Caribbean English

From Pidgin to Creole

The varieties of English spoken in the West Indies give us a fascinating insight into the way languages emerge and evolve when people from different cultures come into contact. From the early 1700s, thousands of people were transported as slaves to the Caribbean, particularly from West Africa. As a result a number of pidgin languages developed. A pidgin language is a linguistically simplified means of communication that emerges naturally when speakers of two or more languages need to understand each other. Initially workers on the colonial plantations in the Caribbean would have spoken a variety of ethnic languages, but the language imposed on them by slave owners was English. Among the workers themselves, however, a pidgin language would have been used, based on the sounds, vocabulary and grammatical structures of all the contributing languages.

From pidgin to creole

Crucially a pidgin language is not a mother tongue. This means it has no native speakers. But if the pidgin remains the main means of communication within a community for a significant length of time — as, for example, on the plantations of the Caribbean - then it becomes the first language of children within the community. At this point it begins to increase in complexity as it is spoken in a wider range of contexts and adapts to serve the purposes of a fully-fledged language. This process produces what linguists call a creole. A creole is a pidgin that has expanded in structure and vocabulary and has all the characteristics of other languages. This means it demonstrates two important factors:

  • Regional variation — hence the difference between, say, Jamaican Patois (often called Patwa locally) and Barbadian Creole (known locally as Bajan)
  • Social variation — so we can define one speaker as using a broader variety of patois than another.

Crucially, however, this creole generally competes with a closely related language that has more prestige within the community. Therefore it often has an ambivalent status even among its own speakers. Throughout the Caribbean, for instance, Standard English, albeit a Caribbean version, is the language of education, although Jamaicans, Barbadians and others are rightly proud of their local patois as an important expression of their cultural identity.

Caribbean creole

In its most extreme form, a Caribbean Creole can appear unintelligible to outsiders. As with dialects there are fine shades of differences between speakers, although there are a number of elements that characterise most forms of Caribbean English. The lack of the verb ‘to be’ in statements such as she dreaming, where Standard English requires she’s dreaming, is typical of the type of structure that occurs in a creole. Similarly, pronouns may not be marked for subject/object distinctions and verbs might not always carry a tense marker as in the statement him tell me dat yesterday for he told me that yesterday. The meaning is always clear, despite the apparent simplification - in fact creoles are just as rule-governed as dialects and languages. Finally, there are common elements of Caribbean vocabulary, such as pickney, meaning ‘young child’. This word is particularly intriguing, as it is known to exist in several pidgin and creole languages across the world. It is thought to originate from the Portuguese word pequeno, meaning ‘small’, and perhaps illustrates the role played by Portuguese sailors and merchants in the early trade routes down the West African coast at the time when The Slave Trade was at its height.

The table below gives several examples of speakers using a number of pronunciations and grammatical constructions that are typical of speech in the West Indies and among speakers in the UK’s Caribbean communities. All the audio clips are taken from recent BBC interviews and come from spontaneous conversation. They therefore reflect the natural reflexes of Caribbean English. The left hand column lists each feature, while the second column gives an explanation. The list is by no means comprehensive, but by clicking on the sound file you can hear an extract from a recording of a speaker using the target feature.

Caribbean English Phonology

feature explanation sound file
TH-stopping

<th> in words such as think and three is pronounced using a <t> sound and in words such as this and that using a <d> sound

so with me having, getting that bit of knowledge, things comes easy to me

H-dropping

initial <h> is deleted in words such as happy and house

they were in the process of, uhm, finding homes for people that just arriving, new arrival in this country and, uh, helping them settle down and finding jobs

consonant cluster reduction

complex strings of consonants are often simplified by deleting the final sound, so that best becomes ‘bes’, respect becomes ‘respeck’ and land becomes ‘lan

you realise how a detached house is, semi-detached and

rhoticity

the <r> sound is pronounced after a vowel in words like hard, corn and nurse

I start working as a conductor — I was one of the first black person to, uhm, start it on the Sheffield Tramway

unreduced vowel in weak syllables

vowels in unstressed syllables are not reduced, so that speakers use a comparatively strong vowel on words such as about, bacon or arrival and on grammatical function words, such as in the phrases lot of work, in a few days and in the kitchen - a very subtle feature that contributes to the characteristic rhythm or ‘lilt’ of Caribbean English

and then you just automatic, automatically got into the swing and accept what you've seen here

FACE vowel

a similar vowel sound as that used by speakers in Scotland, Wales and the North East of England on words such as game, tray, plain, reign, they and great

back home in Jamaica each individual have their own home and spaces

GOAT vowel

a similar vowel sound as that used by speakers in Scotland, Wales and the North East of England on words such as home, show, boat and toe

we all have our own home — nice little home and we have great deal of land

Caribbean English Grammar

feature explanation sound file
zero indefinite article

the indefinite article, a or an, is occasionally omitted

in _ couple of days I foun, I got my own, I got a job

zero past tense marker

verbs are left unmarked for tense, although other signals (adverbs of time, such as yesterday, last week etc.) often give linguistic clues about the timing of an event

I work_ on that job for a few months

zero plural marker

nouns are left unmarked for plurality

my relative_, they were involve in this Community Association business