Non-standard English on the Islands of the South Atlantic

Nov 18, 2015 by

[Note to Readers: This post was originally published in August 2012.]

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The Falkland/Malvinas Islands consists of some 780 islands in South Atlantic, with the total area of about 4,700 square miles, which is slightly larger than Jamaica or Kosovo, slightly smaller than Connecticut and about half the size of Wales; the two main islands are East and West Falkland. Despite its position just 300 miles off the east coast of Spanish-speaking Argentina, the 3,000-strong population of Falkland Islands is solidly English-speaking. Moreover, some 1,000-2,000 British military personnel are stationed on RAF Mount Pleasant, about 30 miles west of the capital Stanley on East Falkland. Although the British first set foot on Falklands in 1690, an uninterrupted Anglophone settlement of the islands dates back to the mid‑1830s, after Captain Onslow of the HMS Clio landed on East Falkland on January 2, 1833 and raised the Union Flag. The Argentinean garrison of 26 soldiers that had been established not long before was forced to withdraw, leaving the Falklands in British hands. Soon thereafter Captain Onslow left, leaving no official presence on the islands to enforce British sovereignty besides “the storekeeper William Dickson [who] was instructed to hoist a British flag on Sundays and when a ship approached” (as described in Schreier, Trudgill, Schneider, and Williams 2010).

Several historical aspects make Falkland Island English particularly interesting for a historical linguist or a dialectologist. First, unlike the better-known Anglophone communities in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or United States, the English-speaking settlers on Falkland Islands never encountered an indigenous population speaking a local language. Furthermore, the founding community on the Falklands spoke with a distinctive mix of home-country accents: while Australia and New Zealand were settled mostly by people speaking with Cockney or Irish English accent, the Falklands were settled primarily by people from southwest England and Scotland.

The Falkland Islands are not the only English-speaking community in South Atlantic, and it is neither the oldest nor the youngest. The former title belongs to the Anglophone community of St. Helena, or ‘Saints’ as they call themselves. Located about 1200 miles west of Angola’s coast, St. Helena consists of approximately 47 square miles of relatively steep, barren, rocky territory, mostly unsuitable for cultivation. However, it also has a relatively mild climate favored by the Southeast trade winds. Its (geographically) closest neighbor is Ascension Island, found more than 600 miles to the northwest of St. Helena. The capital of the island—and its only town—is Jamestown, while other settlements bear such romantic names as Half Tree Hollow, Blue Hill, Sandy Bay, and Longwood. The latter was the place of exile for Napoleon Bonaparte, who spent nearly seven years there.

The variety of English spoken by ‘Saints’ goes back to the establishment of a colony on St. Helena by the East India Company in 1658, which makes it the oldest not only in the South Atlantic but in the Southern Hemisphere in general. In fact, it is more than a century older than the major varieties of South African, Australian, and New Zealand English. While the Dutch had a short interregnum on St. Helena in the early 1670s, and additional settlers came from France, West Africa, the Capo Verde Islands, the Indian subcontinent, and Madagascar, the English influence on St. Helena is the most pervasive. In recent years, the British government introduced a number of legal changes that allowed increased emigration from St. Helena; as a result, nearly 30% of ‘Saints’ (mostly young ones) left the island since 1999 in search of better job opportunities elsewhere in the UK. The current 4,000-strong population of St. Helena remains one of the most isolated native-English-speaker communities in the world. There is no airport on the island and only a single government-subsidized ship connects St. Helena to Ascension Island and Cape Town, South Africa.

While Falkland Islands and St. Helena with their native English-speaking communities of 3,000-4,000 people may seem small and isolated, they are by no means the smallest or the most isolated varieties of English. Those titles belong to the community inhabiting the island of Tristan da Cunha, which is less than 300 strong, less than 1/10 the size of Falkland Islands or St. Helenian Anglophone communities. Unsurprisingly, the use of peculiar local vocabulary and personal nicknames is very pervasive on Tristan da Cunha. The English-speaking community there is not only small, but also the most isolated: the island is situated almost 1,500 miles south of St. Helena, over 1,700 miles west of Cape Town in South Africa, and over 2,000 miles east of Uruguay. It is accessible only over the sea as there is no airport on the island. A boat trip takes between 5 and 15 days, depending on the weather, and there are only 8 to 10 occasions a year to take the trip.

