The English of Tristan da Cunha

In my library I have many books on regional languages. In addition to my books on minority languages, I always pick up books on the specific idiom of a major language spoken in areas where I visit. Thus I have books on the German spoken in Berlin, the German of the former East Germany, the Italian spoken in the Swiss canton of Grisons, among many others. When I visit Tristan da Cunha in September and October of this year I hope to have the opportunity to listen to Tristanian English. I own two books on the Tristan dialect, which is spoken by 260 people. The first one published was The English of Tristan da Cunha by Arne Zettersten in 1969. I own an autographed edition. 

English of TdC

Zettersten based his study on interviews conducted with Tristanians who were evacuated to England in 1961:

“The sudden change in the quiet island life which occurred in 1961 as the result of a volcanic eruption, had a definite bearing on the linguistic situation. Contacts with the outside world had been rather irregular in the twentieth century. Clergymen, teachers, and representatives of the Government had been stationed on the island, and there had certainly been contacts with other RP [Received Pronunciation] speakers, particularly during the last few decades. But the evacuation of the island in October, 1961, changed the situation completely.”

The English of Tristan da Cunha includes transcripts of these islanders’ interviews as well as their letter correspondence to document the written word. The transcripts of the Tristanians’ own accounts of the first few trembles and earthquakes, then of having to suddenly evacuate the island when the volcano erupted–an island smack in the middle of nowhere–were most riveting. 

After a short history of Tristan da Cunha, Zettersten devotes several chapters to the linguistic analysis of the Tristanian idiom. What I found most interesting in the phonetic transcriptions was that the plurals of all nouns, as well as all genitive forms, ended in a voiceless /s/. Whereas in the idiom of English that I speak, the plural marker is voiced or voiceless depending on the last consonant of the word in its singular form: thus ride becomes ridez and rite becomes rites. Note how the vowel sound in words followed by a voiced consonant is longer than the vowel sound that is followed by a voiceless consonant, thus ri:dez versus rites. Zettersten observes:

“Nevertheless, this limited material illustrates the general tendency, namely that there is a marked lengthening of the short vowels (and diphthongs) in the Tristan speech which is noticeable even before voiceless consonants.”

So a Tristanian would say ri:tes using the same vowel length as ri:dez. However the /z/ is very rare in Tristan speech. All plurals end in the voiceless /s/. While I was reading the phonetic transcriptions, I noticed that all of the plurals ended in /s/, even for those words where the penultimate consonant was voiced. I wondered if I was reading it correctly. Turns out Tristanians say ri:tes and ri:des.

I enjoyed the chapters on regional vocabulary where Zettersten discusses various Tristanian terms for birds, fishes, plants and food, among a dozen other topics. Quite interesting, as well as amusing, was the section on place-names and onomastics:

“Some of the names used on Tristan are also interesting from the point of view of word-formation. It was pointed out in the chapter dealing with The preterite (p. 84) that the uninflected form of the verb is used in names such as Down-where-the-minster-land-his-things [1], the Ridge-where-the-Goat-jump-off [2], etc.
“These two names are examples of the type beginning with Down-where-, Down-by-, The Ridge-where-, Below-, By-, etc. These names are also common on Pitcairn Island. Names showing any kind of formal reduction are rare on Tristan. Only Shateller’s Hut [3] and Tommy’s Eyeloose [4] have been found.”


“It is remarkable how similar some of the formations are in the two island languages, the only real difference being that the Tahitian element of Pitcairnese has resulted in a number of special Pitcairnese names.”

Zettersten proposes the idea of an “island universal”, or a common element in all languages which find their home on isolated islands. The coincidence in place-naming on Tristan and Pitcairn, two tiny islands two oceans apart, is striking and perhaps worthy of investigation.

As Tristan da Cunha opens to the world via the Internet, its inhabitants might be at risk of losing their idiom through standardization. In my E-mail correspondence with the islanders, one would never think that the replies I received were written by anyone else except a fellow Canadian, American or a Briton. However, those who speak a regional dialect (or even a minority language) are far more likely to use that dialect or language when speaking with family members or neighbours, and switch to a more standardized form or majority language when speaking with outsiders. Thus I expect when I am on Tristan da Cunha to be spoken to in standard English. I might request to be spoken to in the island idiom, but such a request might be regarded as an intrusion. I might have to resort to eavesdropping on islanders talking to one another in Tristan English.

Regarding the future of Tristan English, Zettersten writes:

“It has often been pointed out that many English dialects die out, or that dialect features at least tend to become more and more standardized. The fact that the Tristan dialect is spoken in an extremely isolated place might suggest that the dialect was able to withstand the influence of Standard English features for a period longer than is the case elsewhere. On the other hand, it must be observed that the whole population of Tristan spent a period of at least eighteen months in England from 1961 to 1963, that the school system has been definitely improved lately, and that the island’s contacts with the ‘outside world’ are more pronounced in the 1960’s than before. A certain levelling of the dialect features is therefore to be expected, but the process of change will be a slow one. In spite of this, it must be emphasized that the tape-recordings of 1961 used in the present investigation were made at the right time–before any levelling tendencies began to affect the structure of the dialect.”

I can only wonder what changes the last fifty years have brought to the English of Tristan da Cunha. In a few months I will most certainly find out.

[1] The Place-names index shows Down-where-the-minister-land-his-things.
[2] In the Place-names index, goat is not capitalized.
[3] A reduction of Charlie Taylor’s Hut.
[4] A reduction of Down-by-Thomas’s-Oil-House.

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