What Is Caribbean English?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Caribbean
Tobago is one of the more than 700 islands in the Caribbean region. There's a great deal of variation in the way English is spoken in these islands. (Cultura RM/John Philip Harper/Getty Images)

Caribbean English is a general term for the many varieties of the English language used in the Caribbean archipelago and on the Caribbean coast of Central America (including Nicaragua, Panama, and Guyana). Also known as Western Atlantic English.

"In the simplest terms," says Shondel Nero, "Caribbean English is a contact language emanating mainly from the encounter of British colonial masters with the enslaved and later indentured labor force brought to the Caribbean to work on the sugar plantations" ("Classroom Encounters With Creole English" in Englishes in Multilingual Contexts, 2014).

Examples and Observations

"The term Caribbean English is problematic because in a narrow sense it can refer to a dialect of English alone, but in a broader sense it covers English and the many English-based creoles . . . spoken in this region. Traditionally, Caribbean creoles have been (incorrectly) classified as dialects of English, but more and more varieties are being recognized as unique languages. . . . And although English is the official language of the area that is sometimes called the Commonwealth Caribbean, only a small number of the people in each country speak what we might consider regionally accented standard English as a native language. In many Caribbean countries, however, some standard version of (mostly) British English is the official language and taught in schools.

"One syntactic feature shared by many West Atlantic Englishes is the use of would and could where British or American English uses will and can: I could swim for I can swim; I would do it tomorrow for I will do it tomorrow.

Another is the formation of yes/no questions with no inversion of auxiliary and subject: You are coming? instead of Are you coming?" (Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction. Wadsworth, 2009)

Loanwords From Guyana and Belize

"Whereas Canadian English and Australian English, benefiting from the single land-mass of their respective homelands, can each claim general homogeneity, Caribbean English is a collection of sub-varieties of English distributed .

. . over a large number of non-contiguous territories of which two, Guyana and Belize, are widely distant parts of the South and Central American mainland. . . .

"Through Guyana came hundreds of nouns, necessary labels of an 'active' ecology, from the languages of its aboriginal indigenes of the nine identified ethnic groups . . .. This is a vocabulary that amounts to hundreds of everyday words known to Guyanese but not to other Caribbeans.

"In the same way through Belize come words from the three Mayan languages--Kekchi, Mopan, Yucatecan; and from the Miskito Indian language; and from Garifuna, the Afro-Island-Carib language of Vincentian ancestry." (Richard Allsopp, Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. University of the West Indies Press, 2003)

Caribbean English Creole

"Analysis has shown that the grammar and phonological rules of Caribbean English Creole can be described as systematically as those of any other language, including English. Furthermore, Caribbean English Creole is as distinct from English as French and Spanish are from Latin.

"Whether it is a language or a dialect, Caribbean English Creole coexists with standard English in the Caribbean and in the English-speaking countries where Caribbean immigrants and their children and grandchildren live.

Often stigmatized because it is associated with slavery, poverty, lack of schooling, and lower socioeconomic status, Creole may be viewed, even by those who speak it, as inferior to standard English, which is the official language of power and education."

"Most speakers of Caribbean English Creole can switch between Creole and standard English, as well as intermediate forms between the two. At the same time, however, they may retain some distinctive features of Creole grammar. They may mark past-tense and plural forms inconsistently, for example, saying things like, 'She give me some book to read.'" (Elizabeth Coelho, Adding English: A Guide to Teaching in Multilingual Classrooms. Pippin, 2004)

Also See