Possible Origins of Certain
Nonstandard Verb Forms in the Dialect of
Tristan Da Cunha
21 December 2000 (HSL/SHL 1)
an article on the speech of the people of St. Helena Hancock (1991:17) observes
island, and the dialect of its inhabitants, are interesting from a number of
firstly because of the many similarities with island dialects elsewhere, and
secondly because of its implications
for the study of nautical English, and its
relationship to creolized
forms of that language”.
reference to “island dialects elsewhere” in this quotation may very well
include that of Tristan da Cunha, a South Atlantic island situated
1900 miles west of Cape Town. Besides phonological similarities (Hancock
1991:20), the dialects of St. Helena and Tristan da Cunha also have certain
features in common as far as their verbal systems are concerned. For instance,
the use of done as a preverbal
perfective marker, which may be illustrated by the following examples taken from
the dialects of St. Helena (SHDE) and Tristan da Cunha (TdCDE) respectively:
done gone up the road (Hancock
done drawn his stone (Zettersten
done in this function also appears to
be a feature of Southern White American English (SWAE), where it occurs in the
speech of the lower classes of society (Feagin 1991:162). According to Feagin,
preverbal done is claimed to derive from the mesolect creole spoken by Blacks
during the era of American slavery. Hancock (1976:283) comes to a similar
conclusion when he argues that the form “has passed into Southern U.S. white
speech through Afro-American dialects”. The following examples are taken from
African American English (AAE) and SWAE respectively:
a li’l culled chu’ch what de masses an’ missuses in San ‘Tone done
buses done quit runnin’ (Feagin
himself on data from the 1950s, Dillard (1972:47) argues that black American
English (which is now generally referred to as AAE) resembles certain West
African English-based pidgins grammatically in that preverbal done
expresses “Immediate Perfective Aspect” as opposed to been,
which marks “Remote Perfective Aspect”, i.e. it functions as a past tense
marker. Inorder to emphasize the pidgin or creole background of preverbal done,
Dillard (1972:47) refers to parallel forms in creole languages with different
superstrates, for instance French Creole fèk
(from French faire), or Sranan
Tongo kaba (from Portuguese acabar).
In the creoles of Jamaica, Guyana, Sierra Leone (Krio) and Cameroon (WesKos),perfective
done also occurs in clause-final
position. The following examples from Guyanese creole and Jamaican creole
respectively may illustrate this:
mi kuk done, me a hosl fid op me
pikni (Bickerton 1974:40) ‘When
I have finished cooking, I hurry and feed my child’.
dis iit don (Feagin 1991:181) ‘I
have just eaten’.
to Bickerton (1974:40) “there is a good deal of evidence to indicate that
clause-final don represents an older
layer of the creole system than preverbal don”.
Although preverbal perfective done also
appears to have occurred in Middle English, Medieval Scots and early Modern
English, it always had a preceding auxiliary have/has/had (Feagin 1991: 183). In TdCDE and SHDE there are also
occurrences without a preceding auxiliary:
done went to the doctor (Zettersten
always done pass through that (Hancock
(1991:164) observes that done without
a preceding auxiliary is a feature of AAE, whereas the form with a preceding
auxiliary is rather common in SWAE. I have not found occurrences of preverbal
perfective done in any British dialect.
Another pidgin or creole feature which TdCDE has in common with AAE and
SHDE is the frequent absence of inflected verb forms in past tense contexts. The
following examples from TdCDE, AAE and SHDE respectively may illustrate this:
I rushed back and get those shoes
… So I must rush back and get that, so I rush
back for to got
that (Zettersten 1969:135).
the day begin to crack, the whole
plantation break out with all
kinds of noise, and you could tell
what was going on by the kind of noise you hear
(Dillard 1972: 41).
go round did they anything see (Hancock
is true that the present tense form also occurs in past tense contexts in
standard English (SE), but this is only the case in the historical (or dramatic)
present. Moreover, in such contexts all the verbs are in the present tense. In
this respect Dillard (1972:42), referring to example (10), suggests that “any
facile assumption about historical present
is broken by the occurrence of forms like could
and was”. The verb forms begin,
break and hear, Dillard
continues, are “consistent with occurrence in the past insofar as the grammar
of Black English is concerned. Such occurrence is non-redundantly marked in the language”. Non-redundancy is also a
feature of creole languages. Tagliamonte and Poplack (1993:183) hypothesize that
“a negative correlation between temporal disambiguation and morphological
marking is a creole characteristic by virtue of the widely recognized
predisposition of creoles to minimize redundancy in syntax and rely on context
Nonstandard verb forms also occur in present tense contexts in TdCDE.
