From chingas to chopsing: introducing Bermudian English

From chingas to chopsing: introducing Bermudian English

Over the past year I’ve had the pleasure of working with the OED as a consultant on a set of new Bermudian English entries. While the addition of this batch of words is particularly exciting for me as a Bermudian, it is also a landmark moment for the OED and for World English enthusiasts. With an estimated 65,000 speakers, Bermudian English is the smallest national variety yet to be represented in the OED. It’s also one of the oldest; settled in 1612, Bermuda was one of the very first places—after Jamestown, Virginia—where English was spoken outside the British Isles.

If you don’t know where Bermuda is, you’re not alone. Contrary to popular belief, it is not in the Caribbean, but around 1,000 miles away in the North Atlantic Ocean. Politically speaking, Bermuda is a British Overseas Territory, currently the oldest one remaining. Geographically, though, it is located much closer to the US mainland than to the UK.

Bermuda’s location is probably one of the reasons why its dialect has been under-studied for so many years, even among scholars of lesser-known varieties of English. Linguists classify World Englishes into groups including the British Isles and the Americas and the Caribbean, and while Bermuda has links with both of these areas, it does not neatly fit into either category. Equally, as a dependent territory that was uninhabited when it was discovered, Bermuda does not meet the criteria for either of the World Englishes types of ‘settler colonial’ and ‘postcolonial’, but sits somewhere in between. A bit like the Bermuda triangle, it’s ambiguous, but that’s what makes it so interesting!

Culturally, too, Bermuda is complex. Bermudians are descended from enslaved West Africans and indigenous North American peoples; white British settlers; Scottish and Irish indentured servants; and Caribbean, American, and Portuguese migrants from the 19th and 20th centuries. Since it had no indigenous population, Bermuda was not a site of significant language contact and never formed a creole. Instead, a range of English dialects came into contact with each other over the island’s 400-year history and formed a new one—what linguists call a koine. While geographically remote, Bermuda was anything but disconnected over the course of its long history and was exposed to diverse English input. Alongside British colonial influences, Bermuda had close links with the Caribbean and the southern American states from the 17th century onwards.

These diverse influences and long history have resulted in an unusual English variety that is often said to sound American or West Indian to a British ear, and quaintly British to American listeners. While it’s true that Bermudian English shares a range of words and sounds with British, American, and Caribbean Englishes, it also has many unique features, meaning it’s probably most accurate to say that it’s a dialect in a category of its own.

For this reason, the Pronunciations team at OED decided that a Bermudian English model was needed to go with the new batch of words. As for all varieties, it is difficult to distil Bermudian English into a single model for pronunciation, since it varies widely between speakers and groups. For example, the English of young Bermudians is increasingly rhotic (i.e. with an ‘r’ sound after a vowel), while ‘traditional’ Bermudian English used by older speakers is non-rhotic. There are also significant accent differences between black and white Bermudians, which are unsurprising given Bermuda’s history of enslavement, segregation, and economic inequality; when groups are not in frequent contact, their dialects tend to diverge. Rather than describing multiple sub-varieties of Bermudian English, however, the OED model converges on the similarities between speakers to give a general picture of pronunciation.

Linguists agree that older, non-standard varieties that have arisen as a result of contact between dialects tend to have more complex pronunciation systems. Bermudian English is no exception; the model shows that the variety shows similarities with all the Englishes that have influenced it over the years as well as developing a range of its own distinctive features. For example, certain groups of monophthongs in Bermudian English have diphthongal variants in specific contexts; for example, a word like bread is sometimes pronounced with two syllables. This is known as ‘Southern breaking’ since it is found in many dialects of the southern United States. Meanwhile, the vowels in words like rain have a similar quality to those in Caribbean English, and the vowel quality in words like grass aligns with Received Pronunciation. Uniquely Bermudian are the central stressed vowel in words such as mode, the merged vowel sound of words like here and there, and a long monophthong in words like loud, among others. There’s also a distinctive, sometimes diphthongal vowel sound in ‘oo’ words ending with an l sound, as in school.

One of the most commented-on features of Bermudian English is the so-called ‘v-w’ interchange, thought to originate from 18th century London (you can find this sound stereotyped in the speech of some of Charles Dickens’ characters). In reality, the sound in words like vex and when varies freely between [v], [w], and an intermediate sound: a bilabial fricative, represented with the symbol [β]. It may be that it is often interpreted as a ‘switch’ or ‘interchange’ because it isn’t possible to represent this subtler variant using the English alphabet.

When researching Bermudian English words, Bermuda’s age and historical connections sometimes make it difficult to define the boundaries of the variety. For example, the earliest evidence for aceboy, meaning a close male friend, is actually found in an African-American English source in 1951. Owing to the scarcity of early Bermudian sources, however, and in view of the close contact between Bermudians and Americans ever since colonization and throughout the 20th century, it’s possible the word originated in Bermuda. Either way, Bermudian English also includes the equivalent acegirl. Meaning close female friend, it can alsolike aceboy—be used as a form of address and term of endearment.

