Isolation and Language Change: Contemporary and Sociohistorical Evidence from Tristan da Cunha English


Isolation and Language Change: Contemporary and Sociohistorical Evidence from Tristan da Cunha English written by Daniel Schreier in 2003, is the second book I have read about the Tristanian idiom. The first book written on the subject, The English of Tristan da Cunha by Arne Zettersten was written in 1969. I am what I call an armchair linguist. I took several courses in linguistics while in university and actively seek out books on the subject during my travels. I read linguistics books for pleasure, yet some of them can be more trudging plods than others. Isolation and Language Change, at only 237 pages, nonetheless took me exactly three weeks to finish. I acknowledge that this time is an exaggeration, since I spent two separate weekends after I started reading this book doing other things. On the first weekend, Mark and I took a short art-buying holiday in Cleveland, and then the following weekend I spent competing in the eighth Canadian National Scrabble Championship. Still, I often could only get through ten pages per hour. The revelations in books such as this, which really are directed at post-graduates as a reading audience, were fascinating, and as I have at times stated when reviewing highly academic reads, my reading tempo is not always an accurate indication of how interesting I found the material.

Isolation and Language Change however got off to a very slow start with the chapter devoted to establishing definitions of linguistic terms. Many terms within the linguistic community are used interchangeably and for what Schreier may use to define one concept, another linguist might use a different term. In order to reduce ambiguity by the terms he intended to use, Schreier spent quite a lengthy chapter defining certain terms. While I thoroughly learned what koinéization was, and the differences between creolization versus creoloidization, I felt that the entire chapter was a drawback for armchair linguists such a myself who only wanted to get to the juicy bits pertaining to the central theme as expressed by the book’s title. A shorter chapter on these definitions, or even putting the definitions into an endnote section, would have made the deep dive into this thesis less off-putting.

Schreier, who readers might recognize as the cowriter of Tristan da Cunha: History, People, Language, which he wrote with his Tristanian wife Karen Lavarello-Schreier, was entertaining as he described his attempts to sail to the island in order to conduct his research. Boat schedules don’t always go according to plan on Tristan, as the viciously churning south Atlantic can alter such schedules at any time. The fishing season, depending on its productivity or lack thereof, can hasten or delay one’s departure as well. When Schreier arrived on Tristan he had no firm idea when he would be leaving, but he felt that he had a good ten weeks to conduct his research. As it happened, he spent six months on the island, which gave him ample time to learn his lesson first: that in order to conduct linguistic analysis of the Tristanians as subjects, one must endear oneself to the people first, before sticking microphones into their faces.

For the linguist, Tristan da Cunha is unlike any other community. Its isolation is the source for many questions regarding the state of its language:

“Linguistically and socially, the Tristan community was at all times a genuine melting pot, in which contact and koinéisation processes occurred in substantially limited (and at times almost totally absent) contact with the ‘outside world’. As endocentricity and restricted interaction with other communities have an effect on dialect change and new-dialect formation (Schilling-Estes 2002), Tristan da Cunha represents a fascinating ‘language laboratory’ (a dialectal ‘Petri dish’, if this metaphor is adequate), enabling us to investigate the effects of geophysical isolation on dialect variation and change.”

Schreier elaborates on this premise, that isolated languages do in fact evolve:

“One of the most persistent linguistic stereotypes is that language change occurs at a much slower rate in communities that are geographically and/or socially isolated.”


“The rationale is that restricted interaction patterns necessarily lead to an arrested linguistic development in isolated varieties, which leads to the retention of large numbers of archaic features. If this were the case, then Tristan da Cunha English, confined to one of the least accessible places on earth, basically represents a variety of early nineteenth-century English.”

