Peter Trudgill on English in Retreat

“The history of the geographical spread of English outwards from the British Isles is a familiar story. During the course of the 1600s, there was an explosive expansion of the English language across the Atlantic Ocean, with settlements in what is now the USA, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and the Bahamas; and then during the 1700s in Canada. By the mid 1800s, English as a native language had extended its reach into the Southern Hemisphere, arriving in Australia, South Africa, the Falkland Islands, and New Zealand. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, English continues to spread as a native language, as a second language, and as a foreign language.

“However, this tale of inexorable spread is not the whole story. There are actually a number of places in the world where English-speaking communities are under pressure from other languages, and where there is a possibility of language shift – the process whereby a community abandons its native language and adopts another – taking place.

“One striking example of English under threat concerns perhaps the least-known anglophone community in the world. These are the Bonin Islands, as mentioned in Investigations in Sociohistorical Linguistics: stories of colonisation and contact. The islands are in the central Pacific Ocean, about 500 miles southeast of Japan proper. The current population is about 2,000. The uninhabited islands were discovered by the Spanish navigator Ruy Lopez de Villalobos in 1543. They were then claimed by the U.S. in 1823 and by Britain in 1825. The islands were first settled in 1830 by 5 seamen: two Americans, one Englishmen, one Dane, one Italian; and ten Hawaiians, 5 men and 5 women. They were later joined by whalers, shipwrecked sailors, and drifters of many different origins, which led to the development of a unique form of English with many similarities to American New England varieties. The islands were formally annexed by Japan in 1876, but after World War II they were a placed under U.S. military control. They were then returned to Japan in 1968. Currently immigration from Japan is being followed by language shift to Japanese on the part of the original (part-)European origin population. If the Japanese-based American linguist Danny Long had not alerted us to this community, it is quite possible that this form of English would have died out without anybody knowing that it even existed, let alone what it was like.

“Other examples come from Central America. In the 1640s, parts of the eastern coastal areas of Central America and adjacent islands began to be occupied by groups of anglophones – one consequence of this which is not widely appreciated is that much of the Caribbean coastline of Central America, from Belize down to Colombia, is English-speaking to this day, with both British Isles-origin and African-origin speakers. The Honduran Bay Islands of  Roatan and Utila were occupied by English buccaneers in 1642, and Honduras was officially ceded by the British to the Spanish only in 1859. Today, however, in-migration to the islands from the Honduran mainland means that the communities are becoming increasingly Spanish speaking.

“More recently, during the late 19th century, there was large-scale expansion of native-speaking anglophones from some of the Caribbean islands, notably Jamaica, to eastern coastal areas of Costa Rica, focussing on Limón. They came to work on the construction of a railroad to transport coffee from the interior highlands to the coast. Today we find an unusual situation where English is a language which generally has lower status in Costa Rica than Spanish does. Spanish is the official language of the country, and is spoken natively by people who are mostly of European origin. The anglophones, on the other hand, are people of African origin who have in the past experienced considerable racial discrimination – until 1949 they were actually forbidden by law to travel from the coastal zone into the highlands.  Younger English speakers are now all bilingual in Spanish and English ­­– necessarily so, because they are required to speak Spanish in school – and recent reports suggest that English is giving way to Spanish to a certain extent, as is also happening on the English-speaking islands of Colombian and Nicaragua.

“In another example, the Dominican Republic is basically monolingual Spanish-speaking, but several regions of the country were settled in the 1820s by some 6,000 American ex-slaves who immigrated there through arrangements between the Haitian rulers of Santo Domingo, and American philanthropic agencies. One settlement was on the peninsula of Samaná. The anglophones there refer to themselves as ‘Americans’ and speak fluent English, some of them to the apparent total exclusion of Spanish.  Most of them cite Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey as the place of origin of their ancestors. There is now, however, considerable pressure on the community to shift to Spanish.

“A further interesting case goes back to the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Thousands of Americans from the defeated South then left the United States. Some went to Mexico and the West Indies, and some even made it as far as Japan and Egypt, but the largest number of those that left went to Brazil, perhaps as many as 40,000 of them, where they founded a number of settlements. The best known of these is called Americana, which is situated about 150 km northwest of Sao Paulo, and today has about 200, 000 inhabitants. The language of the community was for many decades a Southern variety of American English, and there are many hundreds of older people today who still speak a conservative form of English which has its roots in, particularly, Georgia and Alabama. Gradually, however, the community have become bilingual in English and Portuguese, and most younger people are as comfortable in Portuguese as in English, if not more so.

“We see, then, that there are cases in the world of English being threatened by major languages such as French, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese. However, in a final and most extraordinary example of English as an endangered language, we can note a remarkable case of a reversal of the usual tragic pattern of English killing off indigenous languages: in one small part of the word, English is dying out and being replaced by a Native American language. The language in question is Guaraní, the main indigenous language of Paraguay. The presence of English in Paraguay is the result of a Utopian Socialist settlement carried out from Australia in the 1890s, when a colony of perhaps 400 English-speaking people was established. Many of the descendants of these New Australia colonisers are still to be found in the area of the town of  Nueva Londres (formerly Nueva Australia),where the community retains English-language surnames and a collective memory of their Australian origins and customs. Large-scale language shift is taking place, however, and English is being lost as a native language: younger members of the community are now native-speakers of Guaraní.[1]“

Peter Trudgill


[1] I owe this up-to-date information about the situation in Paraguay to Danae Perez, of the University of Zurich.

Investigations in Sociohistorical Linguistics Investigations in Sociohistorical Linguistics: Stories of Colonisation and Contact by Professor Trudgill is available now for £18.99. Click here to find out more and read a free excerpt.


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