Speak Saint

Understand what Saints are saying

The Human Brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public!
George Jessel


English may be St Helena’s official language, but isolation and our complex heritage have given islanders a special way of speaking.

This page is in indexes: Island ACTIVITY Saint Helena Island Info Speak SaintIsland Activity, Island Detail Saint Helena Island Info Speak SaintIsland Detail

Speak Saint Saint Helena Island Info

Below: Understanding spoken SaintPhrasesTuning inTry for yourselfRegional dialectsSo how will you communicate?Beware what you say…‘Speaking Saint’ - the booksAnd finally, a cautionary tale…Read More

Understanding spoken Saint 

If you are identified as a visitor everyone will speak to you in good English, but if you hear a group of Saints talking amongst themselves you may find it hard to follow what they are saying. Over many generations St Helena has developed its own patois which we refer to as ‘Saint’ or ‘Saint-speak’. It’s basically English but with some variants, new words and curious expressions. And you could live here for many years and still not understand them all.

Here are some features you may encounter:


  • The letter ‘o’ is often elongated as if ‘or’, hence ‘orff’ (‘off’), ‘jorb’ (‘job’) and ‘porket’ (‘pocket’).

  • The letter ‘a’ is pronounced like ‘ea’, so ‘bare’ is pronounced ‘beare’ (more like ‘beer’).

  • The ‘h’ is usually omitted from a ‘th’ word, thus ‘ting’ and ‘tank you’.

  • Words that in English are pronounced with a short ‘e’ are pronounced in Saint with an elongated ‘e’ and an ‘a’, so ‘bread’ is pronounced more like ‘breead’. Similarly ‘beead’ for ‘bed’.

  • Extending the above, the word ‘yes’ is pronounced more like ‘eeirce’ - roughly as you would say ‘pierce’ but without the ‘p’!

  • Funeral is pronounced like ‘fewnel’.

  • The letter ‘v’ is often pronounced as a ‘w’, which can be werry confusing…

  • The letter ‘t’ is frequently omitted when it ends a word. Thus ‘project’ is pronounced as ‘projec’.

Basil George subtitled Saint Helena Island Info Speak Saint
For the Tourist Office official promotional video in 2011 the Saints were subtitled…

Word usage

  • Where ‘a couple’ in English always means two, in Saint it can be two or more. Having ‘a couple’ of friends round can be a large party!

  • Words can be shortened, so ‘your’ is often ‘you’ (‘What you name?’).

  • Sometimes the Saint word is a substitution for the English one. Examples include ‘we’ which has been replaced by ‘us’, ‘have’ replaced with ‘has’ and ‘are’ replaced with ‘is’. Thus ‘us has bin out’ (‘we have been out’) and ‘us is goin’ home’. ‘I had up late’ translates as ‘I got up late’.

  • If your food has ‘bite’ it means it’s spicy, as in full of chillies. Most Saint food has bite, especially soup and Fishcakes. A ‘swing round’ is a dance.

  • Often the Saint is simply a contraction of the English. Hence ’mussie’ for ‘must be’, ’most’ for ‘almost’, ‘nuff’ for ‘enough’ and ’bitta’ for ‘a bit of’. Children are ‘Chirren’.

  • You will find the word ‘see’ appended to any sentence, as an interrogative to confirm understanding. Hence ‘us has nine boats, see?‘ (to which the correct response is ‘eeirce’).

  • Usually ‘done’ is used to generate a past tense. Thus ‘I done gorn fishing’ (‘I went fishing’ - more literally ‘I have been fishing’).

  • The indefinite article ‘a’ (or ‘an’) has been replaced by ‘one’. Hence ‘us has got one complaint’ (‘we have a complaint’) and ‘it’ll be one five minutes’.

  • The standard greeting for a friend or relative (which is, after all, just about everybody) is ‘lurvie’ - probably just a local pronounciation of ‘luvvy’, a common English term of endearment.

  • ‘phew ya’ is a generic exclamation, as in ‘phew ya, it some hot!’ (‘I say, it’s hot!’{1}).

  • ‘festered’ is Saint for ‘Infested’, as in ‘festered with White Ants’.

American influence Saint Helena Island Info Speak Saint

Communications breakdown Saint Helena Island Info Speak Saint
I almost have enough - can I borrow a little cash?

In addition, Saint often borrows from American usage. This probably relates to the first movement of Saints to Ascension Island in the 1940s where they encountered Americans at the USAF Base and picked up their terms{2}, bringing these back to St Helena when they came home. Thus what the English call ‘Crisps‘ are known locally as ‘Chips’ and Chips are known as ‘French Fries’. ‘Pants’ are not underwear, as in British English; they are trousers, as in American English.


  • You will hear Saints refer to ‘the before days’ - a reference to any time in the past.

  • If you’re asked ‘How you is?’ you are being asked about your wellbeing (‘How are you?’). Similarly ‘What you name is?’ and ‘Who you is?’{3}.

  • ‘He look some cool’ is a sartorial compliment.

  • ‘Flush down The Run’ is a term for Curry.

