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Tense, Aspect, and Modality in Bastimentos Creole English

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Language Bastimentos Creole English
Depositor Heidi Reid
Affiliation University of Manchester
Location Panama
Collection ID 0171
Grant ID SG0175
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

This collection includes a rich set of digitally recorded speech acts (audio and video), as well as texts and stills, reflecting sociocultural life typical of the 600 speakers of the Creole community of Bastimentos Island, Panama, Central America. It also provides a sketch grammar with an in-depth descriptive analysis of TMA markers and their permissible combinations, accounting for syntactic variables, sociolinguistic variation, pragmatic/stylistic information, and possible internal change independent of the creole continuum.


Group represented

Creole community of Bastimentos Island, Panama, Central America.
Bastimentos Creole (known locally as Guari-Guari) is spoken on the island of Bastimentos, which is situated 32 kms from the Costa Rican Caribbean border and belonging to the archipelagic province of Bocas del Toro, Panama.
There are more than 100,000 speakers of Panamanian Creole English, the majority of whom live in three general areas: Bocas del Toro, Panama City, and the port of Colón (Aceto 1996: 49). With Spanish as the official language of Panama, these are essentially isolated pockets of Panamanian Creole English speakers. In the archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Aceto (1996: 47) notes the existence of ‘significant populations’ on Isla de Bastimentos, Isla de Colon – the capital of the province, and the city of Almirante on the mainland, and a separate but smaller community in the town of Changuinola on the mainland closer to the Costa Rican border. It had already been suggested by Thomas-Brereton (1992; cited in Aceto 1996: 49) that speakers of Panamanian Creole English in Panama City describe Panamanian Creole English spoken in Bocas del Toro as different from their own variety. And after conversations with speakers of Bastimentos Creole English (Bastimentos Creole), Aceto was able to confirm that, not only do Bastimentos Creole speakers recognise their variety as distinct from Panamanian Creole English heard in other regions of Panama, they are also of the opinion that discrete differences exist within the province of Bocas del Toro itself.


Language information

The Ethnologue groups several creoles under the name “Jamaican Creole” and the ISO code [jam]: Panamanian Creole English, Limon Creole English (Costa Rica), Miskito Coast Creole English (Nicaragua), Belizean Creole English, San Andres Creole English, Providence Island Creole English, and Bay Islands Creole English (a dialect of English in Honduras). The degree of endangerment given to Panamanian Creole English by UNESCO is ‘definitely endangered.’

The first Antilleans to arrive in Bocas del Toro were slaves of English-speaking colonists from San Andrés and Providence Island in the early nineteenth century (Westerman 1980 & Herzfeld 1983; cited in Aceto 1998: 31). A second wave of immigrants later in the century and into the following century came from Jamaica and Barbados in order to work on the railroad canal (Holm 1989: 482) and banana plantations (Aceto 1996: 48). Today the island is inhabited by approximately 1,000 people, 600 of whom are descendents of the West Indies, and four hundred of whom are indigenous speakers of Guaymi/Ngabere (Aceto 1996: 48). The two ethnic groups live on separate parts of the island and communicate with each other in Spanish, the official language of Panama (Aceto 1998: 32). The native language of the creole community is not acknowledged in the local primary school. Although Bastimentos Creole speakers have little, if any, knowledge of Spanish when they begin school, as adults they become bilingual to varying degrees (Snow 2003:300). The role of Spanish is reserved for formal occasions and Bastimentos Creole for ordinary conversation (Snow 2000: 168).

