“I goin’ to the store wit’ she.”
For many statesiders, this sentence just doesn’t seem to make sense. However, this way of speaking — called “English Creole” — is part of the culture on the island of St. John.
St. John Historical Society (SJHS) historian Elroy Sprauve spoke to a full house at the Tuesday evening, March 13, SJHS monthly meeting, on the patterns found in local Creole.
Creole is a language that develops when two or more groups of people have to live and/or work together, which occurred on St. John when African slaves were brought to the island to work for Dutch plantation owners, explained Sprauve.
“There was a Dutch Creole, which still has an impact, but the language has died,” said Sprauve, who urged his audience not to think in terms of what is grammatically correct or proper during his presentation.
Learning the value of words without the focus of grammar got Sprauve interested in studying linguistics, explained the historian.
“I taught at Julius E. Sprauve School and high school on St. Thomas, and I studied Spanish, French and Russian,” said Sprauve. “I took courses in linguistics, because how something is spoken without the value of it being correct sparked my interest.”
A major pattern in local Creole stems from the speaker’s avoidance of using too many words, Sprauve explained.
“Creole speakers like to use as few words as possible,” said Sprauve. “So, if someone asks, ‘where is your brother,’ we would say, ‘h’ain’t here today.’ It’s several words thrown together, which is very prevalent in Creole.”
Another way Creole speakers avoid being wordy is by not using the present tense of “to be,” Sprauve explained.
“There is an absence of ‘is,’ ‘am,’ and ‘are,’” said the historian. “For example, ‘I hungry,’ or ‘she sick.’ Most times, the present tense of ‘to be’ is really not necessary.”
Absence of Letter “S”
Another common pattern found in local Creole is the absence of the letter “s” in the plural, possessive and third person present tense.
“You will seldom hear the letter ‘s,’” said Sprauve. “For example, we would say, ‘John house.’ It’s understood that it’s John’s house, but the ‘s’ is not used.”
“In the third person present tense, we would say, ‘he speak French,’ instead of ‘he speaks French,’” Sprauve added.
In the plural form, Creole speakers add a word to get around using the letter “s,” Sprauve explained.
“Creole speakers get around the plural form by using the word ‘dem,’” said the historian. “So, we would say, ‘the boy dem making too much noise.’ The ‘dem’ indicates that it’s plural.”
St. Johnian Ed Gibney raised an exception to this rule, which Sprauve acknowledged.
By contrast, the letter “s” is always added to the word “whelk,” even if one is talking about a single whelk, explained Gibney.
Lack of Past Tense
Another pattern found in local Creole involves the speaker inflecting his or her voice at the end of a sentence to turn the statement into a question, ex-plained Sprauve.
“The statement with the voice inflection is very prevalent,” said the historian. “We’d say, ‘you live here?’ instead of ‘do you live here?’ It’s a very, very common pattern.”
Creole speakers also avoid use of the past tense, explained Sprauve.
“Seldom do you find the use of past tense,” he said. “We’ll add a word in the statement that indicates the past tense, for example, ‘we play ball yesterday.’ It’s obviously referring to the past.”
Another common pattern in local Creole is the use of “he” and “she” instead of “him” and “her,” explained Sprauve.
“We’ll say, ‘give it to she,’” said the historian. “This is actually standard in Spanish.”
Creole speakers also pronounce several words differently, explained Sprauve, who highlighted just a few examples.
Some words also have different connotations than statesiders would expect, Sprauve explained.
“Tea refers to an entire breakfast,” the historian said. “Also, you won’t hear people say ‘relative.’ They use the word ‘family,’ which is seldom used in the sense of just a mother, father and children.”
Words with different connotations can sometimes cause misunderstandings between a Creole speaker and a statesider, as Sprauve discovered in college, he explained.
“While I was in college in Penn-sylvania, there was this boy who wouldn’t leave me alone, so I said, ‘oh, go to hell,’ which just means, ‘stop bothering me,” said Sprauve. “I had to go to the dean’s office, and he really went over me. He said, ‘you can’t say that.’”
Some patterns found in local Creole stem from religion, according to Sprauve.
“This is changing, but older people, whenever referring to the future, say ‘tomorrow please God I’m going to Cruz Bay,’” said Sprauve.
Creole Speakers Know English
“When you ask Creole speakers, especially women, ‘how are you,’ I don’t think I’ve ever heard them say, ‘wonderful, just great,’” Sprauve continued. “They say, ‘so-so,’ or ‘moving along.’ I used to think, ‘they can’t all be hypochondriacs.’”
This lack of enthusiasm is actually religious in nature, the historian explained.
“I learned that this is a matter of not showing humbleness in sight of God,” said Sprauve.
Just because many of the patterns in Creole are not grammatically correct according to standard English, this does not mean Creole speakers don’t know proper English, Sprauve explained.
“Don’t assume a Creole speaker doesn’t know standard English,” he said.
Speaking Creole is a way for locals to express their true feelings, according to Sprauve.
“At a public hearing, a St. Johnian might want to get up and speak in Creole, but they feel it’s not appropriate,” said the historian. “After the meeting, however, you will hear them.”
English In Classroom
Students should never be made to feel that speaking Creole is inappropriate, explained Sprauve.
“Many persons were made to feel ashamed of their heritage of speaking Creole,” he said. “This damages the psyche of the person.”
Sprauve encouraged teachers to use the classroom as a language lab.
“I wouldn’t like Creole taught in schools because it’s already a part of the students,” said Sprauve. “I’d like to see the classroom used as a lab for students to practice speaking English so they can use it when necessary, like going to an office in New York or protesting in Washington.”
Creole speakers do use their unique language to their advantage when they don’t want others to understand what they are saying, explained Sprauve.
“There were five Virgin Islanders at my college, and we spoke Creole when we were in a situation where we didn’t want people to understand,” said the historian.
Although Creole is evolving, the language will not die out anytime soon, according to Sprauve.
“There are a lot of new words coming in with reggae and hip-hop,” said the historian. “I hear teenagers speaking today and I wonder what they’re talking about. Creole will not die, but will change considerably.”
“The basic patterns will remain for a long time,” Sprauve added.