Survey chapter: Bahamian Creole

Structure data for these languages can be found in structure dataset 12.

1. Introduction

Bahamian Creole (autoglossonyms: (Bahamian) Dialect, Bahamianese) is spoken by ca. 250,000 speakers in The Commonwealth of The Bahamas, an archipelago of 700 islands and 2,400 cays covering 5,358 square miles and extending between southeastern Florida in the northwest and Hispaniola in the southeast. Only thirty of the islands are inhabited. The population of the Bahamas totals ca. 300,000. The country is heavily urbanized, with roughly two thirds of all Bahamians living in the capital, Nassau. Some 85% of the Bahamian population are black, with whites amounting to 12% and Asians and people of Spanish and Portuguese origin to 3%. The 2000 census registered 21,000 Haitians in the Bahamas, but some estimates including illegal immigrants put the current number as high as 78,000, or 25% of the population. The Bahamas is one of the wealthiest Caribbean countries, its economy being largely dependent on tourism and offshore banking.

2. Sociohistorical background

Although Columbus first set foot in the New World on the Bahamian island of San Salvador, the Spanish were not interested in settling in the Bahamas. They were aware of the poverty of the Bahamian soil, the lack of mineral wealth, and the treacherous waters surrounding the archipelago and thus contented themselves with carrying off the indigenous Arawak Indians to the gold mines of Hispaniola, where they died out in the early 1500s.

       The first permanent colony was established on the northern island of Eleuthera by a few dozen British religious dissenters from Bermuda in 1648. It was Bermudians, too, who – in 1666 – first settled on New Providence, on the site of what is now Nassau. From the beginning, servants and slaves were a part of the shipments that arrived. Since Bermuda had first been settled in 1609, those blacks could have been born either in Bermuda or in Africa, and it is unclear what they spoke. In any case, the Bahamian population grew; by 1671, when the first census was taken, it amounted to roughly a thousand (Craton 1968: 70). Whites clearly outnumbered blacks: About 60% of all Bahamians were white at the time.

       From the beginning of the colony, Bahamians had relied on the sea for a living in fishing, turtling, or the salvaging of shipwrecks. Log cutting, salt raking, and subsistence farming were important as well. Common to all these pursuits was the close contact between whites and blacks. During the early period of colonialization, thus, blacks in the Bahamas must have had ample access to the white settlers’ dialects – whatever they may have spoken upon their arrival. An interlude of piratical chaos and anarchy in the early 1700s did not change this situation. On the contrary, Craton & Saunders (1992: 111) note that piracy leveled both class and race distinctions, and suitable blacks were recruited to it just like whites and enjoyed the same privileges aboard the ships.

       It was during the 1720s, after order had been restored, that the first substantial cargo of Africans (295 slaves from Guinea) was brought directly to the Bahamas (Craton & Saunders 1992: 119). The same decade also saw the establishment of a few plantations on New Providence. Nevertheless, the Bahamian economy was still far from being a typical plantation economy: Of a total of 988 persons living in the Bahamas in 1722, only 28% were listed as black, with percentages varying between 35% for New Providence and 4% for Harbour Island.

       The black proportion of the population gradually increased over the course of the eighteenth century; by 1773, it had grown to 54%. Its increase was greatest on New Providence, where 64% were now black (Craton & Saunders 1992: 162). At the same time, the number of slaves per holding was rising, and ever more restrictive slave acts were introduced. Also, slaves imported from Africa came to be preferred to slaves from other colonies, because even though slaves from other parts of the New World were better “seasoned”, i.e. familiar with plantation society and work, they were seen as more difficult to control. What this implies linguistically is that access to white varieties of English must have become progressively restricted – particularly on New Providence, where the growth of the black population segment was most noticeable. The likelihood that a full-fledged creole was in general use among Africans in the Bahamas at the time, however, still seems small, as most blacks must still have lived in conditions that favoured the acquisition of more or less close approximations to the white settlers’ dialects.

Table 1.  Growth of the Bahamian population during the eighteenth century

1722

1734

1773

1783

1786

island

white

black

white

black

white

black

white

black

white

black

New Providence

427

233

461

520

1,024

1,800

755

1,739

1,572

4,019

Eleuthera

150

34

198

38

509

237

476

310

486

315

Harbour Island

124

5

151

10

410

90

360

144

365

149

Exuma

6

24

17

15

66

638

Cat Island

12

3

?

