St. Barths: The Galapagos Islands of Language
Visiting the rural villages of St. Barths is a study in contrasts. There’s a change in geography across the island but also a noticeable change in demography: different communities, different lifestyles, even different languages. It’s like visiting several distinctive countries that all coexist on a single island no bigger than 8 square miles and 8,000 people.
Coincidence? Not in the least.
What most people don’t know about St. Barths is that behind the glitz and glamour of the Caribbean’s most elegant island is also one of its most extraordinary cultures. And not just culture in the modern sense of the word; St. Barths is the linguistic and cultural equivalent of biology’s Galapagos Islands.
French linguist and professor Julianne Maher has written a detailed book on the matter and here are some of her most fascinating takeaways:
One Island, Four Languages
Traditional French is the original and official language of St. Barths but if you listen closely you’ll notice there are significant linguistic differences across the island. That’s because, over hundreds of years, each community has developed a completely unique tongue with very little cross-influence.
The western side, for example, is home to the prevalent St. Barth Patois—similar but not to be confused with Cajun French or Canadian French. On the eastern side you’ll find St. Barth Creole, comparable to what you’d hear on neighboring Martinique. The central part, meanwhile, is the traditional home of Saline French—a very fast-spoken dialect practiced mostly by the older generations. Gustavia, on the other hand, is historically an English-speaking town—a pattern that can be traced back to the island’s internationally minded Swedish reign.
A Real-Life Laboratory for Cultural Evolution
What makes St. Barths’ linguistic differences so unique is that each of these languages has developed, coexisted, and survived despite the island’s small size and population. Having all originated as traditional French during the island’s colonization just a few hundred years ago, the fact that today’s communities have evolved so differently is nothing short of extraordinary.
The reason for this unique development is that each language belongs to a different community of people—seafarers, herdsmen, and farmers—and these communities have traditionally had very little contact with each other. They strictly married within their communities and rarely ventured across the island. The result: not only do the groups speak mutually unintelligible languages, they even have different blood types! It’s an evolution of culture and language you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world.