Skip to main content

Super-leveling, fraying-out, internal restructuring: A century of present be concord in Tristan da Cunha English

  • Daniel Schreier (a1)

The present study analyzes present be leveling with pivot is (as in I is, we is, the old dogs is) in Tristan da Cunha English, a variety of South Atlantic English that developed in geographic isolation and under intense contact conditions. The findings, based on data from a total of 45 speakers born throughout the 20th century, indicate that community-wide variation correlates with social history; whereas present be was subject to (near-)categorical leveling until the 1940s, an opening-up phase after World War II saw interaction with speakers of other dialects on the island, which triggered an increase of a standard am/is/are concord pattern. Variability began to increase from the 1950s onward and the community has now frayed out widely in its usage of leveled is forms (ranging from 10% to over 90% in speakers of the youngest generation, born in the 1980s). The internal constraint ranking for preceding environment in younger generations was partially restructured, which suggests that the social changes affected the grammatical variable. Three outliers represent exonormative orientation and outward mobility.

Hide All
Anderwald, Lieselotte. (2001). Was/were-variation in non-standard British English today. English World-Wide 22:121.
Brander, Jan. (1940). Tristan da Cunha 1506–1902. London: Allen & Unwin.
Britain, David. (2002). Diffusion, levelling, simplification and reallocation in past tense BE in the English Fens. Journal of Sociolinguistics 6:1643.
Britain, David, & Sudbury, Andrea. (2002). There's sheep and there's penguins: “Drift,” “slant” and singular verb forms following existentials in New Zealand and Falkland Island English. In Jones, M. & Esch, E. (eds.), Language change: the interplay of internal, external and extra-linguistic factors. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 209242.
Chambers, Jennifer K. (2004). Dynamic typology and vernacular universals. In Kortmann, B. (ed.), Dialectology meets typology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 127145.
Chambers, Jennifer K. (2009). Sociolinguistic theory. 3rd ed.Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.
Clarke, Sandra. (2004). Newfoundland English: Morphology and syntax. In Kortmann, B. & Schneider, E. W., in collaboration with Burridge, K., Mesthrie, R., & Upton, C. (eds.), A handbook of varieties of English. Vol. 2. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 303318.
Crawford, Allan. (1945). I went to Tristan. London: Allen & Unwin.
Crawford, Allan (1982). Tristan da Cunha and the Roaring Forties. London: Allen & Unwin.
Crawford, Allan (1999). Penguins, potatoes, and postage stamps: A Tristan da Cunha chronicle. Oswestry: Anthony Nelson.
Deuber, Dagmar, & Youssef, Valerie. (2013). Trinidadian creole. In Kortmann, B. & Lunkenheimer, K. (eds.), The Mouton world atlas of variation in English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 320328.
Dubois, Sylvie, & Horvath, Barbara. (2003). The English vernacular of the creoles of Louisiana. Language Variation and Change 15:255288.
Earle, Augustus. (1966). Narrative of a residence on the island of Tristan D'Acunha in the South Atlantic Ocean. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (1st ed., 1832).
Evans, Dorothy. (1994). Schooling in the South Atlantic Islands 1661–1992. Oswestry: Anthony Nelson.
Feagin, Crawford. (1979). Variation and change in Alabama English. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Finegan, Edward. (1999). English grammar and usage. In Romaine, S. (ed.), The Cambridge history of the English language. Vol. 4: 1776–1997. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gordon, Elizabeth, Campbell, Lyle, Hay, Jennifer, Maclagan, Margaret, Sudbury, Andrea, & Trudgill, Peter. (2004). New Zealand English: Its origins and evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hay, Jennifer, & Schreier, Daniel. (2004). Reversing the trajectory of language change: Subject-verb agreement with BE in New Zealand English. Language Variation and Change 16:209235.
Hazen, Kirk. (2002). Identity and language variation in a rural community. Language 78:240257.
Hazen, Kirk (2014). A new role for an ancient variable in Appalachia: Paradigm leveling and standardization in West Virginia. Language Variation and Change 26:77102.
Hickey, Raymond. (2003). How do dialects get the features they have? On the process of new dialect formation. In Hickey, R. (ed.), Motives for language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 213239.
Horvath, Barbara. (1985). Variation in Australian English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ihalainen, Ossi. (1994). The dialects of England since 1776. In Burchfield, R. (ed.), The Cambridge history of the English language. Vol. 5: English in Britain and overseas: Origins and development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 197274.
José, Brian. (2007). Appalachian English in southern Indiana? The evidence from verbal –s. Language Variation and Change 19:249280.
Kerswill, Paul. (1996). Children, adolescents and language change. Language Variation and Change 8:177202.
Kortmann, Bernd, & Lunkenheimer, Kerstin (eds.). (2013). The electronic world atlas of varieties of English. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Available at: Accessed July 23, 2015.
Labov, William. (1963). The social motivation of a sound change. Word 19:273309.
Labov, William, Cohen, Paul, Robins, Clarence, & Lewis, John. (1968). A study of the Non-Standard English of Negro and Puerto Rican Speakers in New York City. Washington, DC: Educational Research Information Center.
Mallinson, Christine, & Wolfram, Walt. (2002). Dialect accommodation in a bi-ethnic mountain enclave community: More evidence on the development of African American English. Language in Society 31:743775.
Melchers, Gunnel. (2013). Orkney and Shetland Islands English. In Kortmann, B. & Lunkenheimer, K. (eds.), The Mouton world atlas of variation in English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 1520.
Mesthrie, Rajend. (1993). Koineization in the Bhojpuri-Hindi diaspora—With special reference to South Africa. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 99:2544.
Meyerhoff, Miriam, & Walker, James A. (2007). The persistence of variation in individual grammars: Copula absence in “urban sojourners” and their stay-at-home peers, Bequia (St Vincent and the Grenadines). Journal of Sociolinguistics 11:346366.
