Language and its Importance in the Caribbean

Seminar Paper, 1998

14 Pages, Grade: very good



1) Introduction

2) Creole English
2.1) Creole English and some of its distinctive features

3) The history and development of language in the West Indies

4) Several West Indian dialects and their development p.6 4.1) Jamaica
4.2) Barbados
4.3) Trinidad
4.4) Antigua
4.5) St.Kitts

5) The importance of language in literature

6) The importance of language in daily life p.10 6.1) Riddles
6.2) Proverbs

7) Conclusion

8) Bibliography


Almost every inhabitant of the European continent has sometimes dreamed of the Caribbean or the West Indies as a possibible holiday destination. It is quite common in Europe to think in images of the West Indies. In peoples’ minds, the Caribbean equals white beaches, palm trees or drinking Piña Coladas in the shadow of a tree with big leaves. The common image, though, also has another side: for most Europeans, the “islands in the sun” also mean poverty, a bad economic situation, underdevelopment and backwardness in many respects. Almost nobody over here knows that most of these islands have had a history, wars, and conflicts with other nations, especially with the colonising ones. What should not be neglected here is that all these factors of the islands’ history have had an influence on the development of their languages both written and spoken.

In this paper, I would like to deal with some of these factors and their influence on the language of the Caribbean people and their literature. On the one hand, I chose the topic “Language” for my final paper since my own interest within the English language lies within the field of linguistics, on the other hand because never before have I been in contact with the Caribbean variety of English which, in my opinion, deserves much more attention and research in the near future from a linguistic point of view.

“Language And Its Importance In The Caribbean”-a title of a paper which might suggest that the topic is only treated from a linguistic point of view. Generally speaking, this paper tries to introduce a few of the varieties and dialects spoken in this area of the world, but also focuses on the importance of language in the daily lives of the Caribbean people and in their literature. Furthermore, I try to show the importance of language in literature by giving some references to certain books.

At the beginning of this paper, I would like to deal with a topic which is basic for the understanding of language in the West Indies. The following chapter deals with the variety of “Creole English”.

2)Creole English

Generally speaking, the various dialects used in the Caribbean are various forms of Creole languages. In order to avoid misunderstandings, one should give a specification and a definition of the term “Creole language”. TheOxford Dictionary Of English Grammarsays that a Creole is the first language of a speech community. [...] As with any language, there are usually several varieties, but they can usually be distinguished according to their closeness to the language on which the Creole is based1.

Peter A. Roberts gives another definition of the term in his bookWest Indians and Their Language.He argues that Creole languages are “the result of the contact between English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch (‘languages of the colonising people’) and West African languages (‘languages of a colonised people’)”2. This phenomenon is the reason for him that many words in Creole languages have a strong resemblance to certain written or spoken words in European languages. As almost every language in the world, “Creole English” also has its distinctive features some of which I would like to concentrate on now.

2.1) Creole English and some of its distinctive features

*Generally speaking, ‘Creole English’ does not have the sounds [0] or[b], people use [t] or [d] instead. As there is hardly a sentence without the use of pronouns, articles, or adverbs (the,this,them,they,their, ...), this feature is quite common in Creole

English and also in the peoples’ speech. On p. 10 in Merle Collin’s novelAngel, one can find an example of this characteristic:

...dat is part of it. But is not that is new ting, you know, is ting dey doin from time. Is jus dat now as if dey treatin us bad in every which

way possible. Is all over de place they tramplin us in de groun, yes, girl3.

*Furthermore, some forms of Creole English replace [r] by [l] and [b] by [v].

*In Creole English, there is no nasalisation at the end of words, particularly when people use the present participle of verbs:singing,dancing,...) as is Standard English. We find an example of this on p.46 inAngel: “But anyway, ah don worryin;”4.

*Creole English does not have so-called [nt] clusters at the end of negative contracted forms, e.g. doesn’t,can’t,wouldn’t, ...Where Standard English uses them, Creole English has forms likekyaan,kudn,wudn,musn,...

*One of the best known features of Creole English is the fact that sentences most of the time do not have verbs. In Jean Rhys’sLetThem Call It Jazz, for example, we find on p.17:”Plenty of those girls in your country already”5.

*Creole English uses double-or even triple negation.

