The English of ‘Saints’

Dec 7, 2010 by

In yesterday’s posting we examined the English spoken on the Falkland Islands. Today, we’ll look at the English of ‘Saints’ — as the inhabitants of St. Helena call themselves.

The island of St. Helena is in mid-central South Atlantic Ocean, south of the equator, and about 1200 miles west of Angola’s coast. St. Helena’s (geographically) nearest neighbor is Ascension Island, which is to be found more than 600 miles to the northwest of St. Helena.

St. Helena itself consists of approximately 47 square miles of relatively steep, barren and rocky territory, mostly unsuitable for cultivation. However, it also has a relatively mild climate favored by the Southeast trade winds. The capital — and only town — of St. Helena is Jamestown, while other settlements bear such romantic names as Half Tree Hollow, Blue Hill, Sandy Bay and Longwood. The latter was also the place of exile for Napoleon Bonaparte, who spent nearly seven years there.

St. Helenian English goes back to the mid-17th century when the East India Company established a colony on St. Helena in 1658. This makes St. Helena’s English the oldest variety of Southern Hemisphere English. 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 Capoverde Islands, the Indian subcontinent and Madagascar, the English influence on St. Helena is the most pervasive.

Today, St. Helena continues to be 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 and Cape Town.

The recent legal changes in the U.K. allowed increased emigration from St. Helena: since 1999 nearly 30% of ‘Saints’ (mostly young ones) left the island in search of better job opportunities elsewhere in the UK. The current population of the island is about 4,000 people.

So what is St. Helenian English like? It’s sound system (especially the pronunciation of vowels) is rather unremarkable. As is the case for most other British-English influenced varieties of English worldwide, St. Helenian English is a non-rhotic variety, meaning that /r/ is pronounced only if a vowel follows it in the same word. Some Saints also pronounce the /r/ if it is followed by a vowel in the following word (this is the so-called “linking r”), but this — and the related phenomenon of “intrusive r”, as in idea[r] — is not as common as in some other non-rhotic varieties of English.

Another interesting feature of St. Helenian English is the pronunciation of the intervocalic /t/ as a flap. Thus, the Saints’ pronunciation of the middle consonant in better, letter and butter is the same as in American English and different from RP (or Queen’s English). This is particularly curious because in general the intervocalic flap tends to correlate with rhotic accents (such as American English, Irish English).

Among other peculiarities of St. Helenian English is the pronunciation of th-sounds as alveolar stops [t] and [d] rather than as interdental fricatives. This “simplification” is found in many non-standard varieties of English, including African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Also, like in AAVE, the word-final consonant clusters are simplified by deleting one of the consonants, as in buil’ for ‘build’ and lef’ for ‘left’.

St. Helenian English also features many non-standard grammatical peculiarities, such as the lack of plural marking after numerals (e.g., seventy pound, twelve month, there wasn’t many house and even Falkland Island) and allowing null subjects (e.g., Ø met with two girls on the train). Moreover, the first person plural pronoun is us, regardless of its position in the sentence (e.g., us come up Peak Hill… us had a very saucy school master). Like many other non-standard varieties of English, a special form is used for the second person plural pronoun: the Saints’ choice is y’all, as in the U.S. South (e.g., So y’all be goin’ back soon?).

Among other non-standard features found in St. Helenian English are the omission of past tense -ed and the use of demonstratives to mark definites, both illustrated by I never walk around much them days.

Much like AAVE and other non-standard forms of English, St. Helenian English allows multiple negation, as in You no eat no food. Saints’ questions do not involve inversion or do-support (e.g., Where you lef’ you car?). Finally, like Scottish English and the dialects of Southern U.S. English, St. Helenian English uses the double modal construction, as in What I bring you may can draw out.

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