Tristan da Cunha English holds yet another distinction as it is also the youngest native-speaker variety of English around the world, established less than 200 years ago. Different “flavors” of English were originally brought to the island from various regions of the British Isles, as well as from the Northeastern United States, South Africa, and St. Helena. In addition to its small size, isolation, and short history, Tristan da Cunha English-speaking community is also peculiar in other ways. For example, unlike in so many other English-speaking parts of the world, Tristan da Cunha community is entirely Anglophone and monolingual. When the community was first established, the island was uninhabited, so there was no contact with any indigenous languages, as was the case in many other British colonies. There is only one settlement on the island, officially known as Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, but referred to colloquially as “the village”. Hence, there is no regional variation on Tristan da Cunha. Furthermore, the community tries to control social stratification by all means possible. For example, there is no unemployment on Tristan da Cunha. Despite—or perhaps because of—the isolation, there is a very strong sense of group identity and conformity among the inhabitants of the island, so there is no socio-linguistic variation either.

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Despite being separated by tens of thousands of miles and by little common history, the varieties of English spoken on Falkland Islands, St. Helena, and Tristan da Cunha have many similarities. For example, all three varieties are non-rhotic, meaning that /r/ is not pronounced word-finally or before a consonant, same as in southeastern England or parts of New England. Like the old-time residents of Cambridge England or Cambridge Massachusetts, inhabitants of South Atlantic islands say pahk the cah for ‘park the car’. Note that the non-rhotic nature of South Atlantic varieties of English cannot be explained across the board by their British roots as Falkland Islands were settled primarily by speakers of rhotic accents from Southwestern England and Scotland (see map). As with most other non-rhotic varieties of English, South Atlantic English exhibits the so-called “linking r”, whereby the /r/ is pronounced if it is followed by a vowel in the following word, as in mothe[r] is (but not in motheh said). Another kind of [r] that shows up in South Atlantic English is the so-called “intrusive r”, as in pronouncing idea[r] for ‘idea’. Of the three island groups, the use of the “linking r” and “intrusive r” is least common in the speech of the Saints. Another curious, and probably related, peculiarity of the Saints’ speech is their pronunciation of the intervocalic /t/ in better, letter and butter as a flap, which sounds more like a [d] or an [r], the same as in American English and different from British English, from which Saints’ English developed. This is particularly curious because in general the intervocalic flap tends to appear only in rhotic accents such as American English or Irish English.

While some pronunciation peculiarities in South Atlantic English are common to non-standard varieties worldwide, others are rather distinctive. For example, St. Helena English—like numerous other dialects, including African-American Vernacular English (AAVE)—features the pronunciation of th-sounds as alveolar stops [t] and [d] rather than as interdental fricatives and the simplification of word-final consonant clusters, as in buil’ for ‘build’ and lef’ for ‘left’. On Tristan da Cunha one finds a pronunciation pattern reminiscent of Cockney English: the glottalization of word-medial stops in button, bottle, and people. However, Cockney is also known for its h-dropping; recall Professor Higgins’ complaints “Hear them down in Soho square, / Dropping “h’s” everywhere. / Speaking English anyway they like.…”. In contrast to Cockney, Tristan da Cunha English features an extensive h-insertion in words like [h]apple and [h]after; the word island is pronounced the same as highland. Another unusual feature of Tristan da Cunha accent is the tendency to devoice the medial /z/ and /zh/ sounds, pronouncing sea[s]on and televi[sh]ion with [s] and [sh] instead.

Some of these peculiarities in the pronunciation consonants, as well as the great variability in the pronunciation of vowels, may be explained by historical linkages to certain home-country accents, yet other expected pronunciation features are not found. For example, as mentioned above, Falkland Islands were settled mostly by people from Southwestern England and Scotland, but many aspects of their accents are not found in the speech of Falklanders. Among the missing dialectal pronunciation patterns is the voicing of voiceless fricatives such as /f/ and /s/ word-initially. For example, in North Devon dialect, words four and five are pronounced with a [v] in the beginning, while salt and seven start with a [z] sound. Also, in some varieties of southwestern British English one finds the loss of /w/ before the short-u in words like woman, pronounced as ‘uman. Neither of these features is preserved on Falkland Islands. Similarly, certain features common to Scottish English are not present on Falklands. These include the historical retention of the velar fricative [x] in words like eight and the distinct pronunciation of which and witch (the former word pronounced with the voiceless bilabial approximant [hw]).

