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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

Speak Saint

Below: Understanding spoken Saint • Phrases • Tuning in • Try for yourself • Regional dialects • So how will you communicate? • Beware what you say… • ‘Speaking Saint’ - the books • And 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.

We came ashore in one of Solomon’s boats with Charley Wade and Fred Hurst as crew. I had been assured that everyone spoke English but I am sure that I only understood one word in five that Fred spoke to me on the way in.
Dr Richard Grainger in ‘Mixed Medical Memories of St Helena 1966-69’{11}{2}

Here are some features you may encounter:

Pronunciation

Basil George, subtitled
For the Tourist Office official promotional video in 2011 the Saints were subtitled…

Word usage

American influence

Communications breakdown
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{4}, 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.

Phrases

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{7}

Try for yourself

Boer Escape, Mr Johnson

Click here to hear this audio file

Click To listen

Matty John: ‘Mighty Sperm Whale’

Click here to hear this audio file

Click To listen

Got all that? Want to give it a try? See how much of the audio clip (right, above) you can understand. (He’s actually describing his role in the escape of Boer prisoner Andries Smorenburg, recorded in 1962{a}.)

If you coped with that, how about a song by famous island singer Matty John, also recorded in 1962{a} (right, below)? (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{8})

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’ (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{9}:

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{10}:

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.

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

Overheard in Warrens

Click here to hear this audio file

Click To listen

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 understand 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

Article: The English of ‘Saints’

By Asya Pereltsvaig, published on Languages of the World 7th December 2010{2}

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 favoured 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.

US IS CLOSE
Open tomorrow, 8:30am

Mistakes happen too…

Sign mistake
{b}

Credits:
{a} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{2}{b} Chris and Sheila Hillman

Footnotes:
{1} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{2} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{3} 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.{4} And also their Country Music.{5} Maybe there is a German influence at work, but from what source?{6} Which is very common on St Helena. Around 15% of the population suffers, mostly with Type 2.{7} Meaning ‘immediately’, though beware that ‘I do it dis now’ may not exactly conform to immediately as you might understand it…{8} Please contact us if you know otherwise.{9} Then headmistress of Prince Andrew School.{10} Quoted in ‘St Helena, The Historic Island, From Its Discovery To The Present Date’, by E. L. Jackson, published in 1905.{11} Published in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{1} #48, August 2019.

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