?

3

40

6

9

59

305

Abaco

282

384

Andros

2

59

Long Island

33

78

41

99

Turks and Caicos

40

110

75

41

75

41

Total

713

275

810

568

1,992

2,301

1,722

2,336

2,948

6,009

Source: Hackert (2004: 37)

The creole spoken in the Bahamas today was imported at the end of the eighteenth century; it was brought by free blacks and the slaves of loyalist North Americans, who had supported the British Crown during the American Revolutionary War and – after the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 – left the newly independent United States. Of the approximately 100,000 who emigrated, only about 7,300 (of whom 5,700 were black) actually went to the Bahamas, but this tripled the colony’s population, increased the proportion of blacks from one half to three quarters, and raised the number of permanently settled islands from three to a dozen (Craton & Saunders 1992: 179). Historical and linguistic evidence (Hackert & Huber 2007; Hackert & Holm 2009) suggests that the Gullah-speaking areas, and South Carolina in particular, played a prominent role as a point of origin for both white and black loyalists, which makes it highly probable that what was taken to the Bahamas was an early form of Gullah rather than of African American Vernacular English, as had been assumed earlier (Holm 1983; Shilling 1984). Contemporary Bahamian Creole may therefore be regarded as a diaspora variety of Gullah.

3. Sociolinguistic situation

The majority of black Bahamians today speak a mesolectal form of Bahamian Creole. Basilectal speakers tend to be elderly Bahamians and/or those who live on the more remote islands, especially in the southeastern Bahamas. As in most other post-colonial speech communities, negative attitudes towards the vernacular prevail. It is often viewed as “bad” or “broken” English, associated with backwardness and a lack of education, and seen as an obstacle to the country’s modernization and integration into the global economy. Since independence in 1973, however, it has received a boost as a symbol of national identity; there are now a number of literary works which employ it (e.g. Strachan 1997), and traditional folk tales and songs are now being researched by Bahamians themselves (e.g. Glinton 1994) instead of by foreign anthropologists. In spite of the popularity Bahamian Creole has received through these works, the role of Standard English as the sole official language of the country is uncontested. A consensus seems to have emerged that although the “dialect” should not be eradicated, it should remain restricted to certain domains and functions. According to most Bahamians, Bahamian Creole is appropriate in informal, private situations as well as to convey humour and social authenticity; if “serious” topics are at hand, Standard English is the form of speech called for.

4. Phonology

Table 2. Vowels

front

central

back

close

i, ɪ

ʊ, u

mid

ɛ

ə, ɜ

ʌ, ɔ

open

æ, a

ɑ

Bahamian Creole has a vowel system with five front vowels, five back vowels, and two central vowels. This system shows features which unite Bahamian Creole with other English-based creoles of the Caribbean as well as with North American Englishes, particularly those spoken by African Americans and in the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country. As for individual vowels, the Bahamian vowel of the trap lexical set (Wells 1982) is often notably lowered and backed and thus realized as [a] instead of [æ]. The strut vowel may be rounded and thus be located close to the cardinal position of [ɔ]. The nurse vowel is often realized as [əi], with the result of near-homophones such as verse and voice. Bahamian Creole is non-rhotic and therefore possesses centring diphthongs in near, square, north, force, and cure. The diphthongs of near and square are generally merged, so that fear and fair are homophonous. Before nasals, [ɛ] may be raised to [i], possible homophones being same and seem. A similar merger underlies homophones such as home and whom. Whereas the prize diphthong is often monophthongized, the price diphthong is not. 

       Bahamian Creole has 24 consonants, the three bracketed consonants in Table 3 being rare or absent in all but acrolectal speech. A diagnostic feature is the stopping of both voiced and voiceless interdental fricatives in all positions, as in tree for ‘three’, udder for ‘other’, or toot for ‘tooth’. Again, Bahamian Creole appears to occupy an intermediate position, with the general pattern resembling that found in other Caribbean English creoles but rates for stopping more like those observed in African American Vernacular English (Childs & Wolfram 2004: 442). Another feature which unites Bahamian Creole with other varieties of English is syllable-final consonant cluster reduction, as in the realization of guest as guess or missed as miss (Childs & Wolfram 2004: 445–446; Hackert 2004: 148–155). As elsewhere in the Caribbean, when the velar stops [k] and [g] occur before [æ] or [a], they may be palatalized, as in the stereotypical gyal ‘girl’. A feature uniting Bahamian Creole with the dialect spoken by white Bahamians is syllable-onset [h] deletion and/or insertion (as in and for hand and/or harm for arm), with insertion much more frequent in the latter. Similarly, the alternation of [w] and [v] (as in wine for vine or velcome for welcome) tends to be more prominent in the speech of white Bahamians than it is in Bahamian Creole. Finally, the devoicing of voiced sibilants in syllable coda and intervocalic positions (as in since for sins) also occurs among both speaker groups but with greater frequency among whites.

