AUTHOR: Schreier, Daniel
TITLE: St Helenian English
SUBTITLE: Origins, Evolution and Variation
SERIES: Varieties of English Around the World, General Series 37
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
Stefan Dollinger, Department of English, University of British Columbia at Vancouver
Daniel Schreier's book attempts to describe the genesis of the variety of
English spoken on the tiny South Atlantic island of St Helena (StHE). The volume
is, one needs to stress from the outset, the first monograph on this
lesser-studied variety of English and is breaking new ground. Together with the
author's 2003 volume on Tristan da Cunha English, it is the second in-depth
description of a South Atlantic insular variety of English. The principal goals
are to ''go beyond a simple and straightforward description of a hitherto
neglected post-colonial variety of English'' and to ''provide a detailed analysis
of the historical development and the phonological and the morphosyntactic
features of StHE'' (8). As such, the work is a sociohistorical analysis of StHE,
which uses the present to explain the past by applying a well-tested methodology
– with some new facets – to the variety.
The study is comprised principally of three distinct parts, the first part
focusing on basic concepts of language contact and contact linguistics (chapter
2, chapter 1 being a short introduction), the second part being an external
language history of the island (chapter 3), while the final part presents the
linguistic evidence, which is split in a historical (chapter 4) and a synchronic
section (chapters 5 and 6). The strands are woven together in a conclusion
(chapter 7), which is complemented by appendices, passenger lists, facsimile
document excerpts, and – most importantly – feature lists of StHE and how they
relate in frequency, roughly, to other varieties. Kortmann, Schneider et al.
(2004) serve as the benchmark for these comparisons.
One of the most important questions is the dating of StHE: when did its
formation begin? While St Helena was first discovered in 1502 by the Portuguese,
it was permanently settled only in the late 1650s by the English East India
Company (EIC), which had to find a port of call for their vessels in the area.
Schreier takes great care in assembling historical materials, most of them from
the island's Jamestown Castle Archives, and in interpreting the settlement
history of the island. He is able to show that in the latter half of the 17th
century extreme in- and out-migration contact processes to take shape and shows,
convincingly, that StHE should be dated back to the early 18th century, when the
population was steady to a minimal, yet to a sufficient degree that it provided
some continuity from one year to the other and from one generation to the next.
This start date is in line with some phonological innovations from the early
18th century and there ''is little doubt that, sociolinguistically speaking, StHE
is younger than it appears'' (p. 225).
Schreier takes great pains at disentangling the various input languages and
dialects on StHE that formed the feature pool. The slaves on the island were an
important group, coming from a ''dozen different locations , including western
India, disparate places in West Africa and, most importantly, in Schreier's
assessment, Madagascar (p. 97). While evidence is scarce, the earliest slaves
most likely spoke a Portuguese-based pidgin or creole. One of the most
enlightening language-external points is the disentangling of white and black
settler groups in the population increases from the 1660s to the 1820s,
culminating in a numerical assessment in figure 3.1, showing that from the 1720s
onwards, and thus from the start of the formation of the variety proper, the
black population, mostly consisting of slaves (and very few free blacks),
outnumbered the white populace.
The sociodemographic situation on St Helena, however, was drastically different
from that on large-scale multilingual plantation scenarios, such as in the
American South. Great effort is made to show that the slaves were owned by a
handful of slave owners and that most owners did not arrange for separate
housing of their slaves so that ''[w]hites and blacks must have lived under the
same roof and maybe even took their meals at the same table'' (p. 112), which
suggests relatively close ties between the two ethnic groups. The situation on
the island seems to have given rise to a less cruel scenario for the slaves than
elsewhere, as some slave children were given education and that mixed
relationships, between whites and blacks, began as early as the 1730s, leading
to ethnic mixing on St Helena that ''would have favoured sociolinguistic mixing
also'' (p. 116). This, in turn, made English a lingua franca not just between
whites and blacks, but also ''among the slaves themselves'', which does not
preclude prior pidginization when around 1720 ''shiploads of slaves arrived from
Madagascar'' to make possible big development projects on the island (p. 151-2).
For the white settlers, a family name-based approach for the identification of
their origins is used in a systematic manner and assesses the situation,
suggesting that the core of the British founders ''most likely originated and
hailed from the South of England'', the evidence for their working-class origins
is more indirect, yet still considered ''strong'' (p. 97).
In the assessment and evaluation of early records of StHE, Schreier takes a
qualitative approach. Drawing from various sources, most importantly extracts of
the St Helena Records, which includes verbatim speech reports, court cases and
testimonies and is complemented by newspapers and early short stories, Schreier
presents exemplarily features that may provide evidence for the vernacular. A
useful summary is provided in table format for phonological features (table
4.1), with the earliest features dating from the mid-19th century and for
morphosyntactic features (table 4.2), going back to 1679.
