It’s one of those quiet pleasures of travelling the Caribbean. To hear, in the speech of West Indians, sounds that you are sure originate elsewhere. Well, they might, anyway. Accents are notoriously difficult to pin down. As soon as you think you have caught one within the lovely lilt of West Indian, it evaporates into other sounds. The harder you try the more they seem to get away from you.
It’s only English accents I am referring to, as they are the ones I know. I believe that old Breton can be heard in the French spoken by the natives of St Barths and no doubt regional traces can be heard in the creoles of the Spanish and Dutch islands too. And there must be affects from all the African languages that newly arrived slaves would have spoken.
They say that Shakespearean English is probably more similar to the English spoken in Harlem than to that of current day England. And on a good day I’m certain you can hear Irish in the speech of Montserratians. In fact it’s not that illogical there, in the Caribbean’s ‘Emerald Isle’. Montserrat was known as a place friendly to English-speaking Catholics in the mid 1600s and the telephone book is full of names such as Ryan, Farrel and Daly. But then the same thing happens in Anguilla. Supposedly as a result of a shipwreck. You can be standing on a beach, rum punch in hand - it helps in this endeavour, I suspect - talking to a man and you’ll find he addresses you in, well… Oirish. It’s almost Caribbean craic.
If it is mostly befuddling – Dominica and St Lucia have obvious French tinges - Trinidad has a slightly comic edge. People swear you can hear Welsh laced into Trini speech. But consider this. It’s a fact that people have trouble with a Welsh accent, and all too often they slip into an Indian/Pakistani accent by mistake. With so many Trinis from the Indian subcontinent, who knows which is which.
It has been said for years that Bajan speech is derived from West Country English. And there is a certain logic to this too. In the mid seventeenth century, when Barbados was being populated by the English, Bristol was the most important port in the West of England (Liverpool had not yet come into its own). And Judge Jeffreys had a part to play too, after the Pitchfork Rebellion in 1685 and his Bloody Assizes, in which many West Countrymen were deported. It seems a long time ago, but, sit on a bus in Bridgetown, and close your eyes and...fleetingly...you might almost be in Bath or Okehampton.
It hit home most for a friend of mine when she was visiting Harrison’s Cave, where she heard the guide say – ‘This here is a stalagtoite. And this, is a stalagmoite….’ She could, she decided, have been in Cheddar Gorge.
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