Table 3.  Consonants

bilabial

labio-dental

inter-dental

alveolar

palatal

velar

glottal

plosive

voiceless

p

t

k

voiced

b

d

g

nasal

m

n

ŋ

frictionless continuant

ɹ

glide

w

j

fricative

voiceless

f

(θ)

s

ʃ

h

voiced

v

(ð)

z

(ʒ)

affricate

voiceless

tʃ

voiced

dʒ

lateral

l

As for prosody, Bahamian Creole has been described as more syllable-timed than British or American varieties of English, but syllable timing is not absolute. Word stress is generally on the first syllable. Noteworthy intonation patterns include the high rising terminal contours of affirmative sentences and a wider pitch range than is usually observed in British or American Englishes (Childs & Wolfram 2004: 447–448).

       There is no official orthography, so that varying techniques of “eye dialect” are employed in works representing Bahamian Creole in writing.1

5. Noun phrase

There are various ways of marking number in Bahamian Creole. The plural may not be expressed on the noun at all (often when an expression indicating quantity is present); it may also be indicated via pre- or post-nominal them or the -s suffix:

(1)
Because
because
them
pl
mosquito,
mosquito
they'll
3pl.sbj-hab
kill
kill
you-
2sg.obj
and
and
them
pl
sandfly.
sandfly
Because those mosquitoes kill you – and those sandflies.

In both positions, them may be combined with the plural suffix, as in (2):

(2)
Them
pl
days,
day-pl
when
when
I
1sg.sbj
was
cop.pst
small,
small
we
1pl.sbj
want
want.hab
work.
work
In those days, when I was small, we wanted to work.

Them also functions as the associative plural marker, sometimes introduced by and (e.g. my aunt and them ‘my aunt and her family/friends/associates’).

       Occasionally, mass or uncountable nouns are -s marked; they may nevertheless have singular meaning (e.g. advices ‘a piece of advice’). Plural marking in Bahamian Creole may be described as a case of inherent variation, as no speaker has categorically unmarked or marked plurals, and all speakers, even basilectal ones, exhibit at least some -s marking.

       The English possessive suffix ’s is also used variably in Bahamian Creole but tends to become more frequent as one moves toward the acrolect. In more basilectal varieties, simple juxtaposition of possessor and possessed is the norm (e.g. the boy uncle [ART boy uncle] ‘the boy’s uncle’). A further possibility of expressing possession is through own:

(3)
It
3sg.n.sbj
was
cop.pst
her
3sg.f.poss
sister
sister
own.
own
It was her sister’s.

There are also phrases with for + noun; apart from the interrogative pronoun for who ‘whose’, however, for-constructions appear to be restricted to contexts of marriage or descent in contemporary Bahamian Creole:

(4)
He
3sg.m.sbj
born
born
for
for
a
art
Haitian
Haitian
father.
father
He was born to a Haitian father. (Holm & Shilling 1982: 80–81)

There are three articles in Bahamian Creole, the definite article the, which is used with presupposed-specific noun phrases, and the indefinite articles one and a, which are employed with asserted-specific noun phrases. Of the latter, one is considered the more basilectal variant. A also occurs before nouns beginning with a vowel. No article is used with generics and non-specific noun phrases.

       Personal pronouns are often not marked for case; thus, the subject form can function in object position and as possessive pronoun, too. Reflexives also employ the subject pronoun (e.g. theyself). Gender is often not distinguished. There is an optional number distinction in the second person. Possible plural forms are you, yinna, and you-all, with you-all being regarded as the “educated equivalent” of yinna, which is now restricted to conservative speech (Holm & Shilling 1982: 227). Pronoun copying of subject noun phrases, as in (5), is common.

