — and we have only touched on a few examples — my personal favourite is the “salutation horn”. Sometimes it’s just a short hello, other times a rip-roaring, honkety-honk that scares the life out of old people and children, but lets your partner (and everyone else in the street) know that you and he are good friends, although by no means does this guarantee him a ride.

This horn language isn’t allowed by the road laws of every country, but in Trinidad it’s part of everyday life. Without it, in fact, the road system probably wouldn’t work. There, I’ve said it now: without a good horn things break down.

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