A Mid-Atlantic linguistic puzzle

By Britanni Fubler & Rosemary Hall

Research | January 11, 2022

Reading time: 6 minutes

From the archives. This article first appeared in MARITimes Vol. 29 No. 1.

Linguistics is the scientific study of language. An extremely broad area of study, its sub-fields span cognitive science, computer science, child development, psychology, history, anthropology, and sociology. In all these areas, language is analysed on a number of different levels: phonological (sounds), morphological (word structure), syntactic (sentence structure), and semantic (meaning).

Dialects are unique combinations of features of all of these linguistic levels, and are always connected with history and culture because they are a result of contact between speakers of different varieties and/or different languages in diverse social circumstances. This is why we so often feel that our dialect is part of who we are and an expression of local identity.

Dialects are of particular interest to sociolinguists, who study linguistic change and the relationship between language and society.

Linguistics are not prescriptive. As scientists, linguists are engaged in uncovering the systematic ways in which language works as a means of spoken communication—and not in telling people how to speak, spell, pronounce or write. Although standard varieties, mainly intended for written communication, have evolved over time, linguists believe that there is nothing objectively superior about these—in fact, the idea that one way of speaking is “better” than others is not only unscientific but has often been used as a proxy for discrimination based on class, race, and gender.

Linguists are more interested in describing real language as spoken in everyday life in order to answer such diverse questions as “how do babies acquire language?” “how do our brains process linguistic input?” and “why do languages change over time?”

Bermuda is home to one of the most linguistically interesting, yet “one of the most severely under-researched” varieties of English in the world (Cutler et all 2006). Linguists study world dialects for a number of reasons. Chiefly, they shed light on processes of language change and language contact, ultimately allowing scholars to gain insight into the way language works.

The study of “World Englishes” makes up an entire sub-field of dialectology, since, as a result of colonial rule, the English language was spread to (and, in most cases, enforced upon) a great number of territories including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, American and the Caribbean.

As a tiny, geographically isolated, and very early colony, Bermuda makes up an unusual part of this picture, and it is probably for this reason that it has been conspicuously absent from the World Englishes literature. It does not fit neatly into any of the pre-existing geographical categories normally used to group dialects, and it has also been influenced culturally by a whole range of territories.

Apart from some 1933 observations by Harry Ayres, a Harvard scholar on his summer vacation there has been very little research on Bermudian English (BerE) despite the fact that Bermuda was probably the first place, after Jamestown, where English was continuously spoken outside of the British Isles.

Ayres speculated that BerE shared features with dialects from New England, the West of England, the Bahamas, and the Sea Islands of South Carolina (home to a dialect called Gullah), but he did not include any empirical evidence to support his claims.

The linguists Nicole Eberle and Daniel Schreier conducted a study of BerE syntax in 2013, finding fascinating correspondences with grammatical structures found in the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands—islands, of course, with which Bermuda has close historical connections. However, no one has yet published a phonological study of BerE—that is, a study of the sounds of the dialect.

Publishing more research on BerE is a necessary component of establishing our dialect in academic and historical arenas.

Our research to date has focused on Bermudian phonology, asking where the accent comes from, how its sounds are used today, and how they may be changing. Britanni Fubler conducted the first lexical research in Bermuda in 2011, investigating some of the dialect’s unique words and phrases. Between us, we have studied linguistics at the universities of Toronto, Oxford, Sheffield, and Stanford—and we want to bring our expertise home.

Since the audio recording of speech has been possible for only a century or so, tracing the development of any accent is extremely difficult and a certain amount of intelligent guesswork is necessary. For us, this must be based partially on our knowledge of Bermuda’s population as it has changed over 400-plus years, and on linguistic accounts of other dialects that may have come into contact with each other here.

Describing the dialect in the present is an easier task—with the help of new computer software, modern linguists can analyse high-quality speech recordings of contemporary speakers to draw conclusions. BerE has been described informally as an Elizabethan relic dialect, a Caribbean-influenced variety, and a hybrid of American and British Englishes. We analysed recordings of our own interviews with Bermudians to investigate which one it is.

We found that, in a sense, all these claims contain an element of truth. Both our results show phonological correspondences with Caribbean, British and American varieties in BerE—the dialect has a wide range of features reflecting its long and complex history, both in its vowel and consonant patterns. Furthermore, it is quite likely that BerE has influenced other dialects around the world.

Eberle and Schreier suggested this is true for the northern Bahamian and Turks Island English. Rosemary Hall’s research confirms this and also finds correspondences with American varieties on the southern East Coast. Since ‘many of the leading Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia families either were descended from or closely related to early Bermuda settlers’ (Mercer 1982), it is probably that these features reflect the impact of the Bermudian diaspora on those territories just as much as (or perhaps more than) the reverse.

Importantly, BerE also has a significant number of unique features not found in any of its input varieties. We find the pronunciation of vowels in words like school, home, and goat to be unique, for example, and a number of vowel sounds may be ‘merging’—such as those found in near and square; dress and trap. BerE also has extremely unusual patterns of diphthongisation and monophthongisation. The complexity and innovativeness of BerE phonology can be explained firstly by its significant “time-depth”—that is, the number of years that the dialect has been gradually changing as it is used by Bermudians—and secondly, by Bermuda’s relative degree of geographic isolation.

Fubler’s 2011 study of lexical change in Bermuda stemmed from the Dialect Topography literature that is based on the “apparent time hypothesis,” which predicts that changes in progress may be revealed by comparing the speech of young and old speakers in a community. Fubler’s results show that British variants, like serviette and bureau, are gradually being replaced by more American ones, like napkin and dresser. The pronunciation of certain words also shows American influence—for example, leisure no longer rhymes with measure in Bermuda This is known to linguists as sound change via lexical diffusion. What was evident from the data is that while the dialect is changing and evolving, it has features that are longstanding and unique and those that are being invented and added. For instance, tapped is now replacing hot, to mean intoxicated.

Fubler’s study of phonological change, conducted in 2014, also finds Americanisation, showing that the vowel in words like bath is often “long” among old speakers (as in southern British accents), but categorically “short” in the young population (much more common in North American dialects). Young Bermudians also pronounce “r” (water, perfect) as Americans do, whereas the oldest members of our community are much more likely to be “r-less” or non-rhotic. Usually, these patterns can be linked to changes in society—in this case, the decreasing number of British speakers and the increased presence of Americans in Bermuda over the last century owing to tourism and international business is undoubtedly the trigger.

Many of the results cited here will sound obvious to Bermudian readers who hear the dialect every day. By documenting the features of the dialect scientifically, however, we can allow others to study BerE around the world. The recurring theme of all our projects to date is that Bermudian English is an extremely important dialect with endless possibilities for further research.

Interested in learning more? Check out the second instalment in the Bermuda Culture Documentary Series, “Wha Ya Sayin?”: Bermudian Dialect, Spoken Word, and Storytelling, originally released in 2018.

For an update on Dr. Rosemary Hall’s latest research, watch Mikaela Ian Pearman’s interview with Dr. Hall for Bermuda News and Views series.

Learn more about Dr. Hall’s work with with Oxford English Dictionary (OED) on the addition of some Bermudian English words to the dictionary, here: https://public.oed.com/blog/introducing-bermudian-english/

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