  • If someone has ‘got sugar’ they have Diabetes{4}.

  • ‘Him goin to Town’ means he is making a trip to Jamestown.

  • Upon arrival, and just before departure, the RMS St Helena used to sound its horn. This was referred to as ‘Blowing Off’.

  • And finally, ‘splitting the dick’ is speaking ‘proper’ English.

Tuning in 

Try these ‘sounds like’s, and other useful phrases:

‘Rate ova yawnder’ = Right over yonder;

‘Mussie is’ = Must be yes;

‘Mig ees’ = Make haste;

‘Tate a’ = Potato;

‘Marta’ = Tomato;

‘Dogue’ = Dog;

‘Wush’ = Wash;

‘Ears you is’ = Yes you are;

‘One nara one’ = Another one;

‘Serly’ = Silly;

‘Wa now you awrigh’ = Are you OK?;

‘Nice droppa sturbs’ = A good drink (of alcohol);

‘Nice bitta swing round’ = Good country music dancing;

‘My ans’ = That’s mine;

‘Hers ans’ = That’s hers;

‘Dis now’ = Right now{5}

Try for yourself 

Click here to hear this audio file
01:16s, 447.2Kb, 19th August 2014

Click To listen Saint Helena Island Info Speak Saint

Got all that? Want to give it a try? See how much of the audio clip (right) you can understand:

(He’s actually describing his role in the escape of Boer prisoner Andries Smorenburg, recorded in 1962{a}.)

Click here to hear this audio file
01:39s, 585.4Kb, 6th January 2017

Click To listen Saint Helena Island Info Speak Saint

If you coped with that, how about a song by famous island singer Matty John, also recorded in 1962{a}?

(This must be a very old song, as it relates to the St Helena whaling industry, which collapsed in the late 19th Century. It was doubtless passed down over many generations. As far as we know nobody sings it today, so this may be the only record of the song{6})

Regional dialects 

It may be surprising to hear but even in an island as small as St Helena there used to be (and perhaps still are) regional dialects. Writing in ‘Saints: Spatial identities of the citizens of Saint Helena (5.7Mb)’ (2002, P88) the researchers report:

The town dialect is different from the country dialects. For example, townspeople are known for saying ‘te’ instead of ‘the’. According to Susan O’Bey{7}:

there is rivalry as well. You know when I went to school I used to laugh at my country friends about the way they spoke. And just the same they would laugh at us.

Differences between town and country seem to have significantly decreased since more and more people got cars, and especially since the opening of Prince Andrew School.

So how will you communicate? 

Fortunately Saints can generally speak good English, and will automatically do so to anyone they identify as a visitor. So as long as you speak basic English you should be OK. But when you’re standing in a shop and you overhear two Saints discussing today’s news, some of the tips above may help you figure out what’s going on.

Beware what you say… 

…you could fall foul of this ancient statute{8}:

Whereas several idle, gossiping women make it their business to go from house to house, about the island, inventing and spreading false and scandalous reports of the good people thereof, and thereby sow discord and debate among neighbours, and often between men and their wives, to the great grief and trouble of all good and quiet people and to the utter extinguishing of all friendship, amity, and good neighbourhood; for the punishment and suppression whereof, and to the intent that all strife may be ended, charity revived, and friendship continued, we do order that if any woman from henceforwards shall be convicted of tale-bearing, mischief-making, scolding, drunkenness, or any other notorious vices, they shall be punished by ducking or whipping, or such other punishment as their crimes or transgressions shall deserve, as the Governor and Council shall think fit.

‘Speaking Saint’ - the books 

In 2015 a book was published by Creative Saint Helena entitled ‘Speaking Saint’.

Speaking Saint is a loose and mixed collection of writing, from authors ranging in age and experience. It is Saint Helenian: the everyday, the unusual, local and international, real and imaginary.
Much of Speaking Saint is written in what we call ‘Saint English’. It is the dialect of the island. To an untrained ear this can be considered ‘bad’ English. It is not. ‘Splitting the dick’ is what Saints say when they are using ‘proper’ English, often reserved for when non-Saints are in company. It is ‘Saint English’ that is the language of Saint Helena. It breathes life, value and authenticity into the cultural landscape.

A second book, ‘Speaking Saint - Next One’ was published at the end of 2015. In this second book of rich and diverse stories from ‘The Rock’, the collection seeks to capture local experience, knowledge and tradition with writing by Saints and by those from overseas who live and work here.

More are planned for the future…

‘Speaking Saint’ is available from island shops and for Kindle™ via Amazon.co.uk.

Click here to hear this audio file
01:03s, 372.3Kb, 6th January 2017

Click To listen Saint Helena Island Info Speak Saint

You can listen to one of the entries, read in ‘Saint’ (story by Janet Lawrence; read by Tammy Williams):

And finally, a cautionary tale… 

Around Christmas 2007 two chaps from the Democratic Republic of Congo were discovered aboard a ship that was passing St Helena and were cast adrift in a rowing boat, landing here. While their fate was decided they were held in the Jamestown prison. Initially they spoke no English but in the two months they remained there they learned to communicate and upon their departure considered themselves to be reasonably proficient in English. Imagine their surprise, therefore, when upon arriving at their destination and trying out their new skill, nobody could undestand a word they said. They had, of course, learned Saint, not English, complete with local pronunciation, and hence were almost unintelligible to English speakers everywhere else!