Such forms can be found in the present tense paradigms ofbe,
auxiliary have, periphrastic do and of lexical verbs:
they’s similar to albatross (Zettersten
has the ships come (Zettersten
my old great grandfather, see, he tell me, he don’t
think she had enough cork in
again (Zettersten 1969:49).
we goes over there under sail …
stay (Zettersten 1969:140).
shares this phenomenon with AAE:
has a uncle was one of the
world’s heavyweight contenders (Dillard 1972:68).
treats me nice (Holm 1991:240).
and Trudgill (1979:16-17) observe that in certain British dialects the present
tense paradigms of the above verbs is either completely regular as a result of
the absence of the third singular –s
suffix (e.g. in East Anglia), or show regularity of the opposite kind, i.e. with
the –s suffix occurring with all persons of the verb (e.g. in parts of
the north of England and in the southwest and south of Wales).
In order to account for the occurrence of certain verb forms in TdCDE
with parallel forms in SHDE, AAE and SWAE,
it is necessary to look at the historical and linguistic backgrounds of the
present community of Tristan da Cunha. In 1817 the foundation for this community
was laid by a Scotsman and two Englishmen. All three of them decided to stay and
build a settlement on the island after the withdrawal of their regiment, which
had been stationed on Tristan da Cunha for a couple of years, to the Cape. The
Scotsman, William Glass, was in the company of his wife and child. According to
some eye-witness reports Mrs Glass, née Leenders, was a Cape Creole who spoke a
little Dutch, but preferred to use the English language (Earle 1966: 208; Beintema
1997:126). Mrs Glass may have spoken “Extreme South African English”. One of
the features of this variety of English is the absence of the third person
singular present tense marker (Lanham 1984:341), which is also characteristic of
TdCDE (Zettersten 1969:83). During the next few decades after the foundation of
the British settlement on Tristan da Cunha, more and more people with
different nationalities came to live on the island, though a number of them left
at some time or other. Most of the new settlers were the victims of shipwrecks.
The use of the English language as a means of communication by the early
settlers, and also their different linguistic backgrounds became important for
the development of TdCDE. In 1827 five women from St. Helena, one of them in the
company of four children, settled on Tristan da Cunha. According to Brander
(1940:130) one of the women was black, while the others were mulattoes. Munch
(1945:53) suggests that “a not inconsiderable part of the coloured blood
introduced by the four women from St. Helena was Malayan blood”. Assuming that
the language of the St. Helena women contained creole features, these may very
well have influenced the speech of their children. Beside the importance of the
mothers, as “matriarchs of the settlement” (Cassidy 1974:176), some of the
women of Tristan da Cunha also acted as teachers in the absence of clergymen.
The following report was given by the captain of HMS Racer,
which touched at Tristan da Cunha in 1893:
only education for the children is imparted by Mrs Swain, a native of St
I am told that they learn to read and write, but the presence of a
minister or clergyman who would
undertake this duty and act as head of the community would, I think, confer
on it a
great benefit (Evans 1994:256).
Soon after the arrival of the St. Helena women, Tristan da Cunha began to be
frequented by American whalers for supplies. Several of the crew members of
these ships decided to stay on the island, and married local women. Moreover,
most of the young men of the second generation were employed in the whaling
industry, which took them away from the island, but a number of them returned to
Tristan da Cunha sooner or later (Munch 1945:28-29). In this respect it is
interesting to note that there appears to be a link between nautical English and
English-related creoles (Hancock 1991:27). A verb form, such as preverbal
not only occurs in certain English-based creoles, but is also a common
feature in nautical English. Alan Crawford, the author of several books on
Tristan da Cunha, informed me that about forty to fifty years ago, he had
observedTristanians expressing the past tense as American seafarers used to do,
with the form done followed by the
verb. For instance, when Tristanians say I’se
done eat, they mean “I’ve eaten”,
according to Alan Crawford. Hancock (1976:283) also stresses the importance of
the role played by seafarers when he refers to the “widespread occurrence of
preverbal done in nautically derived
English dialects (e.g. St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Trinidad etc.)”. It may
be concluded that the occurrence of preverbal perfective done in
TdCDE was the result ofinfluence from the
speech of the women from St. Helena, and that later syntactic convergence took
place with the same form occurring in the nautical English of a number of the
male members of the island community.
done may also prove Hancock’s
(1991:26-27) argument that there appears to be a link between English-related
creoles and nautical English. This could be true as well of the frequent use of
the present tense form of verbs in past tense contexts. Indeed, the absence of
inflectional morphology appears to be a creole feature (Rickford 1986:272). At
the same time it may be assumed that if the crew members of a ship have
different nationalities, non-redundancy in the verbal system could be a means to
promote ease of conversation in one language. Ships, which were wrecked off the
coast of Tristan da Cunha, often had people from different parts of the world on
board. For instance, among the crew members of the Emily
schooner, which had run on to a reef near the shore of Tristan da Cunha in 1836,
were an American, a Dane and a Dutchman. All three of them decided to stay on
the island and married local women (Brander 1940:137).
