Merging Cultures Formed English Creole

Elroy Sprauve

Most people from the mainland who arrive on St. John for the first time have some difficulty understanding local dialect. There was a time on the island, however, when a person could tell if someone lived in Coral Bay simply by the way that they spoke, according to St. Johnian Elroy Sprauve.

“Before we had modern transportation here, you could tell if someone lived two miles out of Cruz Bay, or on the East End, just by how they spoke,” the retired educator said.

Merging Cultures
Sprauve discussed the definition of English Creole and the patterns in the language with the 17 people gathered at the Friends of the V.I. National Park’s seminar on English Creole at the Nazareth Lutheran Church Hall on Jan. 19.

“The word Creole refers to a language that emerges when two or more groups of people are living and working together,” Sprauve said. “Here, we had people of African descent and people of European descent, which formed the English Creole that is still spoken.”

Although the V.I. were once owned by Denmark, Danish Creole never existed in the territory, because the Danes made no effort to impart their language on the community, according to Sprauve. Danish was not taught in schools, and was only used in commerce, he explained.

A Dutch Creole did exist throughout the islands for years, however, because many of the plantation owners were Dutch, explained Sprauve.

“In 1991, the last person who spoke Dutch Creole died, and the language, for the most part, died with her,” he said.

Dutch Creole has been documented, and versions of the Bible that have been written in the language still remain.

English Spoken Here
English was the most prevalent language spoken throughout the Danish West Indies, and became the official language in the 1800s, according to Sprauve.

The English Creole spoken in the V.I. has some of the same patterns as the French Creole spoken in Haiti and the French West Indies, and the Spanish Creole spoken in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

“If you listen to Spanish Creole, people seldom use ‘s’ for plural, and the same is true for English Creole,” said Sprauve. “If someone is speaking in plural, they would use the word ‘dem.’ So instead of saying ‘those boys,’ someone would say, ‘the boy dem.’”

Word Fusion
Another pattern in most Creole languages is the tendency to fuse words together to shorten expressions, explained Sprauve. Iin standard English, someone would say, “I am not going,” but in English Creole, it would be, “Me’n going.” “This combining of words to shorten phrases is probably the most confusing to people not familiar with Creole,” said Sprauve. “To many people, it sounds like they are hearing one word instead of a fusion of words. But the pattern is prevalent throughout Creole.”

Most Creole languages do not use the present tense of the verb “to be.” English Creole speakers would say “she my sister,” instead of “she is my sister.” Although this is grammatically incorrect in standard English, many languages do not use the present tense of “to be.”

“There is no word in Russian for ‘is,’ ‘am,’ or ‘are,’” said Sprauve. “The same pattern is seen in Creole, when it is often unnecessary to use these words in order to get the meaning across.”

“We be jammin” is a logo on popular T-shirts seen on the backs of many tourists around St. John, but the phrase is not used in English Creole. If someone was trying to capture the local Creole spoken, the T-shirt would read, “We jammin,” explained Sprauve.

Some remnants of African tonal languages can be found in English Creole, especially when someone is posing a question.

“Many times, when people are asking questions, they would use the statement form of the sentence,” said Sprauve. “But the statement would have an inflection at the end to indicate that it’s a question. Many African tonal languages have these patterns as well.”

There are also numerous standard English words that simply have different meanings in English Creole.

The word “tea” is one example. When it is used in standard English, the word means a well-known brewed beverage, but in English Creole it means breakfast.

“Tea can mean pancakes, eggs or johnny cake,” said Sprauve. “The word ‘much’ is another example. When I say that ‘I don’t much that kind of food,’ I mean that I don’t like it.”

People who don’t speak English Creole are often tempted to give it a try, but this should be avoided, Sprauve added.

“If you try to speak English Creole, you just sound insincere,” he said. “Many people would be offended and find it condescending.”

Language Kept Alive
Although there is no standard written form of Creole, the language is kept alive through calypso and Quelbe music. “Creole is tied to cultural identity and is spoken in most local homes here,” Sprauve said. “Although most people who speak English Creole can speak standard English as well, when they are talking about something emotional, they usually revert to Creole.”

The next Friends of the VINP seminar is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 25, at the Catherineberg Ruins, where Eddie Bruce will teach basic entertainment and ritual drumming techniques of the West African and Afro-Caribbean cultures from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.