Photograph of a Caribbean man in Britain

Caribbean English

Find out about the history of English in the Caribbean, discover the difference between a pidgin and a creole and listen to examples of speakers from the Caribbean and in the UK’s Caribbean communities.
The varieties of English spoken in the Caribbean 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 transaltanic slave trade was at its height.

The sections below give several examples of speakers using a number of pronunciations and grammatical constructions that are typical of speech in the Caribbean 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 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.

(All sound files © BBC. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.) 

Caribbean English phonology

Feature: TH-stopping

Explanation

<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

Feature: H-dropping

Explanation

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

Feature: consonant cluster reduction

Explanation

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

Feature: rhoticity

Explanation

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

Some varieties in the Caribbean, such as Bajan (Barbadian English), are fully rhotic; others, such as Jamaican English, have a more complex system in which the <r> sound is pronounced in some phonetic environments but not in others.

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

Feature: unreduced vowel in weak syllables

Explanation

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

Feature: FACE vowel

Explanation

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

Feature: GOAT vowel

Explanation

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: zero indefinite article

Explanation

The indefinite article, a or an, is occasionally omitted.

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

Feature: zero past tense marker

Explanation

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

Feature: zero plural marker

Explanation

Nouns are left unmarked for plurality.

my relative_, they were involve in this Community Association business

Image credit: Photograph of Rue Gordon, a bus conductor in Birmingham who emigrated to Britain from Jamaica. Originally published in Picture Post, 22 January 1955. Getty 3404257 © Thurston Hopkins / Stringer via Getty Images.

  • Jonnie Robinson
  • Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.

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