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Oxford English Dictionary holds webinar on Bermudian English – and its parodies

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Linguist Rosemary Hall (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Bermudian English – and parodies of it – was highlighted in a recent panel conversation organised by Oxford English Dictionary.

The webinar was led by Rosemary Hall, whose description of Bermudian English led to a series of entries to the dictionary in 2021 including the development of a Bermudian English pronunciation model.

Dr Hall said Bermudian English has a rich history and can reveal much about the history of the island. However, parody of the dialect can also highlight social issues.

“Dialect parody is basically doing an impression of a dialect with the intended purpose being humour,” she said. “It’s incredibly common. We have probably all encountered it.”

Dr Hall said that in interviews with Bermudians she noted numerous “spontaneous” examples of dialect parody.

“It happened particularly often with White Bermudian men over the age of about 50,” Dr Hall said. “I wanted to get to the bottom of this.

“I wanted to look at the social meaning of this, not from my perspective as a Bermudian, as a person who has experience there, but as a linguist, as someone who is actively trying to analyse what is going on.”

Dr Hall noted that in dialect parody of Bermudian English, users often replace Ws with Vs, however actual Bermudian English makes a more subtle change which is difficult to replicate in writing.

“Bermudians are not getting V and W confused in any way,” she said. “They are not simply substituting V for W. They are using those sounds and this bilabial fricative interchangeably in different contexts.

“This is a feature unique to Bermuda but in a subtly different way — it does also occur in different parts of the Caribbean, but Bermuda’s particular way of doing it is unique.”

She also noted that some written dialect parodies did not actually change the pronunciation of the words, only provide an alternative spelling which was symbolic of attitudes of the writer towards the “speaker”.

“If you use non-standard spelling, essentially you are suggesting that the speaker is uneducated in some way,” Dr Hall said.

She highlighted a 1924 parody of Alice in Wonderland published in The Royal Gazette, stating the content was “undoubtedly harmful and racist”, linking Blackness and lack of education.

“What’s rather astounding is that just the same sort of thing still happens today,” Dr Hall said. “This is not 1924 — this is nearly 2024 — but it still happens today in written and spoken contexts.

“In my research, I found exactly the same system of linking linguistic features to Blackness, and then in turn to negative personal qualities in the spoken dialogue parody that I looked at and recorded.”

She added: “This is not imitation in the purest form of flattery. This is a very thinly veiled way of reinforcing racist stereotypes about Black Bermudians.

“The White speakers who were doing this were creating personas who had undesirable personal qualities and had habits such as joblessness, involvement in crime, swearing and alcoholism.”

Dr Hall said that while she has received the response that those who use the dialect parodies are mocking themselves, linguists have found many differences in the accent of White Bermudians and Black Bermudians.

“Look back and think of the last time you heard a piece of dialogue parody,” she added. “Was the character that was being performed intelligent, hardworking or successful, or did they have less admirable qualities?

“If you would describe it as being affectionate, I want you to ask yourself if it could as well as being affectionate be simultaneously patronising in some way.”

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Published January 30, 2023 at 8:01 am (Updated January 30, 2023 at 8:11 am)

Oxford English Dictionary holds webinar on Bermudian English – and its parodies

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