Tristan da Cunha English

Dec 8, 2010 by

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. That title probably belongs to the community inhabiting the island of Tristan da Cunha, also in south Atlantic. After all, its native English-speaking community is less than 300 strong, less than 1/10 the size of Falkland Islands or St. Helenian communities. Is it any wonder that the use of nicknames is so pervasive on Tristan da Cunha?

And Tristan da Cunha has the most isolated variety of English: the island is situated almost 1500 miles south of St. Helena, over 1700 miles west of Cape Town in South Africa and over 2000 miles east of Uruguay. It is accessible only over the sea as there is no airport on Tristan da Cunha. 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.

But Tristan da Cunha English is not only the smallest and the most isolated variety — it is also the youngest native-speaker variety of English around the world, as it developed in the 1820s. 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.

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, which means that there was no contact with any indigenous languages (as was the case in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and elsewhere). There is only one settlement on the island, officially known as Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, but referred to colloquially as “the village”. Because of this 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 Tristan da Cunha, so there is no socio-linguistic variation either. All of this makes Tristan da Cunha a perfect study case for a historical linguist or a dialectologist.

So what is Tristan da Cunha English like? In addition to developing its own peculiar vocabulary related to the cultural or social conditions on the island, Tristan da Cunha English has several interesting characteristics. While most of its vowel system is fairly unremarkable, it does feature the non-diphthongization of the vowel in face, pronounced [fe:s]. Another interesting peculiarity of Tristan da Cunha pronunciation is the glottalization of stops, such as the medial consonant in button, bottle and people. Perhaps even more peculiar is the extensive h-insertion in words like [h]apple and [h]after; it also makes the pronunciation of island nondistinct from that of highland. Moreover, Tristan da Cunha English speakers tend to devoice the medial -z- and -zh-sounds, pronouncing sea[s]on and televi[sh]ion with [s] and [sh] instead. Finally, like other southern Atlantic varieties of English, Tristan da Cunha English is a non-rhotic variety, with linking and intrusive [r] making appearance as well.

From the point of view of grammar, it is interesting how many of the non-standard features of English that we’ve already seen on Falkland Islands and on St. Helena we can find on Tristan da Cunha as well. There is no plural marking after numbers (e.g., five pound); distinct second person plural pronouns are used (both y’all and you’s); verbal inflectional morphology is simplified, as in She sing real good and They never eat much them days. The latter sentence also exemplifies the use of third person pronoun them to mark a definite noun phrase.

The desire for expressiveness drives such peculiarities of Tristan da Cunha English as double comparatives (e.g., I like that more better) and double negation (e.g., nobody never come out or nothing). Finally, Tristan da Cunha English features no inversion in questions, as in Where they is? (note also the lack of tense or agreement morphology here).

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