(5)
My
1sg.poss
father
father
he
3sg
run
run.pfv
the
art
store
store
My father ran the store. (Shilling 1978: 157–167)

Table 4. Personal pronouns and possessives


subject

object

adnominal possessives

1sg

I/me

me/ma [mə]

me/ma/my

2sg

you

you

you/your

3sg

’e [i:]/he/she/it

’e/um [əm]/ him/her/it

'e/his/her/its

1pl

we

we/us

we/our

2pl

you/yinna/you-all

you/yinna/you-all

you/yinna/you-all/your

3pl

they/them

they/um/them

they/them/their

Adjectives precede the noun in Bahamian Creole. Comparative constructions may be regularized, with -er and -est extended to both longer (e.g. beautifuller, beautifullest) and irregular adjectives (e.g. worser, worsest). Double comparatives also occur (e.g. much more better). Reduplication has intensifying function (e.g. pretty-pretty). Much functions as a quantifying adjective for both count and non-count nouns (e.g. too much people).

6. Verb phrase

Just as in other creoles, the unmarked verb plays a very important role in Bahamian Creole. Most frequently, it is used as an instantiation of the aspectual category of perfective, where it typically refers to non-stative verb situations in the past:

(6)
When
when
he
3sg.m.sbj
get
get.pfv
the
the
money
money
he
3sg.m.sbj
buy
buy.pfv
he
3sg.m.poss
girlfriend
girlfriend
one
art
present.
present
When he got the money he bought his girlfriend a present.

Unmarked stative situations most frequently receive a non-past interpretation:

(7)
Jesus
Jesus
love
love.npst
me.
1sg.obj
Jesus loves me.

Depending on contextual information, a base form may also denote a past stative, as in the case of want in (8) as well as various imperfective situations, such as habituals and generics, both past, as in (9) and non-past in (10):

(8)       And then afterwards the policeman had to put handcuff on his hand and on his two feet

         'cause      he             want                    try       fight       them.

         because   3sg.sbj    want.stat.pst    try       fight      3pl.obj

         ‘… because he wanted to try to fight them.’

(9)       Once upon a time was a merry good time,

         the     monkey chew                  tobacco, and   he             spit                  white   lime.

         art    monkey                          chew.hab.pst tobacco    and                 3sg.m.sbj spit.hab.pst white     lime

         ‘… the monkey used to chew tobacco and spit white lime.’

(10)
Fish'man
fisherman.gener
never
never
call
call.hab
his
3sg.m.poss
own
own
fish
fish
stink.
smelly
Fishermen never call their own fish smelly. (Glinton-Meicholas 1995: 115)

In its range of past readings, the unmarked verb closely parallels the English simple past, and, in fact, variation between unmarked and inflected past-reference lexical verbs is one of the defining features of the Bahamian Creole verb phrase (Hackert 2004: 117–219). This variation has typically been attributed to socially induced decreolization but may simply constitute a case of language-internal grammaticalization (cf. Bybee et al. 1994: 91).

       The preverbal particle did is a highly salient marker of past temporal reference. As the mesolectal equivalent of the “typical” creole tense marker been (Bickerton 1975: 35–36), which also occurs in Bahamian Creole (cf. McPhee 2003: 30–36) but is much more frequent among rural and/or older speakers, did often conveys past meaning with stative verb situations (11) and past-before-past with non-statives (12):

(11)
Shine
Shine
did
pst
like
like
gamble.
gamble.inf
Shine liked to gamble.
(12)
[…]
[…]
and
and
when
when
they
3pl.sbj
did
pst
call
call
the
art
police,
police
the
art
fellow-them
fellow.pl-pl
fled.
flee
[…] and when they had called the police, the fellows fled.

Unfortunately, however, this pattern accounts for less than two thirds of all did-marked verb situations. Moreover, the latter make up only a small minority (ca. 2%) of all past-reference situations. Finally, did occurs not only with stative and non-stative verbs but also precedes adjectives (13) as well as other TMA markers (14):

(13)
I
1sg.sbj
didn't
pst=neg
know
know
what
what
did
pst
wrong
wrong
with
with
me
1sg.obj
I didn’t know what was wrong with me.
(14)
I
1sg.sbj
did
pst
done
compl
start
start
working.
work-prog
I had started working.

