One of the most striking features of the Caribbean islands is the linguistic diversity. For a chain of islands stretching from off the coast of Florida in the north to the coast of Venezuela in the south, each with a complex history of colonization and settlement, the need to communicate in a variety of languages is not merely a cultural flourish – it is essential for survival.
If How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Pirates of the Caribbean were the only research references available, we would think that Caribbean language falls into two categories: ‘Yeah, mon’ and ‘Aaargh’. Unfortunately, this misconception prevails in much of the media portrayal of the Caribbean. While many West Indians do indeed speak in English with a mellifluous lilt, the predominant language of the region is, wait for it, Spanish. In fact, nearly two thirds of the region’s inhabitants speak Spanish as a mother tongue. Admittedly, three main powerhouses are overwhelmingly responsible: Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. With only six territories in the Caribbean boasting populations over a million (the others are Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti), the Spanish speaking trio account for a large proportion of the region’s population.
English occupies second spot, most notably in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and the Virgin Islands. The soft burr of the West Indian accent is remarkably similar to West Country English, but each island has its twist. Jamaican patois, popularized through dancehall music and dub poetry, can be impenetrable to the untrained ear, but it is important to make the distinction between a Patois, Creole and Pidgin. All islands have their official language, but nowadays this is a hopelessly misleading indicator. Dutch, the official language of Statia, Saba, St Maarten and the ‘ABC’ islands is notably absent from daily use on these islands, where the local newspapers and media are all in English. In fact, each island maintains a standard language and an operating language. Patois is simply non-standard use of the original language. Creole is a far more complex entity.
The most widely spoken Creole is in Haiti, followed by the French islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and to some extent St Martin. In these areas, the Creole language operates in tandem with the mother tongue, from which it is derived. While the administration adopts the official language, the language of the schoolyard, street and market is Creole, with speakers slipping between the two according to context. While it is rare to find an official Creole dictionary or lexicon, each island fiercely protects its respective version, and there is no danger of English or French absorbing the various strains.
The final language variant is Papiamento, the blend of Dutch, Spanish and other influences that predominates in the islands of Curacao, Bonaire and Aruba. Papiamento would formerly have been treated as a Creole but has become standardized to the extent nowadays that it has garnered official language status with formal rules of grammar, spelling and so on.
In short, the Caribbean region is a vibrant forum for some old and new languages, with many words and expressions revealing fascinating nuggets of history.