Another Bermudian word with links to the USA is dicty, a commonly used word meaning ‘stuck-up’ or pretentious. Dicty was already in the OED, described as being in African American usage. In this update, it is now also tagged as Bermudian, with a 1938 quotation from the Bermuda Recorder newspaper added to the entry.

Gombey, on the other hand, may have its etymological roots in a Bantu language. Gombeys are iconic Bermudian folk dancers who perform in groups to a distinctive drumbeat, wearing colourful costumes, masks, and headdresses. The performance art has its roots in early Bermuda’s enslaved communities, who were only permitted to dance once a year, and did so in masks so as to avoid being identified and punished. The first quotation in the entry is from 1831, which alludes to the most typical time of year for performance (Christmas), and also demonstrates the significance of the Gombey as a symbol of resistance:

They went off without a cause at Christmas, following that Idolatrous procession the Gumba

1831   Royal Gaz. (Bermuda) 11 Jan. 

Onion, a term for a Bermudian, is another word that gives an insight into the history of the island. A particularly sweet variety of onions was Bermuda’s major export crop from the 1800s until the early 20th century. As a result, the island came to be known as ‘The Onion Patch’, and its inhabitants as Onions. While the industry collapsed following World War One, Bermuda onions are still grown and enjoyed locally, and you can even attend a celebration of the vegetable once a year at ‘Onion Day’, usually held in May.

To mice, or to daydream, is thought to allude to cats dreaming of catching mice. Whatever is distracting you, if you’ve been micing you’re likely to get wrinched, or scolded. Wrinch is one of the youngest words in the Bermudian batch, with the earliest quotation in the entry coming from Twitter in 2009. The word can also be used intransitively, meaning ‘to complain’something you might do if you have woken up gribble, or irritable.

Well is a Bermudian word applied exclusively to food, meaning delicious. It appears to have come to Bermuda via Elizabethan English; the earliest evidence of it being used to refer to food in this way is from 1598 (‘it tasteth well’). While this usage is long gone in the UK, it is very common to hear Bermudians applying it to their Sunday morning codfish and potatoes (a traditional Bermudian dish)—or to a lunchtime greezeBermudian English for a large, filling, and tasty meal, or more generally, food. It is features like well, perhaps, that encourage the popular—although over-simplified—impression of Bermudian English as an antiquated relic, unchanged since the arrival of the island’s first settlers.

Chopse, meaning to talk excessively, gossip, or chatter, is another one of the older words in the batch with a history from ‘across the pond’ – the OED entry includes evidence from the English midlands in the late 1800s. It is still very much in use in Bermuda, however; Bermudian evidence in the OED entry cites Princess Anne and Premier Jennifer Smith ‘chopsing’ on the Royal’s visit to the island in 1999! Chopsing can also be used as a noun, as in ‘he needed to stop his chopsing’.

One of the challenges lexicographers face when working on a variety like Bermudian English, with such a small number of speakers, is finding adequate, good quality evidence. While Bermuda has a thriving literary scene, many members of which are quoted in this batch, there simply is not as much material to work with for Bermudian English as there would be for a dialect with millions rather than tens of thousands of speakers, and a wider range of media outlets.

One result of this is that for some entries, the only evidence we could find was not a genuine use of a word, but a parodic example, not necessarily authored by a speaker of Bermudian English. One publication in particular, Bermewjan Vurds, represents the earliest evidence for a number of entries including chingas, greeze, gribble, mice, and well. The book, popular with tourists, is a mock dialect dictionary that attempts to represent Bermudian English pronunciation using non-standard spelling, as in its title.

There are various problems with written dialect parody—often called ‘eye dialect’—in lexicographical contexts. For one, it rarely does a good job of representing real pronunciation. For example, the Bermewjan Vurds entry for well is spelled ‘val’; this is misleading, because it implies that it is always pronounced in this way, when in reality it is much more variable (see the comments on pronunciation above). Further, the choice of non-standard orthography usually has the ideological implication that a given dialect word is somehow incorrect or illegitimate. It also leads to questions about how the editor should prepare the entry, if parody is among the only written evidence available. In the case of well, the early parodic example is included, but with a note in the etymology section to explain the dilemma.

Ultimately, the OED’s World Englishes project may well help to dispel the prejudices behind dialect mockery by including varieties from all over the world. It’s a delight to see Bermudian words and authors cited in the OED, and to see English from the perspective of this small island nation represented there for the first time.

Bermudian words added to the OED in the March 2021 update

Bermudian English in the OED

On 3 November 2022, Dr Rosemary Hall along with other panellists talked about her research and how it informed the Bermudian English update in the Oxford English Dictionary:

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.