*In most of the cases, Creole English omits the third person singular-s at the end of verbs. Again inLetThemCallItJazz, we find on p. 18: “When she laugh like that you can hear her to the end of our street”6.

These are only a few of the most outstanding characteristics of Creole English. To mention more of them would be too specific for this paper’s purpose. In my personal opinion, Creole English is a variety of English whose characteristics are practically unknown in Europe. Universities especially should treat this variety more often, as students only get to know something about the dialects spoken in America and on the British Isles.

As I have mentioned before, most of the Caribbean islands have had a history and so has their language. In the following chapter, I would like to focus on this topic.

3)The history and the development of the language in the West Indies

In the last years of research, there have been several different theories about the development of West Indian English. One, for example, stresses the importance of Portuguese traders who made their language most useful in trade terms hundreds of years ago. The result was that all trading nations used the Portuguese language along with their own languages and mixed them up. Peter A. Roberts refers to it as the

“Portuguese Pidgin Theory”7. There are, however, other theories that deal with the same

phenomenon which are more adequate and respected nowadays:

Theories [...]refer to one or a combination of three areas: the linguistic structures of languages known to have been involved in the contact between European and African, research data and conclusions from

monitored first-and second-language learning, and hypotheses about the human brain and the nature of linguistic ability8.

In the following, my focus of interest is on the development not of all Creole languages but only on those that were influenced by Standard English or by the various dialects spoken by the English invaders.

A topic which has already been dealt with in our lecture series is the fact that many Creoles are the result of contacts between English settlers, which were predominantly colonisers, the native West Indian population and to a much larger extent West African slaves who had to leave their native countries in order to have the opportunity to work and earn money for their families back home in Africa. According to Peter A. Roberts(pp.112-113), slaves from West Africa came predominantly from three areas: in the 17thcent. from the area from Senegal to Sierra Leone, in the 18thcent. from Liberia down to Nigeria and in the last period of slavery from the area down to Angola. One, however, ought not to be tempted to think that every West African slave of these days spoke the same variety of their language, as there were and still are some very different dialects among these people. One can observe the same situation concerning the English people who came to the Caribbean to settle and colonise the islands. Many of the people from Great Britain came from different parts of the country, i.e. Scotland, Wales or Ireland. Although there were attempts to create a Standard Version of English in Britain, colloquial and regional dialects were quite common. Therefore, the British who chose to leave their country spoke several different dialects which the West Indian slaves came in contact with when they were working for them. One can easily come to the conclusion that the mixture of many different English and West Indian dialects again caused the existence of many various kinds of regional dialects. Some of them were used quite frequently and finally became Creole languages.

The slaves had to learn English as they were working for their British plantation owners. One, however, has to keep in mind that this language learning process was not a normal one but that it was influenced by colonialism and slavery. Peter A. Roberts says that

The field slaves, who were greatest in number and least in contact with speakers of English, learnt the least amount of English; the house slaves, who were in constant contact with English, the most;[...]9.

Therefore, one can come to the conclusion that the non-standard speech of the British settlers mixed with several West African dialects and the degree of Creolisation which varied from area to area are responsible for the various different dialects now spoken in the West Indies. There are still some strong similarities between West Indian English, British English and West African languages. However, it would be too specific for this paper to give examples here.

As one can easily see, the language in the Caribbean has been determined by various different sociological and historical factors from the very beginning of its development. In the following chapter, I would like to give some information on the background of the dialects spoken in the West Indies. Furthermore, I will both introduce several dialects and stress their similarities and differences from a linguistic point of view.

4)Several West Indian dialects and their development

As mentioned above, my focus of interest is on the Creoles that have been influenced by the various dialects spoken by the English settlers. This is a rather external factor, in other words language has been influenced by people coming from abroad. There are, though, some internal factors that have had an influence on the development of several dialects. One of these is migration from one island to the other. As Peter A. Roberts puts it:

There has always been migration between territories, but [...] during the formative years of the characteristic speech of the people, migration was on such a scale that it contributed to a number of features or affected speech generally10.

This topic can also be found in literature very often, for example in Merle Collin’s novelAngel. The father of Angel McAllister, the female main character of the novel, has to leave his native country, Grenada, for Trinidad to earn money there. Indeed it was very common for Grenadian people to leave the country for money reasons. As a consequence, Grenada and Trinidad have some strong similarities in vocabulary, syntax and morphology.