The sociolinguistic, synchronic part of the study draws from 33 recorded
speakers, 20 of whom served as the sub-sample for the analysis. The informants,
all of whom were born on the island between 1911 and 1940, were raised there and
never left for long stretches of time, were selected by gender and their place
of residence on the island. The latter is part of an attempt to describe
regional variation on the island, which, due to distinct topographical features,
seems plausible. The regional analysis, is, perhaps, somewhat beyond the
immediate scope of the study, and does therefore not show significant
differences between regions, while an urban (Jamestown) – rural split is
detected (p. 221).
In the phonological analysis, using Wells' (1982) lexical sets for vowels,
Schreier attempts to qualitatively characterize StHE by using not one, but four
speakers, listing IPA symbols in narrow transcription for their vowel
phonologies (DRESS, KIT, GOOSE etc.) as benchmarks ''to facilitate
cross-comparison of varieties'' (p. 159) that are compatible with Schneider,
Kortmann et al. (2004).
Two phenomena, one phonological, the other syntactic, are studied in a strictly
quantitative variationist paradigm with data from 14 StHE speakers: these are
Consonant Cluster Reduction (CCR) and copula absence (CA), which are both
classic variables in the concert of World Englishes, African American Vernacular
English, and Pidgin and Creole studies, and are an especially apt choice. CCR,
for which there is evidence that it is not transmitted via contact between
systems, is extremely frequent in StHE (almost 87%) and is more common in the
outlying areas than in the urban centre Jamestown. It is claimed to be an
''extremely diagnostic'' (p. 212) feature for the typological status of StHE.
Likewise, CA is a prominent feature at a ratio of 3:1 for absence:presence of
the copula, and shows ''resemblances with varieties shaped in conditions of
extensive language contact: [African American English]'' (p. 220).
Distributionally, _am_ copulas occur less often than _are_ and _is_, which
suggests a typological classification of StHE in line with English-based Creoles
of the Caribbean (p. 220).
The conclusion section of the volume pursues two more focused linguistic goals,
which are to summarize the formation of StHE and provide answers to the
typological status of the variety, somewhere between the poles of Inner Circle
Englishes and Creoles. The bulk of the monograph is clearly geared towards
answering the former question, and Schreier's conclusion posits three phases of
formation as a result (p. 231-2): 1) a founding phase (from 1658-1720s),
characterized by extreme social fluctuation and mixing; 2) a consolidation phase
(1720s to 1770s), with population stability and beginning sociolinguistic norm
development; and 3) a focusing phase (1770s-c1850), with the completion of
language shift and the start of an endonormative StHE. It is important to point
out in this context that these three stages are exclusively derived from the
language external history and that no linguistic claims are made on the basis of
In contrast, the claims that are based on the present-day sociolinguistic data
are made not so much on the formation of the variety, but on the typological
status of the variety. Extremely high frequencies CCR in a very unusual
distribution (shared only with Jamaican Creole English) – together with the
pervasive nature of CA – are taken as strong indicators that StHE is a creole,
leading to the book's strongest claim: ''it is not exaggerated to say that StHE
is an English-based Creole after all'' (p. 246). The assessment is founded on CCR
for the most part, proffered by zero copula occurrence and an interesting
comparison of creole features adapted from Baker and Huber (2001), which
supports this interpretation.
It needs to be pointed out that about half of the 84 creole features attested in
StHE come from judgments from a local writer, Basil George (p. 238-40), and were
not found in the data as such. Taking out George's information would
considerably change the ranking of StHE in the list of creoles (Table 7.4) and
weaken the argument. In this light the volume is somewhat skewed, as the most
interesting, quantitative aspect of the status of StHE was given perhaps less
space in the overall picture than it deserves.
On the other hand, as a trail-blazing publication on StHE, the monograph
contains a wealth of information on the language external history and offers
many a springboard towards further study. Be it the identification of
phonological/phonetic areas, such as a quite unique overlap of the START and
CLOTH vowels on the one hand and the merger of the THOUGHT, FORE, NORTH and POOR
vowels on the other hand (p. 245), or simply the list of features provided: the
author's familiarity with features of World Englishes and his in-depth
familiarity with the literature on contact linguistics and related areas shine
through on every page and make for many insightful moments.
The analytical choice of presenting data from four speakers in the phonology
section appears logical, given time and space constraints, and provides some
idea of variation in the pre-WWII generation that the synchronic chapters focus
on. The author, rightly, acknowledges the ''risk of over-generalization'' (p.
166), as the four speakers were selected for no objective reasons, and only
further study will be able to reveal any bias in the sample. Perhaps the most
general goal of the volume was too ambitious, aiming ''to combine general and
variationist viewpoints into a coherent analysis'' and ''[i]deally [...] provide
both an accurate descriptive profile of the variety and at the same time
investigate variation within individuals and across speaker groups'' (p. 160).
Schreier succeeds admirably in many areas, but it seems impossible to do full
justice to these overarching sociohistorical themes and connections between
language external history and linguistic data, for which it is notoriously
difficult to establish causal links for, or links at all.