In terms of grammar, South Atlantic English is characterized by many peculiarities found in other non-standard varieties, such as the use of demonstratives in place of the article the to mark the following noun as definite, as in some of them shearers. Some of these non-standard grammatical patterns may seem “illogical” from the point of view of standard English, but they prove more rather than less rational upon closer inspection. For example, the three South Atlantic varieties of English use the singular form of the noun after a numeral or a quantifier, as in about two year ago, seventy pound, twelve month, and there wasn’t many house. But what is the use of the extra -s in standard English when it is clear from the quantity word that a plurality of years, pounds, months, houses, or whatevers is spoken of? Another seemingly abnormal phenomenon in non-standard English, for instance of Falkland Islands, involves the forms of reflexive pronouns such as hisself instead of himself, as in He had to buy them all hisself. But as weird as such forms may seem from the point of view of standard English, they actually fit more “logically” with other reflexive forms like myself, herself, and ourselves, whose first part is a possessive form of the pronoun, just as in hisself.

Yet other forms found in non-standard varieties of English in the South Atlantic are logical continuations of historical developments which occurred in standard English. Take, for example, subject-verb agreement: in Old English the verb agreed with the subject exhibiting distinct forms for person/number combinations, much as it still does in modern Romance or Slavic languages: prior to the Norman conquest, I, thou, and he necessitated different verb forms, as did we, you, and they. In Modern English only he/she/it appears with a distinct form, for example, plays rather than play, and only in the present tense. Non-standard varieties of English take this loss of subject-verb agreement to the extreme, abandoning whatever remnants of it are still found in standard English, as in they was covered in concrete and She sing real good. Another similar development is the loss of the distinction between past tense and past participle with regular verbs in standard English (hence, I played and I have played, though I ate and I have eaten), extended to irregular verbs in non-standard English. For example, Falkland Islanders say they might have went instead of they might have gone.

In grammar, as in pronunciation, South Atlantic varieties of English exhibit certain peculiarities reminiscent of other dialects, though typically these similarities have no historical rationalization. For example, a distinct form for the 2nd person plural pronoun is used, with Falklanders’ choice being youse, as in Australia, New Zealand, and other forms of Irish-influenced English, while Saints’ prefer y’all commonly heard in the U.S. South (inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha use both forms). Much like AAVE and other non-standard forms of English, English on St. Helena and Tristan da Cunha allows multiple negation, as in You no eat no food or Nobody never come out or nothing. Saints also use double modals, as in He might should come, meaning ‘It is possible that he will have to come’. This construction is found in some dialects of Scottish English; curiously, double modals are not found on Falkland Islands, despite the historical Scottish settlement there.

 


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  • John Cowan

    I’m surprised you didn’t also discuss the English varieties of Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands (as opposed to Pitkern/Norfuk, the creole also spoken there).

  • Roger Fernàndez

    Hi Asya! I really enjoyed this post. In my blog, I wrote a serie of posts about british colonies in South Atlantic. These places really get me fascinated, especially Tristan da Cunha! Just one question: I think it was at the end of XIX century, when two italian sailors arrived Tristan da Cunha after a wreckage. Nowadays, most Tristaners have their italian ancestors surname, Lavarello or Repetto. Do you think italian has has affected in some way Tristanian dialect?
    Ah, and one very small mistake: you have written that St. Helena has no airport. But yes, it has! But it’s hard to know. They just finished construction few months ago and first plane landed there in september.
    Best regards

  • Matt_M

    Regarding flapping: “This is particularly curious because in general the intervocalic flap tends to appear only in rhotic accents such as American English or Irish English.”

    Intervocalic flapping is normal in Australian and New Zealand English, both non-rhotic varieties.