Virgin Islands Creole

Virgin Islands Creole is an English-based creole spoken in the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.

Virgin Islands Creole is not to be confused with Negerhollands, a Dutch-based creole that was once spoken in the Danish West Indies, now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands.


Virgin Islands Creole was formed when African slaves, unable to communicate with each other due to being taken from different regions of West Africa with different languages, created a new English-based dialect with West African-derived words and sentence structure.

St. Thomas and St. John, although Danish colonies, had a European population of mainly Dutch origin, which led to enslaved Africans creating a Dutch-based creole, known as Negerhollands (now an extinct language). Negerhollands was in mainstream usage on St. Thomas and St. John up until the 19th century, when British occupation of the Danish West Indies from 1801 to 1802 and 1807 to 1815, as well as the preference for English as a trade and business language in the busy port of Charlotte Amalie, helped establish Virgin Islands Creole over Negerhollands. However, there was a small but continued use of Negerhollands well into the 20th century.

Unlike the other Danish West Indian islands, St. Croix had a European population of mostly English, Irish and Scottish origin, which gave way to the creation of an English-based creole throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. This would eventually be spoken on St. Thomas and St. John during the 19th century as Negerhollands was fading away. By the end of the 19th century, the English creole completely replaced Negerhollands as the native dialect of the present-day U.S. Virgin Islands.

Virgin Islands Creole had also been developing in the present-day British Virgin Islands as well. The British took over the islands from the Dutch in 1672. Enslaved Africans were brought to work on plantations on Tortola and Virgin Gorda where they, like those enslaved on St. Croix, also developed an English-based creole.

In one form or the other, Virgin Islands Creole still exists today as the native dialect of both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Although the two territories are politically separate, they share a common Virgin Islands culture, similar history based on colonialism and slavery and even common bloodlines in many cases. It is spoken with slight variations from island-to-island.

Language Use and Perceptions

Virgin Islands Creole does not have the status of an official language. It is strictly informal and is a constantly changing dialect filled with various slang terms and idioms. The language of government, education and the media is American English in the U.S. Virgin Islands and British English in the British Virgin Islands. In the Virgin Islands, a post-creole speech continuum exists, in which there are two extremes — standard English (known as the acrolect) and the creole in its most raw form (known as the basilect). Due to the constant contact between standard English and Virgin Islands Creole in local society, there are many in-between speech varieties as well (known as mesolects). Most native Virgin Islanders can easily maneuver this continuum depending on their mood, subject matter, or to whom they are speaking.

Virgin Islands Creole also exists in different forms that vary by generation, as there are many words and expressions that are only known to older Virgin Islanders, while there are also relatively newer words and expressions known only to younger Virgin Islanders. The dialect continues to undergo creolization. Its most modern form is mainly derived from traditional Virgin Islands Creole terms, idioms, proverbs and sentence structure, with influences from African-American and Jamaican idioms due to the permeation of rap, reggae and dancehall in the Virgin Islander youth culture. Like other Caribbean creoles, proverbs are prevalent in the dialect. However, in 2004, a linguistic study group in cooperation with the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras campus found that many old proverbs in the Crucian (St. Croix) variant of Virgin Islands Creole, common among older generations, have faded away among many young Crucians. In addition, many Virgin Islanders who migrate to the United States often return home with American-influenced speech patterns (colloquially known as "yanking") that then influence local speech. These changes, as well as a perceived decreolization of the dialect held by many older Virgin Islanders, have inspired debates on whether the dialect spoken by Virgin Islanders today is in fact the true Virgin Islands Creole.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, there has been an underlying negative pressure on Virgin Islanders to eliminate their dialect due to Americanization since the United States acquired the islands from Denmark in 1917. Standard American English is associated with social mobility while Virgin Islands Creole, although appreciated for its cultural value and widely used informally, is seen as an impediment for economic and educational progress.

The majority of Virgin Islanders speak Virgin Islands Creole. However, due to immigration from the rest of the Caribbean and the United States, there are some Virgin Islands residents who do not speak the dialect. Most non-native longtime residents can understand Virgin Islands Creole when it is spoken to them.

In the Virgin Islands, the dialect is rarely referred to as a creole, as locally, "creole" (as well as "patois") usually refers to the French-based creoles spoken by St. Lucian, Dominican (Dominica) and Haitian immigrants. Instead, Virgin Islanders tend to refer to the dialect by their native island (i.e. "Crucian dialect", "Thomian dialect", "Tortolian dialect", etc...).

As with other Caribbean creoles, Virgin Islands Creole is generally unwritten. However, local authors often write in the creole, and young Virgin Islanders tend to write in it when communicating among each other over the Internet. Because no standard spelling system exists in Virgin Islands Creole, those who attempt to write it use English orthography.

Unlike a standard language that can be learned, the prevailing sentiment is that Virgin Islands Creole cannot be learned, but only acquired through having spent one's formative years in the Virgin Islands. Attempts by Virgin Islands non-native residents to speak the dialect, even out of respect, are often met with disapproval.

Grammatical Structure

Like other Caribbean creoles, there is a simpler set of pronouns than in English, and conjugations occur less often. For example, the English phrase "I gave it to her" would translate to "I give it to she." Another common pattern found in Virgin Islands Creole is the absence of the letter "s" in the plural, possessive and third person present tense.


Differences with English

The pronunciation differs from Standard English in various ways. Virgin Islands accents are similar to those of other Caribbean islands, especially those in the Leeward Islands, but are also unique in many ways.

In Virgin Islands Creole, dental fricatives (the "-th" sound) are often omitted from speech, and replaced by dental stops (the "-t" sound).

The vowel pronunciation of Virgin Islands Creole differs from Standard English. For example, the suffix "er" in English — either /ə/ or /ɚ/ in Standard English — is pronounced /æ/ (for example: computer is pronounced [kompuːtæ], and never is pronounced [nevæ]). Not all words ending in "er" are pronounced in this way.

Differences in pronunciation by island

There are many variations between the local speech on each of the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. For example, the pronunciation of the standard English phrase "come here" would be "come ya" on St. Croix, and "come heh" on St. Thomas, St. John and the British Virgin Islands. It is commonplace for such differences to be pointed out in jest when Virgin Islanders of different islands congregate.

Examples of Virgin Islands Creole Proverbs

  • "Who don't hear will feel.
  • "What yoh do in de dark come out in de light.
  • "Time longer dan twine.
  • "Every skin teeth ain' a grin.
  • "Monkey know wha' kind of tree to clime.

See also


External links

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