The discussion on the principles of contact linguistics in chapter 2, expanded
from Schreier (2003), is highly informative and insightful. This chapter can be
used as an introductory text in advanced classes for its discussion of the
differences between koineization, new-dialect formation and creolization. In
line with a hotly debated issue, the theoretically most contested aspect is
Schreier's apparent scepticism towards partially automatic, predictable outcomes
in new-dialect formation, which reflects a recent discussion in the field
(Trudgill 2008). The author states clearly his point of view that ''the selection
and evolution of structural properties [in contact varieties] reflects not only
the properties and proportions of the input varieties (though they are certainly
essential) but also the social characteristics of the community'', which, in its
generality, is uncontroversial (p. 54)''. While Schreier considers Schneider
(2007) as ''almost an antithesis to Trudgill's (2004) model of new-dialect
formation'' (p. 65), a view I do not agree with, there remains a lot of room for
integrating these two approaches – the former as a very general model, the
latter as a very focused, temporally limited process in certain settings. This
synthesis was not the focus of the book. It is important to add, however, that
the volume does not produce data that would contradict theories that operate
without notions of identity and prestige for part of the new-dialect formation
process (Trudgill 2004).
As for Schreier's phonological analysis, it is an honorable goal that
demonstrates the adoption of qualitative methods in the author's research focus
and a methodological enrichment of the strict quantitative approach taken in
Schreier (2003). Some could argue, however, that it provides a departure from a
time-tested quantitative paradigm, especially since the quantitative part
comprises less than 20 of the 250 text pages. The phonological overview will,
doubtless, prove beneficial in the bigger picture, but in the present volume the
reader will find little on the interpretation of a given feature, turning some
sections into a reference guide on the variety in this respect.
This qualitative approach, however, allows the general characterization of
features, which can be illustrated for morphosyntax; for instance, some features
of StHE pronoun use or the ''unusual adverbial mussy'' (probably a reduction of
'must be', as in example (97) on p. 186, ''Rock Rose – mussy the only building
there now'') are certainly of interest for comparisons with other varieties. In
the former case just enough context is provided to offer a baseline for
comparison, which, however, the four examples of mussy, an interesting variant
in itself, do not allow. It is hoped that the author will find ways to share the
materials, of which too much for analysis was found (p. 164), perhaps as
advocated in Kretzschmar et al. (2006).
All in all, Schreier's book is both an inspiring sociolinguistic history and an
effective case study that stimulates reflection on sociohistorical
methodologies. It is inspiring in the sense that Schreier, just as was the case
with his previous case study on Tristan da Cunha, ''was not familiar with [the
island] and its inhabitants prior to my fieldwork'' (2003: 73), offers the most
comprehensive account of this under-studied variety of English as the results of
nine weeks of fieldwork (p. 161). Implicitly, the volume provokes reflections on
the role of the fieldworker: does the fieldworker really need to be intimately
familiar with the community, or preferably even a local, for this line of work?
(Feagin 2002, Chambers 2009: 43). Schreier takes an approach not unlike an
anthropological linguist, by going into the field and taking in as much as
possible in a limited time frame. Until we have studies carried out by a St
Helenian local we will not know the extent of the outsider's effect on the data,
if there is any at all. For now, we have pioneering study, bursting with details
and informative insights, which makes a substantial addition to the field of
contact linguistics, variationist linguistics and sociohistorical linguistics in
general, and the study of World Englishes, Late Modern Englishes, and
Postcolonial Englishes in particular. It seems to be clear that Schreier is
poised to become the expert on small insular varieties of English. To which
little island will his next project take him?
Baker, Philip and Magnus Huber. 2001. Atlantic, Pacific and world-wide features
in English lexicon contact languages. English World-Wide 22(2): 157-208.
Chambers, J. K. 2009. Sociolinguistic Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Feagin, Crawford. 2002. Entering the Community: Fieldwork. In The Handbook of
Language Variation and Change, J.K. Chamber, Peter Trudgill and Natalie
Schilling-Estes (eds), 20-39. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Kortmann, Bernd, Edgar W. Schneider, Kate Burridge, Rajend Mesthrie, and Clive
Upton (eds.). 2004. A Handbook of Varieties of English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Kretzschmar, William A. Jr., Jean Anderson, Joan C. Beal, Karen P. Corrigan,
Lisa Lena Opas-Hänninen and Bartlomiej Plichta. 2006. Collaboration on Corpora
for Regional and Social Analysis. Journal of English Linguistics 34(3): 172-205.
Schreier, Daniel. 2003. Isolation and Language Change: Contemporary and
Sociohistorical Evidence from Tristan da Cunha English. Houndmills: Palgrave
Trudgill, Peter. 2008. Colonial dialect contact in the history of European
languages: on the irrelevance of identity to new-dialect formation. [Initial
paper in DISCUSSION section of New-dialect formation]. Language in Society 37:
Trudgill, Peter. 2004. New-Dialect Formation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Wells, John C. 1982. Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Stefan Dollinger is Assistant Professor of English Language at the University of
British Columbia at Vancouver. He is the author of ''New-Dialect Formation in
Canada: Evidence from the English Modal Auxiliaries'' (Benjamins, SLCS 97, 2008)
and editor-in-chief of the ''Bank of Canadian English'' and the new edition of ''A
Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles''. His research interests
include language contact, Late Modern English varieties and varieties of North
American of English, with a focus on Canada.