In the following, I would like to deal with some of the varieties written or spoken in the West Indies.

4.1) Jamaica

As any of the dialects in the Caribbean, the Jamaican dialect has also its peculiarities.

One characteristic is the omission of the sound [h] at the beginning of words. One can observe this phenomenon in other languages, e.g. in French, English, but in the West Indies, this characteristic is restricted to Jamaicans. In Jamaica [ham]would sound like [am]. Another feature of non standard Jamaican speech is that the consonants [t]and [d] before [l] change to [k] and [g]. As an example for this I chose a line in Shakka Deddi’s song “Inta-View”. He says :”Ah hav ah lickel car anna don’t liv far”. This is typical Jamaican speech. Furthermore, there is a strong tendency to use [a] where in Standard

English [c] is used: In Shakka Deddi’s song there is the word [baas] for [boss]. The applicant who looks for a job is different-different in speech and in his skin-colour. The

artist wants to stress the fact of his being different. For this purpose, he uses his native Jamaican speech in contrast to some standard English sentences in the song.

Furthermore, there are some words which are characteristic for Jamaicans , for example

pikni(for children),raatid, maasta, facetyandjinal.

4.2) Barbados

Babardian speech is famous for its characteristics in pronunciation, i.e. nasalisation and glottalisation. Barbadian people are likely to either “talking through their noses” or “swallowing the ends of the words”.

Another feature of this kind of dialect is the use of [f] or [v] where Standard English has [æ] or [b]. [Birthday] or [path] might sound like [birfday] or [paf]in Barbados. What also is very interesting when we look at Barbadian speech is the fact that the people there use “quite normal words referring to natural functions as if they were taboo and their replacement by bland expressions”11. Tousequite often stands fortoeat,a thingis eithera mealoralcohol.

4.3) Trinidad

Generally speaking, there are two features in Trinidadian speech: the exclamationeh ehand the use ofgoto indicate future time. Whereas in Standard English everybody would sayI will go now, everybody in Trinidad usesI go nowto express his or her intention to go. Peter A. Roberts also claims that Trinidadian vocabulary is outstanding in cultural items...

...relating to Carnival, supernatural beliefs and folklore, and also in words for fruits, plants and animals. These areas of Trinidadian vocabulary overwhelmingly show words of French Creole and French origin12.

Other typical Trinidadian words aremamaguy, picongandmaco.

4.4) Antigua

Antiguan speech is very much similar to the one spoken in Jamaica, although it has its own characteristics. In Antigua, the people produce [tr] as [c]. therefore, words like [truck]or [trace]sound like [chuck]and [chace]. The related sound [dr] changes into [j], [drink]or [drunk]sound like [jink]or [junk].

When the people there use past tense, they use the wordminto indicate past actions: for example:I min go I went.

Other typical features of Antiguan speech are also typical of other islands and therefore not worth mentioning in this context.

4.5) St.Kitts

Basically, there are strong similarities with Antiguan and Jamaican speech. Again, there are still differences in pronunciation, as the people in St.Kitts tend to use [w] instead of [v] (e.g.:wery-very,Newis-Nevis, orgrawy-gravy).

In order to indicate past tense-the Antiguan speech usesminto do that-St.Kitts often hasdi(according to Standard Englishdid). There are more linguistic peculiarities on this tiny island, to mention them would be too specific for this paper’s purpose.

As one can easily see, the dialects spoken in the West Indies are quite different in terms of pronunciation, syntax or grammar. Almost every little island has its own variety with its peculiarities, which certainly has a special effect on the culture of the island.

In the following chapter, I would like to focus on the importance of the several dialects in literature and in the writings of Caribbean authors in general.

5)The importance of language in literature

When a European writer wants to write a book, he/she only needs the idea what’s going on in the plot. The author does not have to think about the problem which variety of language he/she has to use. This situation is completely different with writers in the West Indies. As there are so many different dialects spoken, the writer has to choose one particular for his/her book. Each island and each island’s society identifies with the variety spoken on “its” island. The writer has to make sure that the variety he/she uses in the book does not offend or insult somebody else. Language in the Caribbean has too many implications:

The various forms of language[...]are forms provoking unusually strong emotional reactions when compared with variant language forms in other societies. West Indian literature, reflecting as it does the life of West Indian classes, colonialism and racial conflicts, has language in primary focus13.

