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St. Barts Is Like the Galapagos for Linguistic Diversity

Beyond the glitz of tourism, St. Barts natives speak in unique varieties of French

Gustavia, St. Barths (© Richard Cummins/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

The island of Saint Barthélemy isn’t just a popular vacation playground for the rich and famous — it’s also a destination for scholars of languages. Though it is tiny, St. Barts in the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands is home to four different languages, all connected to the island’s history. In the Christian Science Monitor, Ruth Walker, describing the findings of a 2013 book by linguist Julianne Maher, writes:

Today St. Barths is a French territory of eight square miles and about 8,000 people. Professor Maher’s map shows the island’s four sections with their languages: St. Barth Patois in Sous le Vent (the leeward, or western, end); St. Barth Creole in Au Vent (the windward, or eastern, end); “Saline French,” named for local salt ponds, in the center; and English in Gustavia, the capital, built by internationally minded Swedes.

Maher’s book is called The Survival of People and Languages: Schooners, Goats and Cassava in St. Barthélemy, French West Indies; it alludes to three traditional communities on the island—the seafarers, the herdsman and the farmers. The island may be small, but has such strict boundaries that these communtiies all have different blood types, Walker reports. And different languages.

After French settlers arrived in the 17th century, three dialects arose and diversified. Now, the Patois is different from that found in Cajun French or Canadian French; the creole is similar to that of Martinique; the Saline French was mostly spoken by older people, at the time Maher visited, and "very fast." English in the capital cropped up when France’s King Louis XVI gave the island to the Swedes in 1784. Sweden returned St Barts to France in 1978.

Gathering recordings of the different dialects for required hard work, Maher writes in the introduction to her book:

The St. Barths were suspicious of outsiders and their language varieties were used only with family or close friends, not with strangers. And to record their speech? Absolutely not! Initial contacts were very discouraging.

The reluctance, she suggests, lingers from the disparaging attitude that surrounding islands and France took toward people from St. Barts. But dozens of visits over the years built up enough trust for Maher to document the languages. 

The island is more than just a good place to study how distinct languages can emerge even in a small population. It’s also a place to study how languages die. Maher, Walker writes, tells the story of the island’s languages with "an awareness of reporting on phenomena that are vanishing almost as she writes. Many of those she interviewed have since died."

Saline French is "probably already gone," and St. Barts Creole is in decline. Standard French is gaining ground (even pushing English out). But St. Barts Patois is hanging on as a mark of St. Barts identity. But as the isolation of the past fades in the face of tourist traffic and increasing prosperity, that too may change. Maher notes:

My hope is that the reader will come to appreciate not only this distinctive society but also its courage and fortitude in its centuries-old struggle with adversity." 

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