As for the temporal relationships entertained by did-marked verbs, an anterior analysis is clearly insufficient, as the marker occurs just as frequently in coincident contexts (see ex. (15), where the speaker is talking about the sponging era in the Bahamas, which ended immediately before World War II) and even in posterior ones (16):

(15)
[…]
[…]
you
gener.sbj
can't-
can=neg
they
3pl.sbj
ain't
neg
paying
pay-prog
you
gener.obj
no
neg
wage,
wage
so
so
[…]
[…]
you
gener.sbj
don't
neg
make
make
nothing.
nothing
You
gener.sbj
only
only
make
make.pst
'nough
enough
to
to
pay
pay
for
for
what
what
you
gener.sbj
did
pst
owe.
owe
[…] you couldn’t – they didn’t pay you any wage, so […] you didn’t make anything. You only made enough to pay for what you owed.
(16)
All
all
who
who
was
cop.pst
going
go-prog
there
there
did
pst
gone
go
on
on
a
a
[…]
[…]
United
United
State
State
bomber.
bomber
All [of the men] who were going [to go] there went on a [...] United States bomber.

Its pragmatic functions are various, too (Hackert 2004: 95–97): Did may have the task of summarizing what precedes or follows, or of marking secondary story lines, elaborations, or reorientations. Sometimes, it signals temporal order or distance; it also occurs in hypothetical contexts. What all of these contexts have in common is that they contain background information (cf. Wallace 1982: 213). Bahamian Creole did is thus more profitably analyzed as a discourse strategy rather than merely as a marker of tense or temporal relations (Hackert 2004: 86–103).

       As in non-creole varieties of English, the progressive is instantiated in Bahamian Creole via the -ing form of the verb. What distinguishes Bahamian Creole from English is the nature and status of the auxiliary preceding V-ing (cf. below): In Bahamian Creole, be is often absent in the present but usually occurs in the past; moreover, it is generally levelled to is or was except among more acrolectal speakers (Shilling 1978: 39–41). There are remnants of a preverbal progressive marker in Bahamian Creole; they take the form of a (also spelled are) or de (da, dar, dare, or dere):

(17)
Pain
pain
an'ache
and
ache
ache
da
prog
rock
shake
dis
dem
old
old
body
body
Pain and ache are shaking this old body. (Holm & Shilling 1982: 59)

Bahamian Creole possesses an explicit present habitual marker, does, which may also be reduced to is or ’s:

(18)
They
3pl.sbj
does
hab
steal
steal
away
away
[…]
[…]
and
and
they
3pl.sbj
handling
handle-prog
the
art
money
money
They [always] steal away [...] but they are [the ones who are] handling the money.

Another possibility in habitual contexts is what Shilling (1978: 66) labels “lone be”, i.e. non-finite be in copula or auxiliary use, as in

(19)
Any
any
time
time
you
2sg.sbj
come
come
meet
meet
me
1sg.obj
I
1sg.sbj
be
hab.cop
the
art
same
same
man.
man
Any time you come to meet me I am the same man.

The negative of this form is don’t be:

(20)
But
but
sometimes
sometimes
they
3pl.sbj
don't
neg
be
hab.cop
there,
there
they-
3pl.sbj
she
3sg.f.sbj
tell
tell.pfv
me
1sg.obj
Saturday,
Saturday
they
3pl.sjb
be
hab.cop
here
here
But sometimes they are not there, they – she told me that they are usually here on Saturday.

Finally, both the unmarked (or variably ‑s-marked) verb as well as will/’ll or would/’d are possible in present habitual contexts in Bahamian Creole. The prime marker of past habituality is used to:

(21)
He
3sg.m.sbj
used to
hab.pst
have
have
a
a
lot
lot
of
of
girls.
girl.pl
He used to have a lot of girls.

As in English, this form is not obligatory; the unmarked verb and would/’d occur frequently as well. Less frequently employed options are will/’ll and does/is/’s:

(22)
I
1sg.sbj
used to
hab.pst
come
come
down
down
the
the
road
road
[…]
[…]
and
and
I
1sg.sbj
talk
talk
[…]
[…]
I
1sg.sbj
is
hab
forget
forget
until
until
I-
1sg.sbj
my
1sg.poss
grammy
grammy
used to
hab.pst
be
cop
looking
look-prog
for
for
me,
1sg.obj
[…]
[…]
‘I would come down the road […] and I would talk […] I would forget [about what I had been sent to buy], I would talk until I – my grandmother would be looking for me […].