The Origin and Development of the English Language in Barbados

This essay will focus on the origin and evolution of the English language in Barbados. As an introduction, it will account for the chief events and tendencies that impacted on the development of the English language in Barbados today. Furthermore, the essay will describe the role of the English language in current Barbadian society.

Compared to their equivalent of the present United States and Canada, very little is known about the natives of Barbados. The Amerindians on Barbados have left no written records; thus, the most plausible reconstruction of their lifestyle relies on archaeological records and ethnographic data from Venezuela, Brazil and nearby islands similar in size and geographic parameters. In Barbados today, the Amerindian natives are almost extinct and knowledge of their role in post-sixteenth-century history is almost non-existent1. In fact, it seems that the first English settlers encountered no significant number of natives. Different historians propose the valid suggestion that throughout the sixteenth century, Spanish and Portuguese vessels used Barbados as a source of slave labour and, consequently, drained the population to an extent where it could no longer reproduce itself.2

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Though Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese conquerors reported their finding of and disembarking on Barbados in the early sixteenth century, it was a party of English mariners, led by Captain John Powell, who were the first to claim possession of the island upon their arrival on 14 May 1625. Two years later, on 17 February 1627, John Powell’s younger brother, Henry Powell, arrived with four vessels containing some eighty colonists and a smaller number of slaves. The slaves were primarily youngsters from England and Ireland, but approximately a dozen had been captured in Africa.3, 4 The party was organised and financed by two British brothers, Sir Peter and Sir William Courteen. The immediate purpose of colonising Barbados was to make profit. John Powell was confident that the location contained both the climate and soil suitable for an agricultural settlement. The Courteen brothers had invested �10,000 to make large-scale agriculture possible, thus consolidating their role as the first actual proprietors of Barbados.5 The Courteen’s governorship under John Powell was brief. On 22 July 1627, King Charles I of England commissioned James Hay, Earl of Carlisle, as Lord Proprietor. Consequently, Hay took on responsibilities for administration and full jurisdiction over all inhabitants, and, therefore, had the opportunity to launch duties and create a hierarchy in colony society.

In 1629, following a struggle for power between Hay-appointed Governor Charles Wolverstone and the Courteen brothers’ proprietor, John Powell, Sir William Tufton was appointed governor. Sir Tufton was instructed by Hay to establish a firm and loyalist administration. Though Sir Tufton’s governorship was short-lived, his appointment marks the beginning of the formation of what is commonly known as ‘Little England’.6 Sir Tufton’s successor, Henry Hawley, brought stability and order to Barbados. Via an advisory council of twelve men, Hawley implemented a legal and administrative system that looked very similar to that in England. All laws and rules, every paragraph and footnote, was written in English. Not only were all official papers written in English, it was a key ambition for Hay and later Proprietor Robert Rich, Second Earl of Warwick, to create a society that resembled England as much as possible.7

Some might argue that written official papers had no significance to the large illiterate and unschooled part of Barbadian society, namely African and English slaves and simple farmers. While it is true that official papers might not have had any significance to seventeenth-century illiterates, living in a society permeated with English traditions, elitist culture and, even more importantly, language has its consequences, however. Of all the languages brought together in Barbados, English was the language that could lead to power and influence. All civil offices had English as their language of means. Though the African slaves unquestionably had a language or lingo of their own, it would have been of utmost importance to learn English in order to rise in the ranks and make a name for oneself.

Thus, we have a British colony, inhabited solely by people of English origin and slaves of African, Amerindian or European origin. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that in Barbados, the English language did not have any apparent alternative or competition. The lack of alternative languages is in sharp contrast with the weary status the English language endured in the later United States of America and Canada, where it had to manifest itself among other eligible contenders such as Spanish, Dutch and French.

Although English is presently the official language of Barbados,8 it does not have exclusivity. Bajan is a nonstandard language and slang. It is a creole dialect, which consists of a West African substrate and an English superstrate. Though similar, Bajan Creole is different from the Creole of neighbouring islands in the Caribbean. Each island has its own superstrate-for instance, Spanish, Scottish or Dutch, depending on their past colonial history-while the substrate is primarily from West Africa.9 However, though the English language has evolved and a parallel language has surfaced, it is, nevertheless, still the language of the written word. Today, approximately 93 per cent of the population of Barbados has African heritage.10 This vast majority of the population, originated from the original African slaves of the island, may have accelerated the spread and evolution of Bajan. Had a majority of the present population originated from the English colonists, the Bajan language evolvement might have been less immense.

Barbados is often referred to as ‘Little England’; the island, despite its vicinity to the United States, has kept English spelling rules, cars drive on the left side of the road, the school system and judicial system is still similar to those of England, cities and places still have their English names (e.g. Christ Church or Hastings) and, according to numerous tourist guides the Barbadian and English demeanour are quite alike.11 Despite attaining its independence from England in 1966, the population of Barbados in the whole has kept a lifestyle in strong accordance with their English roots.

It appears that the English language has had a rather uncomplicated consolidation in Barbados. Unlike the English, the population of Barbados did not suffer through centuries of war and instability before settling on a language. When John Powell initially set foot on Barbados, he was immediately inspired to create a prosperous agricultural adventure in the Caribbean. Later, the English settlement was established with the sole purpose of making profit from the fertile soil of the island. Barbados, though financially profitable, is merely to small to possess territorial prestige and value. In view of its limited territorial prominence, compared to the rest of the enormous New World, it is easy to understand why Spain, France, and Portugal might not have found any interest in Barbados.



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