Read More 

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.
For the avoidance of doubt, you participate in any activities described herein entirely at your own risk.

Article: The English of ‘Saints’

By Asya Pereltsvaig, published on Languages of the World 7th December 2010{9}

The island of St Helena is in mid-central South Atlantic Ocean, south of the equator, and about 1,900km west of Angola’s coast. St Helena’s (geographically) nearest neighbour is Ascension Island, which is to be found more than 1,000Km to the northwest of St Helena. St Helena itself consists of approximately 122Km² of relatively steep, barren and rocky territory, mostly unsuitable for cultivation. However, it also has a relatively mild climate favored by the Southeast trade winds. The capital - and only town - of St Helena is Jamestown, while other settlements bear such romantic names as Half Tree Hollow, Blue Hill, Sandy Bay and Longwood. The latter was also the place of exile for Napoleon Bonaparte, who spent nearly seven years there.

St Helenian English goes back to the mid-17th century when The East India Company established a colony on St Helena in 1658. This makes St Helena’s English the oldest variety of Southern Hemisphere English. In fact, it is more than a century older than the major varieties of South African, Australian and New Zealand English! While the Dutch had a short interregnum on St Helena in the early 1670s, and additional settlers came from France, West Africa, the Capoverde Islands, the Indian subcontinent and Madagascar, the English influence on St Helena is the most pervasive.

Today, St Helena continues to be one of the most isolated native-English-speaker communities in the world. There is no airport on the island and only a single government-subsidized ship connects St Helena to Ascension Island and Cape Town.

The recent legal changes in the U.K. allowed increased emigration from St Helena: since 1999 nearly 30% of ‘Saints’ (mostly young ones) left the island in search of better job opportunities elsewhere in the UK. The current population of the island is about 4,000 people.

So what is St Helenian English like? It’s sound system (especially the pronunciation of vowels) is rather unremarkable. As is the case for most other British-English influenced varieties of English worldwide, St Helenian English is a non-rhotic variety, meaning that /r/ is pronounced only if a vowel follows it in the same word. Some Saints also pronounce the /r/ if it is followed by a vowel in the following word (this is the so-called ‘linking r’), but this - and the related phenomenon of ‘intrusive r’, as in idea[r] - is not as common as in some other non-rhotic varieties of English.

Another interesting feature of St Helenian English is the pronunciation of the intervocalic /t/ as a flap. Thus, the Saints’ pronunciation of the middle consonant in better, letter and butter is the same as in American English and different from RP (or Queen’s English). This is particularly curious because in general the intervocalic flap tends to correlate with rhotic accents (such as American English, Irish English).

Among other peculiarities of St Helenian English is the pronunciation of th-sounds as alveolar stops [t] and [d] rather than as interdental fricatives. This ‘simplification’ is found in many non-standard varieties of English, including African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Also, like in AAVE, the word-final consonant clusters are simplified by deleting one of the consonants, as in buil’ for ‘build’ and lef’ for ‘left’.

St Helenian English also features many non-standard grammatical peculiarities, such as the lack of plural marking after numerals (e.g., seventy pound, twelve month, there wasn’t many house and even Falkland Island) and allowing null subjects (e.g., Ø met with two girls on the train). Moreover, the first person plural pronoun is us, regardless of its position in the sentence (e.g., us come up Peak Hillus had a very saucy school master). Like many other non-standard varieties of English, a special form is used for the second person plural pronoun: the Saints’ choice is y’all, as in the U.S. South (e.g., So y’all be goin’ back soon?).

Among other non-standard features found in St Helenian English are the omission of past tense -ed and the use of demonstratives to mark definites, both illustrated by I never walk around much them days.

Much like AAVE and other non-standard forms of English, St Helenian English allows multiple negation, as in You no eat no food. Saints’ questions do not involve inversion or do-support (e.g., Where you lef’ you car?). Finally, like Scottish English and the dialects of Southern U.S. English, St Helenian English uses the double modal construction, as in What I bring you may can draw out.

Closing Humour Saint Helena Island Info Speak Saint

Laugh at funny Speak Saint humour LOL Saint Helena Island Info


{a} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{9}.


{1} We apologise for the ‘Noël Coward’ English, dear boy, but we couldn’t think of a more modern phrasing that didn’t involve swear words.{2} And also their Country Music.{3} Maybe there is a German influence at work, but from what source?{4} Which is very common on St Helena. Around 15% of the population suffers, mostly with Type 2.{5} Meaning ‘immediately’, though beware that ‘I do it dis now’ may not exactly conform to immediately as you might understand it…{6} Please contact us if you know otherwise.{7} Then headmistress of Prince Andrew School.{8} Quoted in St Helena, The Historic Island, From Its Discovery To The Present Date, by E. L. Jackson, published in 1905.{9} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

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