Bastimentos Creole shows wide variation in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, also borrowing many Spanish lexical items (Snow 2000: 167). There remains, nevertheless, a stable diglossic relationship between Bastimentos Creole and Spanish. Snow (2000:168) believes a gradual shift towards Spanish is unlikely and at the same time the fact that Spanish is the contact language, and not English, limits the effects of decreolization. Recently, however, the island has begun to attract mostly English-speaking tourists. Prior to 1995, outsiders and visitors were mostly monolingual Spanish speakers and access to television broadcasts was restricted to Spanish (Aceto 2001: 6). English speakers occasionally visited from the USA, e.g. extended family members (Aceto p.c). Conversely, as the economy of the province increases its reliance on international tourism, Bastimentos Creole speakers are now conversing in some variety of English with tourists (Snow 2003: 299-300). This new sociolinguistics situation could potentially have a significant impact on language maintenance and language change (Snow 2003:8).

Snow (2007, 2003, 2000a, 2000b), rather than describing in any detail the grammar of Bastimentos Creole, observes the general linguistic situation of the community of Bastimentos Creole speakers. Aceto (2001/5, 1999, 1998, 1996, 1995) on the other hand, has published several articles (based on his PhD thesis), which explores variation in the past and future preverbal markers. My own MA dissertation, ‘A Grammatical Description of Bastimentos Creole English’, was made possible thanks to Aceto, who kindly sent me his recordings of Bastimentos Creole made in 1994.


Special characteristics

The TMA markers take the syntactic form of preverbal particles in basilectal Bastimentos Creole, a typical order in SVO languages (Dryer 2007: 90 & 107), and prove to be of significant typological interest.


Collection contents

The collection includes:

  • audio-visual recordings
  • metadata
  • annotations with orthographic transcription, free translations into Standard English and Spanish, grammatical coding for tense-aspect-mood, and contextual
  • commentary where necessary, including four texts of legacy materails (Aceto 1994)
  • a set of edited texts of Anansi stories (traditional African folk tales about Anansi the spider) and other culturally relevant stories, and/or poems,
  • supplemented by Bastimentos Creole transcriptions and free translation into Standard English and Spanish
  • a sketch grammar of Bastimentos Creole, with discussion of all grammatical morphemes with focus on the TMA system, including notes on sociolinguistic variation where applicable
  • a lexical database of approximately 500 words taken from the texts
  • sociolinguistic interviews based on interview modules (Labov: 1984) covering relevant topics, such as community values, food preparation, carnival, bush medicine, folklore etc.
  • attitude survey to evaluate speakers’ opinions on issues of identity – language, culture, and ethnicity – including general questions, tests designed to elicit a broad range of speech from individual speakers, and evaluative comments
  • a PhD thesis


Collection history

The recordings received from Aceto were made between the months of March and June 1994. During this period Aceto collaborated with approximately 20 speakers of different genders and age groups (Aceto, p.c., 2011), conducting a series of elicitation sessions based on paradigms in Winford (1993: 87-208), and which feature Guyanese Creole and Jamaican Creole. The core of the materials in the collection were gathered during PhD field research as part of ELDP Small Grant between 2012 and 2013.


Other information

The sound files, annotated digital texts and lexical files in this collection are also locally archived on Bastimentos Island so as to ensure easy access for community members, local linguists and other interested parties. Documentation on varieties of Panamanian Creole English is scarce. Holm (1983) provides one text of Panamanian Creole English with accompanying notes, which was recorded in Bocas del Toro in 1980. An analysis of tense and aspect in Limon Creole English is provided by Herzfeld (1978) in a PhD thesis complemented by a comparative study with Panamanian Creole English (1983). The degree of endangerment given to Panamanian Creole English by UNESCO is ‘definitely endangered.’ The evidence suggests that Bastimentos Creole is distinct enough to warrant documentation, and documentation on varieties of Panamanian Creole English is scarce. With regard to the other creole varieties of Central America, Holm’s (1978) PhD thesis on Moskito Creole English provides a socio-historical commentary with analysis of lexicon and syntax. I had access to the grammatical descriptions and databases of examples of Atlantic creoles (APiCS 2012), which include those of San Andres and Nicaragua (Bartens), both of which have been described to some extent in previous publications (Bartens 2009, 2003, 2002).


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Reid, Heidi. 2013. Tense, Aspect, and Modality in Bastimentos Creole English. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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