As one can easily see, the situation concerning writers in the West Indies is really more difficult than in Europe. There are, however, solutions to this problem, e.g. in newspaper-articles. Many of them contain both Standard English and the local or regional dialects. The phenomenon of dialects used in literature can be seen especially in the traditional West Indian short story which was originally designed to be presented orally. The West Indian short story developed out of the local traditions of story-telling. On the other side, however, there are some factors which limit the choice of language on the writer’s part: in general, novels are designed for the educated part of a society. In their reading, educated people simply want to experience the writers’ knowledge of plot, theme, action or motifs and not only about local dialects which are hard to understand anyway. Another factor which is a problem for an author is that most of the novels written in the West Indies are published elsewhere. That these novels are published outside the West Indies is a problem for publication, in as far as some publishers might have restrictions concerning language.

As a conclusion, one can say that each piece of literature which is designed to be read aloud (play, short-story, poem) most of the time contains more elements taken out of the regional dialects, whereas great works of literature (novels, dramas) contain less. In the following chapter, I would shortly like to stress the importance of the West Indian language in two areas in the peoples’ daily lives.

6)Language and its importance in daily life

As in other languages, certain elements of these languages might give some information about the people who speak this language. These elements may imply the peoples’ feelings towards their personal situation or their government. Linguistic elements like proverbs, fairy tales, riddles, songs or other areas can say a lot about the people using them.


At the beginning of riddles, there are standardised formulas, like:

Riddleme this, riddle me that

Guess me this riddle and perhaps not14. or:

A riddle, a riddle, a ree

No man can tell this riddle to me

Perhaps you could clear this riddle for me

The riddles’ answers in the West Indies are restricted to local fruits or phenomena.

6.2) Proverbs

West Indian proverbs have more negative implications when they are compared to proverbs in other societies. They treat topics like personal relationships or friendship.

A friend in need is a friend indeed Many hands make light work

A stitch in time saves nine15.

It is interesting to note that proverbs also have a great importance in West Africa, the native country of many former slaves. Both proverbs and riddles also contain metaphoric elements of language which have to be interpreted.


As already mentioned, this paper attempts to treat the topic not only from a linguistic point of view. However, I hope to have given enough examples taken out of literature to illustrate Creole English or various forms of dialects spoken throughout the West Indies.

In order to conclude this paper, I would like to mention that it has been extremely interesting for me to get to know more about a variety of English almost nobody talks about at the University. Although it has been great to deal with the topic “Language And Its Importance In The West Indies”, the reading of Peter A. Robert’s bookWestIndians and their languagehas sometimes been very hard. In certain respects, Roberts simply is too detailed as he gives the reader information about the similarities of certain features of language between Standard English, West Indian English and West African dialects (pp.125-131). One could recommend this book somebody who is writing his/her final paper on the variety of English spoken in the Caribbean. On the whole, however, the book has been quite useful for me writing about a very interesting topic which, mentioned once again, deserves much more research in the future.

8) Bibliography:

1)Chalker, Sylvia, Edmund Weiner. The Oxford Dictionary Of English Grammar. Rpt. London: BCA, 1998.
3)Rhys, Jean. Let Them Call It Jazz. London: Penguin Books, 1995.


1 Sylvia Chalker, Edmund Weiner,The Oxford Dictionary Of English Grammar,Rpt, (London: BCA, 1998) 101.

2 Peter A. Roberts,West Indians and their language(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) 14.

3 Merle Collins,Angel,Rpt, (London: The Women’s Press, 1993) 10.

4 Ibid. 46.

5 Jean Rhys,Let Them Call It Jazz(London, Penguin Books, 1995) 17.

6 Ibid. 18.

7 Roberts,WestIndians and their language108.

8 Ibid. 109.

9 Ibid. 115.

10Ibid. 87.

11Ibid. 93.

12Ibid. 97.

13Ibid. 143.

14Ibid. 155.

15Ibid. 157.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Language and its Importance in the Caribbean
University of Salzburg  (Anglistics/ American Studies)
Caribbean Prose and Poetry
very good
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
423 KB
Analyzes caribbean english, considering such factors as poverty, hope, discrimination, and the connection between every day life and the language in the Caribbean.
Language, Importance, Caribbean, Prose, Poetry
Quote paper
Herbert Reichl (Author), 1998, Language and its Importance in the Caribbean, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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