An introduction to Caribbean English
History of English in the Caribbean
The Spanish began to establish settlements in the Caribbean in 1493, shortly after Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas. By the 17th century, the region had become a focus of imperial rivalries, with British, French, and Dutch forces seizing Caribbean territories from a declining Spanish Empire in the hope of creating profitable colonies of their own. British colonization of the West Indies began with Bermuda in 1612, St Kitts in 1623, and Barbados in 1627. St Kitts was used as a base for British colonization of neighbouring Nevis (1628), Antigua (1632), Montserrat (1632), Anguilla (1650), and Tortola (1672). In 1655, the English admiral William Penn seized Jamaica, which remained under British rule for the next 300 years.
Portuguese was the first European language to be creolized as a result of trade contact with West Africans in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was later replaced by creolized Dutch, French, and English in the 17th century as speakers of these languages established their own trade links to West Africa. These creolized languages were later brought to the Caribbean, and the features shared by today’s Portuguese, English, and French Creoles in the region point to their common African origin.
The English-based Creole languages of the Caribbean evolved as a direct consequence of the Atlantic slave trade. The expansion of large-scale agriculture in the region’s British colonies required a large workforce of manual labourers, which the British provided by importing slaves from Africa. These slaves usually came from many different parts of West Africa, and, having no common language with which to communicate, they adopted simplified versions of English to be able to talk to the British and to each other. These Creoles may have developed in the Caribbean, combining the grammatical features of Niger-Congo languages with vocabulary from English dialects, particularly Irish, Cockney, and North and West Country, or they could have evolved from a West African coastal pidgin that slaves brought to the Caribbean. Both these theories can explain the similarities between Creoles spoken in places such as Guyana and Jamaica, which are geographically more distant and have no significant history of sociocultural exchange.
Creolized Englishes were also once spoken on plantations in the American South, although they have fallen out of use in this region as African American Englishes became more and more similar to Standard English due to various sociolinguistic forces. In the Bahamas, however, 18th-century American plantation Creole was maintained by the slaves of American loyalists brought there in the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War.
It was not until 1834 when slavery was abolished in the British Empire. In the second half of the 20th century, former British possessions in the West Indies became independent nations, starting with Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago in 1962. These new sovereign states elected to keep English as an official language.
On 22 June 1948, the ship MV Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex, bringing workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other West Indian islands, as a response to post-war labour shortages in the UK. The Windrush generation, as the Caribbean immigrants that arrived in the UK between 1948 and 1971 came to be known, formed a British African-Caribbean community who, over the decades, have made their own considerable contributions to the English language and to British culture.
Current status of English in the Caribbean
English is the third most widely spoken language in the Caribbean, after Spanish and French. It is the official language of twelve Caribbean countries (Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago), as well as of seven British Overseas Territories in the region (Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, The Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos). It also has official status in Sint Maarten and Curaçao, constituent countries of the Netherlands; in the archipelago of San Andres, Providencia and Catalina, a department of Colombia; and in the unincorporated United States territories of Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands. English is spoken to a lesser degree in Spanish-speaking Cuba, Isla Cozumel, Corn Islands, Isla Mujeres, and the Bay Islands department of Honduras; in Dutch-speaking Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Suriname; and in French-speaking Saint Barthélemy and Saint Martin.
The Anglophone Caribbean (the 19 territories where English is an official language) is home to around six million people, most of whom speak a variety of Creole as a first language and acquire Standard British English in the formal education system. Standard British English in the Caribbean is mainly used in writing and formal contexts, while Creole varieties are preferred in speech and informal situations. However, in actual communication language choices are not so clear-cut: they have often been described as a continuum from Creole to more standard varieties.
Several researchers and educators have highlighted the need for a regional standard for the entire English-speaking Caribbean, but so far there has been little consensus on such a standard. People tend to be more aware and accepting of their own national norms than of a single Caribbean norm, and larger countries such as Jamaica have produced more research on their standard variety than smaller nations on their standard varieties, making more widely spoken varieties such as Jamaican Standard English more established as standards in their own right.
Caribbean English, Caribbean Creoles, and other Caribbean languages
Caribbean English primarily traces its roots to British English and West African languages. It is in constant contact with, and is therefore highly influenced by, English-lexifier Creoles. English as spoken in Caribbean countries with large Indian populations, such as Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, also has considerable influence from Hindustani and other South Asian languages. Jamaican English and Barbadian English also have a degree of Irish influence.
