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Languages in Bermuda

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Bermuda is a British oversea territory located in the North Atlantic Ocean, off the North America eastern shore roughly 1,070 km ease-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina south of Cape Sable Island, Canada, and north of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It also lies 1,544 km north of Road Town, British Virgin Islands. Its capital city is Hamilton. Bermuda was named after Juan de Bermúdez who was a Spanish sea captain and the first known European explorer to arrive in Bermuda in 1503.

Bermuda was occupied by the British in 1609 when George Somers and his men landed on the island after their ship got wrecked at sea. No one lived in Bermuda at that time and the first formal settlers came from England in 1612. In the year 1617, blacks started arriving on the island but mostly as slaves. They were brought in by the British. Most of the slaves were of African origin and others Caribbean Indians from the West Indies and American Indians. In 1840, many Portuguese citizens started migrating to Bermuda from Azores and during World War II military personnel from Canada and America came into the country in large numbers. This has all led to Bermuda’s current mix of population. It can, therefore, be argued that Bermudians are descendants of English settlers, slaves brought in from West Africa and the West Indies, Irish explorers, Portuguese emigrants, and North American Indian prisoners who had been exiled. Bermuda’s population as of 2010 was 64,237. 54% of them were black, 8% multi-racial, 4% Asian, and 4% other races. Aboriginal Bermudians accounted for 67% of the population and non-natives made up 29% of the population.

Due to the mixed population, a number of languages can be heard in the country. Some of the languages spoken on the island include English, Portuguese, Spanish and French.

Bermudian English

A Bermuda license plate, SourceThis is the dominant language on the island and it portrays characteristics of American, West Indian, and British English. British English is used in writing and in professional settings while Bermudian English is used more casual settings. Some people find it difficult to place the Bermudian accent since it is different from those that are evidently American, British or Caribbean. The accent also varies between people. The British find it to be American, while the Americans find it to be British. Bermudian English is one the English varieties that has not been researched a lot and it is generally categorized as a type of American English instead of Caribbean.

Bermudian English lacks a Creole dialect. This could be as a result of the slaves never forming a Creole. They could have also brought a Creole with them which was later de-Creolized. There is no sure way of knowing the right case since a lot of research has not been done on the language.

Bermudian English has 12 syntactic, 292 lexica, and 84 phonetic entries. The most interesting phonological feature of this language is A and E ([ɛ] and[æ]). Bermudians pronounce a’s like e’s and e’s like a’s. This shift is very common today. A few examples of these shifts are as follows:

Shift from [ɛ] to [æ]

  • Ellen – Allan
  • Everyone –arryone
  • Effort -  affert
  • Mess -  mass
  • Expect -  ax-pact
  • Never -  nawer
  • Ten – tan
  • Election – elackshun
  • Reception – resapshun
  • Everybody – arrybody

Shifts from [æ] to [ɛ]

  • Saturday – Sed-dee
  • Rat cheese – ret cheese
  • Daddy – deddy

Another unique feature of this language is the interchanging of the letters [v] and [w]. V is pronounced as W and vice versa, for instance, ‘vunderfully wiwasious vimen.’ This phenomenon has been called the ‘V- W Confusion’ and its appearance is not only in Bermuda but also in the Bahamas and St. Vincent.

Like other languages in the Caribbean, Bermudian English alternates phonologies for the ‘th’ sounds of [ð] and [θ]. A research done by Ayres in 1933 only mentions [ð] and he states that “in Negro speech this sound in softly stopped.” It is, however, important to note that due to influence from emigrants and Caribbean broadcasters, it appears that both [ð] and [θ] are swapped with different sounds in some settings. Some instances where [θ] changes to [ð] are as follows:

  • Breathalyzer – breffalizer
  • Deal with – deal wif
  • Skin cloth – skin cloff
  • Worthless – woffless

Bermuda sign for old people crossing, SourceThere are also instances where [θɹ] shifts to [ʃɹ]. These shifts occur at the beginning of a word for example three becomes ‘shree’ and through becomes ‘shrew’.

There are other instances where [ð] shifts to [d]. Examples of these include: ‘dis’ for this; ‘den’ for then; ‘dere’ for there and ‘den’ for then.

Bermudian English also has the tendency to change the first vowel in /ai/ and /au/ vowels when followed by consonants that are voiceless, mostly to /ǝi/ and /ǝu/. This phenomenon is referred to as Canadian Rising since it was first realized in Canada. Canadian Rising is present in Bermudian English due to the contact with Canadian English. Canada has a long relationship with Bermuda from preachers sent to the island to Canadian exiles sent into the island in 1838. Through both educational and religious ties, the influence of Canada has been more cultural and not commercial on the island, as compared to other islands in the Caribbean. Since both school and church are very significant seeds for the use of language, it would be less surprising if one of the cultural influences was Canadian Rising.

It is important to note that this language is different from one region to the next and a number of colloquial terms can be heard on the islands. Some of these include:

  • Jet – going somewhere quickly
  • Ace Boy – best friend
  • Deck – accident
  • Piggly – grocery store
  • Bermuda time – being fashionably late
  • Horse – motorcycle
  • Longtail – white woman from a foreign country

Tourists visiting the island may find some accents, expressions and the language itself a bit difficult to comprehend but the key to communicating in such cultural borders is to be patient and polite. Other accents present in Bermuda include West Indian, Canadian, and Jamaican.

The Portuguese Language in Bermuda

A book store in St. George, Bermuda, SourceThis is a Romance language and the formal languages of Portugal, Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, Brazil, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé and Príncipe. In Bermuda, this language is spoken by Portuguese emigrants especially from Cape Verde and Azores. These are descendants of Portuguese people who migrated into the island to work as labourers in farms and they exported tomatoes, arrowroots, onions and other agricultural products. Today, Portuguese Bermudians call the island home, and their community makes up about 25% of the population.

The community has kept its culture alive on the island and has linked the island to the huge Diaspora of Portuguese civilization in the world. The community also has a club, the Vasco da Gama Club which has been a political and social centre for both new emigrants and future generations.

The Portuguese language is presently considered the second language of Bermuda. In recent years, a number of businesses, banks and government departments have started to provide customer information and translated symbols in retail centres, and on official websites and forms. 

The French Language

This language is spoken by the French community in the island. There are about 120 French nationals living and working in Bermuda. They are considered as foreigners under the island’s law. They are welcome on the island but they do not have same freedoms as other French nationals living and working in Ireland, Great Britain, and other regions of the European Economic Community. They cannot work and live in Bermuda without certain restrictions. French people visiting the island on vacation or business or as professionals cannot acquire Bermudan citizenship and cannot vote. They also cannot purchase real estate as the same price as the locals, unless they marry or get married to Bermudians. Children born in the country are not considered to be Bermudians by the law unless one of the parents is Bermudian.

There is a French organization in Bermuda. It is called L’Alliance Française des Bermudes and was established in 1965. Its main aim is to celebrate and promote the French culture and language in Bermuda. It offers a full program of activities and events to its members. Some of the activities include wine tasting, dinners, monthly French movies, music concerts, Christmas cocktail, bowling tournaments, and the celebration of the National Day on 14th July. The organization also offers scholarships to students from Bermuda who have a good level of French and have shown interest in the French culture. These students get the chance to visit France and study French.

Spanish language is also spoken in the island but by a very small population.

Since English is Bermuda’s main language any person visiting the country is sure to understand and communicate freely with the locals. It is, however, advisable to take time and learn some of the local words so as to have a much easier time when communicating.

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