Whether a community is surrounded by other communities, or located on the most isolated inhabited island on the planet, the languages that are spoken there will evolve and will continue to evolve because they are being used. A spoken language is dynamic and will change from generation to generation. That is not to say, however, that some terms will and indeed have clung on to their original meanings two hundred years after the island was first settled. Tristan da Cunha was originally settled in the early nineteenth century as a British military garrison, and some terms which were transported to the island from the seamen who lived in various regions in Great Britain continue to have the same meanings, long after their regional British contexts have fallen out of common usage. This phenomenon of linguistic retention is most curious to visitors, especially journalists:

“At the same time, the extraordinary sociohistorical status of the community has attracted considerable interest on the part of journalists, whose books and articles at best romanticise the realities of island life and at worst distort it, projecting an image of the community that most Tristanians regard as inaccurate and offensive.”

Among these offences is the perception that a trip to Tristan is like taking a trip back in time, where everyone speaks a “Dickensian” dialect or that Tristanians “speak an English which went out of fashion in London’s docklands in the first years of Queen Victoria’s reign”.

Many of the island’s settlers arrived by the tragic circumstance of being shipwrecked. They brought their various dialects of English, and in some cases, different languages altogether such as Dutch and Italian. Tristan has always been a “melting pot” and for those especially who did not speak English, they had to learn fast, as no rescue boat was going to be coming any time soon. Schreier analyzes the dominant idiom of English spoken on Tristan and how it supplanted other terms, and even adopted terms from other languages such as Afrikaans as well as from the idioms Saint Helenian English and east coast American English.

As I noted in Zettersten’s The English of Tristan da Cunha, the voiced /z/ is rare in Tristanian English. Schreier, however, goes one step further:

“The extent of sibilant devoicing is very widespread and voiced [z] may be entirely absent in the phonemic inventories of some speakers.”

The devoicing of /z/, even when used terminally as a sign of plurals, is one particular Tristanianism. Isolation and Language Change had several entire chapters which were devoted to specific Tristanianisms such as the levelling or regularization of the conjugation of the verb to be in the present and past tense. In Tristan English, this verb is conjugated only as is or was, regardless of the subject be it singular or plural. Schreier followed that by a chapter on the completive done, as expressed in phrases such as “That’s all the money I was done spend” and “I’s done had my turn at making tea”. Both sentences are actual examples recorded from Tristanians. One chapter, on innovation and independent developments in Tristanian English, focussed on the used to construction. Schreier renders this as useta and provides examples where the island idiom uses either the preterite or the past participle after useta, thus useta went instead of useta go (used to go) or useta done instead of useta do (used to do). Whereas the other examples of linguistic phenomena particular to Tristan da Cunha can be traced back–and quite thoroughly and definitively, much to Schreier’s credit–to the particular linguistic regions home to the original settlers, this specific Tristanianism, that of favouring the preterite or the past participle over the infinitive in used to constructions, was indeed a mysterious innovation in language dynamism.

Since my read of Isolation and Language Change was so slow, and I am a careful reader even with books that I claim I “can’t put down”, I catch errors and unfortunately spotted three of them: “a fare share”, “comunity” and “less that 30” instead of “less than 30”. I am sure the next printing will correct all of them.

Schreier ended his book with fourteen pages of references, which I pored over from Allan to our Zettersten. I will certainly be seeking out some of Schreier’s source material in the form of interlibrary loan requests.

I composed this review as a draft of an E-mail, then committed a fast-finger error of Brobdingnagian proportions. Earlier this morning after I had completed writing this review, just as I was about to copy and paste the E-mail into a post, I lost everything. I do not know how I managed to delete my review, but two days of work went down the drain in less than a second. The draft was gone. All I had was my page of notes that I kept while I read, recording page numbers and interesting passages to quote. I had no other choice but to start from scratch. A sinking feeling turned my heart inside out as I faced the work ahead. I hadn’t had that feeling since my university days–pre-word processors or home computers–when I realized I would have to type an essay all over again when I screwed up the footnoting annotation. So for the past three hours (fewer than I expected it would take) I have spent rewriting this. If I recall anything I missed the second time around, I will edit this post with the new material.

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