Milroy, Lesley, & Gordon, Matthew. (2005). Sociolinguistics: Method and interpretation. Malden: Wiley Blackwell.
Montgomery, Michael B. (1997). Making transatlantic connections between varieties of English. Journal of English Linguistics 25:122141.
Mufwene, Salikoko S. (2001). The ecology of language evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Munch, Peter A. (1945). Sociology of Tristan da Cunha. Oslo: Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi.
Munch, Peter A. (1971). Crisis in Utopia. New York: Crowell.
Myrick, Caroline. (2014). Putting Saban English on the map: A descriptive analysis of English language variation on Saba. English World-Wide 35:161192.
Orton, Harold, & Dieth, Eugen (eds.). (1967). Survey of English dialects. Leeds: Arnold.
Orton, Harold, Sanderson, Stewart, & Widdowson, John (eds.). (1978). The linguistic atlas of England. London: Croom Helm.
Rickford, John R. (2008). Implicational scales. In Chambers, J. K., Trudgill, P., & Schilling, N. (eds.), The handbook of language variation and change. Malden: Wiley Blackwell. 142167.
Sankoff, David, Tagliamonte, Sali A., & Smith, Eric. (2012). Goldvarb Lion: A variable rule application for Macintosh. Toronto: Department of Linguistics, University of Toronto.
Sankoff, Gillian. (2005). Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies in sociolinguistics. In Ammon, U., Dittmar, N., Mattheier, K. J., & Trudgill, P. (eds.), Sociolinguistics/soziolinguistik: An international handbook of the science of language and society/ein internationales handbuch zur wissenschaft von sprache und gesellschaft. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 10031012.
Schreier, Daniel. (2002). Past be in Tristan da Cunha: The rise and fall of categoricality in language change. American Speech 77:7099.
Schreier, Daniel (2003). Isolation and language change: Contemporary and sociohistorical evidence from Tristan da Cunha English. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.
Schreier, Daniel (2005). Consonant change in English worldwide: Synchrony meets diachrony. Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change 3. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.
Schreier, Daniel (2008). St Helenian English: Origins, evolution and variation. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Schreier, Daniel (2010). Tristan da Cunha. In Schreier, D., Trudgill, P., Schneider, E. W., & Williams, J. P. (eds.), The lesser-known varieties of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 245260.
Schreier, Daniel (2014a). Individual variation and the interviewer: /h/ insertion in earlier TdCE. Paper presented at the International Conference for Methods in Dialectology XV, University of Groningen, August 11–15.
Schreier, Daniel (2014b). On cafeterias and new dialects: The role of primary transmitters. In Buschfeld, S., Hoffmann, T., Huber, M., & Kautzsch, A. (eds.), The evolution of Englishes: The dynamic model and beyond. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 231248.
Schreier, Daniel (2015). Hypercorrection and the persistence of local dialect features in writing. In Auer, A., Schreier, D., &, Watts, R. J. (eds.), Letter writing and language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schreier, Daniel, & Lavarello-Schreier, Karen. (2011). Tristan da Cunha and the Tristanians. London: Battlebridge.
Schreier, Daniel, & Trudgill, Peter. (2006). The segmental phonology of 19th century Tristan da Cunha English: Convergence and local innovation. English Language and Linguistics 10:119141.
Shilling, Alison. (1978). Some non-standard features of Bahamian dialect syntax. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Hawaii.
Siegel, Jeff. (1985). Koines and koineization. Language in Society 14:357378.
Siegel, Jeff (1987). Language contact in a plantation environment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Studer, Dieter Andreas. (2006). Present paradigms of to be in the Survey of English dialects. Master's thesis, University of Zurich.
Tagliamonte, Sali. (1998). Was/were variation across the generations: View from the city of York. Language Variation and Change 10:153191.
Tagliamonte, Sali (2012). Roots of English: Exploring the history of dialects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tagliamonte, Sali, & Smith, Jennifer. (2000). “Old was, new ecology: Viewing English through the sociolinguistic filter.” In Poplack, S. (ed.), The English history of African American English. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Trudgill, Peter. (1986). Dialects in contact. Oxford: Blackwell.
Trudgill, Peter (1999). The dialects of England. 2nd ed.Oxford: Blackwell.
Trudgill, Peter (2002). Sociolinguistic variation and change. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Trudgill, Peter (2004). New-dialect formation: The inevitability of colonial Englishes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Trudgill, Peter (2011). Sociolinguistic typology: Social determinants of linguistic complexity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Van Herk, Gerard, & Walker, James A. (2005). S marks the spot? Regional variation and early African American correspondence. Language Variation and Change 17:113131.
Walker, James A. (2007). There's bears back there. English World-Wide 28:147166.
Walker, James A., & Meyerhoff, Miriam. (2013). An existential problem: The sociolinguistic monitor and variation in existential constructions on Bequia (St Vincent and the Grenadines). Language and Society 42:407428.
Wolfram, Walt. (2008). Urban African American Vernacular English: Morphology and syntax. In Schneider, E. W. (ed.), The Americas and the Caribbean. Berlin: de Gruyter. 510533.
Wolfram, Walt, & Schilling-Estes, Natalie. (2003). Language change in “conservative” dialects: The case of past tense be in Southern enclave communities. American Speech 78:208227.
Zettersten, Arne. (1969). The English of Tristan da Cunha. Lund: Gleerup.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Language Variation and Change
  • ISSN: 0954-3945
  • EISSN: 1469-8021
  • URL: /core/journals/language-variation-and-change
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 18
Total number of PDF views: 122 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 459 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th March 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.