isolated position of Tristan da Cunha may have caused verb forms, such as those
discussed above, to become fossilized. Intelligence tests, which were conducted
in the early 1960s1, show that the Tristan children had “an uncertain grasp of the past
tense” (Keir 1965:152). It may be argued, however, that this does not have
anything to do with the level of intelligence of the Tristan children. The use
of uninflected forms in past tense contexts is rather part of the native grammar
of the people of Tristan da Cunha.Indeed there are instances from interviews
with Tristanians in the early 1960s2
that it was the uninflected verb form that came to the informant’s mind first:
So when we come – came
home, some people was just flopping out … beach (Zettersten 1969:40).
Increasing contact with SE, improvements in
the field of education3,
overseas training courses4
and the modern media5
during the past four or five decades have affected the speech of the islanders,
particularly that of the members of the younger generation of Tristanians.
Interviews with Tristan informants show that this increasing contact with SE may
lead to the use of hypercorrected forms. For instance, in a recent BBC
television documentary about Tristan da Cunha,6 one of the informants says:
I had an opportunity to went
tense forms for infinitives also occur in AAE, which makes Dillard (1972:50)
suggest that such forms “have no tense significance for the speaker”. A hypercorrected verb form which is, to my knowledge, not attested in any
English-based creole or British dialect is the use of the past tense of a verb
with the –ing suffix:
so they start to tooking
an end, they start to send reports … it (Zettersten 1969:138).
In another television documentary,7 there is a clear example of the influence of the sociolinguistic variable
age in the
interviews with two islanders: Harold Green, a middle-aged Tristanian, uses
dialect forms, whereas Elaine Repetto, a Tristan adolescent, speaks SE.Such
interviews are relatively formal, and it may be assumed that once the islanders
are in each other’s company, they will revert to their local dialect, which is
relatively hard for outsiders to understand. Jim Flint, a former head teacher of the elementary
school on Tristan da Cunha, observed that “the children simply spoke two
languages – School English and Island English” (Evans 1994:274). Booy
(1957:97-98) gives an example of style-shifting, referring to a situation in
which he was in the company of a number of Tristanians:
these social assemblies I was frequently aware of a curious feature of the
when they addressed us, or obviously intended us to be included in the talk,
their speech – once we had learnt the accent – was perfectly intelligible;
but when they
exchanged remarks among themselves, not intended for our attention, they
a dialect that was incomprehensible … Perhaps we were not intended to hear the substance
of these exchanges.
quotation suggests that the Tristanians use their own dialect as a marker of
their identity. This phenomenon seems similar to that encountered
by Labov (1963) when he studied the language of the people of Martha’s
Vineyard, an island lying off the coast of Massachusetts. According to Labov, a
number of informants on Martha’s Vineyard showed a high degree of centralization
of the [ai] and [au] sounds in order to maintain their own identity against
outsiders. Labov (1963:300) observed a marked contrast between the Vineyarders
who intended to leave their island for careers on the mainland and those who did
not. The latter showed strong centralization of the [ai] and [au] sounds, while
the former show little, if any. The difference between the situation on Martha's
Vineyard seems to be, however, that their reaction against outsiders appears to
have been a largely unconscious one, while that on Tristan da Cunha may well be
a rather more conscious process, in that the speakers deliberately close
themselves off from contact with outsiders by switching to their native dialect,
even in their presence.
television documentaries about Tristan da Cunha referred to above, it is
especially the members of the older generation of Tristanians who show much
indifference towards people from the outside world. This attitude may have been
the result of the lack of cooperation of the British government in the early
1960s when the majority of the islanders had made it clear that they wished to
return to Tristan da Cunha once the situation was safe again on the island.
Negative reports about the Tristanians in the press at the time (Munch 1971:223)
may also have contributed to the islanders’ attitude towards outsiders. These
two factors could have created an anti-visitor mentality among a number of
Tristanians, manifesting itself by their use of dialect. At the same time, a
recent development in the relationship between Britain and Tristan da Cunha
could have a similar linguistic effect on certain Tristan adolescents as it has
had on a number of members of the younger generation of Vineyarders. For many
years emigration to Britain was hardly possible for Tristanians since the
British authorities had stipulated in the early 1960s that those who wished to
return to their island would no longer be looked upon as British citizens. The
previous Administrator of Tristan da Cunha, however, informed me that the
British government agreed to restore the islanders’ right to British
citizenship as from 16th March 1999. This may lead to an increase in the use of
SE forms by those who wish to make use of the agreement. Contrary to what a
number of informants say in the television
documentaries, referred to above, the Administrator does not expect Tristanians
to emigrate to Great Britain. Further research may shed more light on this, and
give an answer to the question to what extent the developments which have taken
place on the island during the past few decades have influenced the linguistic
attitude of the Tristanians. Nonstandard verb forms, such as those discussed
above, may also call for further research into the relationship between TdCDE,
SHDE, AAE and nautical English.