The below is an extract from the OED blog post ‘When regional Englishes got their words’, by Dr David-Antoine Williams, which you can read in full here.
The above chart shows clearly the difference between pre- and post-settlement Caribbean English vocabulary: among the oldest terms that today characterize Caribbean English are the preserved pronouns weself, heself, youself, themself (attested in Ælfric, the Wycliffite Bible, Cursor Mundi, and so on), the verb to full meaning ‘to fill’ (used by Langland) and the first sense of self, used emphatically after a noun, as in the Old English, ‘Nu is rodera weard, God sylfa mid us’, or, somewhat more recently, in Lawrence Scott’s 1993 novel, Witchbroom: ‘And Leo self dress up in one of Master Jeansie old suit, looking spruce up.’
By contrast, the terms first attested in 1774, after a century and a half of British rule, are formed in various ways, from local extensions of existing English terms (e.g. ruinate, originally from Latin, but adapted in Jamaica to refer to ‘formerly cultivated land which has reverted to the wild’) to borrowings from other languages, notably West African languages (goombay, John Canoe [now s.v. junkanoo], Quashie), but also from other colonial languages of the region (dunder, meanings rum dregs, from Spanish redundar).
Indeed the colonial imprint on this recorded vocabulary is impossible to overlook: all of these terms, some of which are marked as offensive or derogatory, are related in some way to the slave trade and the agricultural economy it underpinned in the Caribbean from the mid-seventeenth century to the early nineteenth. It is thus not surprising, though it be somewhat dismaying, to learn that all eleven terms first attested in 1774 are to be found in a single work, Edward Long’s viciously racist History of Jamaica.
This fact re-engages the question of historical sources, mentioned above, in a regional context, because for most of the colonial period the large majority of extant printed source material containing Caribbean vocabulary was generated by white British colonists and settlers, or white British missionaries and other visitors to the islands. These authors were using or reporting local language, but they were doing so from a narrow range of perspectives and interests.
The situation is somewhat different with more recent vocabulary, which for the most part can be documented with local sources written by people with a broader range of local perspectives. Newspapers such as The Daily Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica, 1834-present) and the Express (Trinidad & Tobago) play an important role, as do academic and cultural journals, and works by Caribbean folklorists and lexicographers, which record and report unwritten oral usages which would not otherwise be available to the OED. A good example of the latter is the entry for Shango (‘a syncretistic cult’; entry last updated 1986), which cites an article in Caribbean Quarterly from 1953, the quotation itself implying a much longer history of oral use: ‘In 1916 I had the first experience of the Shango.’ Language preserved on the Internet is another valuable resource: Usenet (the original ‘social medium’) provides the first evidence for two Caribbean terms: to big, meaning to praise or promote (soc.culture.caribbean 1992); and bashment, meaning a party with music (rec.music.reggae, 1996).
As big, bashment, belonger, and respect indicate, the more recent terms in Caribbean vocabulary tend to be formed within Caribbean English according to regular processes of language growth. When borrowings do occur, they are often from other varieties of English, as with rapso, a blend of rap (originally U.S.) and calypso (originally Caribbean), or from other languages spoken in the region, e.g. parang (1962), a type of Trinidadian folk music, from Spanish parranda manicou (1953), an opossum (originally indigenous Tupi, but borrowed into English from French); and the only true English naturalization of French oui (1968), used as an emphatic marker (in the most recent quotation, from Nellie Payne’s Jump-up-and-kiss-me (1990): ‘Blarst! Is only boiled corn and split peas dey eat dis week, oui!’).
About 50 words and meanings in the OED record, including previously mentioned big, bashment, rapso, and respect, are labelled ‘originally Caribbean’ (or the equivalent) in the dictionary text, implying that they have since acquired a degree of currency outside the region. A number of these, like bashment and rapso, are associated with musical styles that became popular globally in the late 1960s and after: reggae (1968) most iconically, but also dubplate (1976), pannist (1983), riddim (1974), selector, (1980) sing-jay (1984), skank (1971), skanker (1973), and soundclash (1989). Though the subject domain of these words may be particular, the period when they were first attested is quite typical of words marked ‘originally Caribbean‘ – half are first attested (usually in local sources) after 1950; by contrast the median date of first attestation for all words marked Caribbean is 1838.
So, while Caribbean English displays preserved words, borrowed words, and locally developed words, by and large it is the latter (later) terms that have been circulated back into the current Englishes of other places.
View the OED’s pronunciation model and key to pronunciation for Caribbean English.
The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.