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Bermuda’s distinctive dialogue discussed

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Poet and musician Ronald Lightbourne (left) was among speakers at a discussion on Bermudian dialect (Photo by Nicola Muirhead)

The Island’s dialect and unique vocabulary keep changing — but even as our speech evolves, it remains Bermudian.

A round-table discussion last night on the Island’s dialect brought together writers, artists and linguist Britanni Fubler to speak in front of a full house at the Bermuda National Library.

The candid look at the way we speak was led by Kim Dismont Robinson, folk life officer at the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs.

The gathering included poets Ronald Lightbourne, Chris Astwood and Stephan Johnstone, who shared their experiences and thoughts.

As Ms Fubler explained, the history of Bermuda’s dialect is “not well documented”, but it emerged from a crossroads of African, Caribbean, British, Portuguese, and New England influences.

Scholars of the dialect believe the nasal quality of many distinctly Bermudian sounds — such as the affirmative “aungh” noise — may have originated with Portuguese and Angolan imports.

Ms Fubler, who filled an auditorium with a 2011 lecture on the Island’s distinctive speech, said the United States influence had markedly shifted the accent away from its stronger British intonation in recent years, and globalisation would likely bring further variance.

Asked if we risked losing our distinct way of talking, Ms Fubler replied: “The strength of a dialect is the words we use, that keep us unique.”

As the dialect changes, Bermudian are “continuing to establish ourselves”, she said.

Poet Stephan Johnstone added: “It’s constantly evolving, shifting, changing. I don’t think we are losing it.”

Calling himself more a mathematician than a poet, Mr Johnstone said he found his Bermudian essence when he began making albums. A fellow poet, Mr Astwood, now pursuing a doctorate in critical and creative writing, described his studies of the spectrum of “Englishes” across island spaces, and recited his poem Language Trees, which posited an ancestral Bermudian tongue derived from the sounds of the trees and the noises of the Island landscape, that “speaks in the dampness, those stories in our bones”.

For Mr Lightbourne, a veteran musician and poet, it was a chance to discuss the many dialects he spoke during a childhood of Caribbean travels, and the “multi-focused lens” it has given him. With his more detached perspective, Mr Lightbourne provoked laughter by observing that even Bermudian dogs understand the special features of local speech, describing how a pit bull that had eyed him was rebuked by its owner: “Don’ even worry wif it.”

Mr Astwood said he puzzled with rendering the dialect in speech, such as the shift between the V and W sounds — the “V-W slide” that he sometimes represents by joining the letters together.

Meanwhile, no consensus could be found on whether the Island’s colloquial form of address was spelled “bie” or “bye”. Guests also heard that the popular alternative of “dun” was derived from reggae music of the 1980s.

Mr Johnstone mused on the tendency of some Bermudians to drop their accent in a business setting, adding: “What gets me is how some people strip themselves of their dialect just to sound what they feel is more appropriate.”

Ms Fubler shared her regret at lacking a strong Bermudian accent, and Mr Astwood drew nods of assent when he identified an “offensive” use of dialect as one which denigrated or belittled others, adding: “It’s painful for everyone when you see our way of speaking devalued.”

None of the panellists could settle on a standard way to write the Bermudian dialect.

Asked how Bermudians could get past self-consciousness about their accent and their ways of speaking it, Mr Astwood said: “By having conversations like this.”

Poet Stephan Johnstone with linguist Britanni Fubler attended the gathering discussing Bermuda's unique dialect (Photo by Nicola Muirhead)
A large crowd attended the discussion on the Island's unique and evolving dialect at Bermuda National Library (Photo by Nicola Muirhead)
Poet Chris Astwood discussed his work at the event (Photo by Nicola Muirhead)