Beintema, A. (1997), Het
Waterhoentje van Tristan da Cunha, Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Atlas.
Bickerton, D. (1974), Dynamics of
a Creole System, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Booy, D.M. (1957), Rock of Exile,
a Narrative of Tristan da Cunha, London: J.M. Dent &
Brander, J. (1940), Tristan da
Cunha 1506-1902, London: Allen & Unwin.
Cassidy, F. (1974), “Review of Arne Zettersten’s The English of Tristan da Cunha”,
Language 50: 175-77.
Dillard, J.L. (1972), Black
English, New York: Random House, Inc.
Earle, A. (1966),
Narrative of a
Residence on the Island of Tristan D’Acunha in the South Atlantic Ocean (1 edn 1832), Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Evans , D. (1994), Schooling in
the South Atlantic Islands 1661-1992, Oswestry: Anthony
Feagin, C. (1991), “Preverbal done
in Southern States English” in P. Trudgill and J.K
Chambers, eds, Dialects
of English, Studies in Grammatical Variation, Harlow: Longman
Group UK Limited.
Hancock, I. (1976), “Nautical sources of Krio vocabulary”, International
Journal of the
Sociology of Language
Hancock, I. (1991), “St. Helena English” in F.
Byrne and T. Huebner,
eds, Development and
Structures of Creole Languages,
Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing
Holm, J. (1991), “The Atlantic Creoles and the Language of
the Ex-Slave Recordings” in G. Bailey, N.
Maynor and P. Cukor-Avila, eds, The
Emergence of Black English, Amsterdam and
Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 231-48.
Hughes, A. and Trudgill, P. (1979), English Accents and Dialects, Baltimore: University Park Press.
Keir, G. (1965), “The Psychological Assessment of the
Children from the Island of Tristan da Cunha”
in C. Banks and P.L.
Broadhurst, eds, Studies in Psychology,
London: University of London Press Ltd,
Labov, W. (1963), “Social Motivation of a Sound Change”, Word
Lanham, L.W. (1984), “English in South Africa” in R. Bailey and M. Görlach,
eds. English as
Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
Munch, P.A. (1945), Sociology of
Tristan da Cunha, Oslo: Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi.
Munch, P.A. (1971), Crisis
in Utopia, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.
Rickford, J.R. (1986), “Social Contact and Linguistic
Diffusion: Hiberno-English and New World Black English”, Language
Tagliamonte, S. and S. Poplack (1993), “The zero-marked verb: Testing
the creole hypothesis”, Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 8: 171-205.
Zettersten, A. (1969), The English
of Tristan da Cunha, Lund: Berlingska Boktrycheriet.
The intelligence tests were given to the Tristan children, who attended
lessons at different English schools, in the early 1960s when the entire
population of Tristanians was in Britain after a volcanic eruption on
Tristan da Cunha. The ages of the Tristan children who were given the tests
ranged from 5 to 15.
The interviews were conducted in the early 1960s by the BBC in cooperation
with the University College, London. Zettersten (1969) used the interviews
for his analysis of the English of Tristan da Cunha.
In 1950 compulsory education was introduced for all the Tristan children
between the ages of five and fifteen (Evans 1994:281).
The Tristan Times, a monthly
issued by the Administrator of the island, frequently reports on the progess
which Tristan adolescents make during their training courses in Britain and
on St. Helena.
The Tristanians have access to radio broadcasts, provided by the BBC
World Service. The present Administrator on Tristan da Cunha, Brian
Baldwin, recently informed me that there are no television broadcasts on the
island. The Tristanians do have a possibility to borrow video tapes, which
are imported from South Africa. Mr Baldwin also told me that the elementary
school on the island has a number of computers, though it is only the
Administrator’s computer which can be linked to the Internet. The
Tristanians are allowed to make use of the computer in Mr Baldwin’s office
in order to communicate with friends and relatives in the outside world
through e-mail (another “satellite phone” for sending and receiving
e-mails is expected to be installed in the near future) and get information
from the Internet. However, since the island’s Internet provider is in the
UK, and surfing the net is over £ 5.00 per minute, the Tristanians cannot
have frequent access to this medium.
This television documentary, called The Forgotten Island, concerns a “Gruppe 5” production for BBC
Bristol in association with WDR/Arte (1998).
This television documentary, called Tristan da Cunha: No place like home, is a Warner Sisters production for Granada Television Ltd in
association with Wnet/New York (1989).
African American English
= Standard English
= St. Helena Dialect English
= Southern White American
= Tristan da Cunha Dialect English