Saba Island, Dutch Caribbean

About the Site

Known as the "Unspoiled Queen", the island of Saba (pronounced say-bah) is a municipality of the Netherlands located in the Eastern Caribbean. The five square-mile island is home to a tropical rainforest and some of the world's best coral reefs. Originally a pirate hideaway, Saba was first colonized by the Dutch in the 1640s, shortly followed by English, Scots, and Irish settlers. By the 18th century, the island was primarily English speaking, as it remains today.

Four major villages formed on Saba: The Bottom, St. Johns, Windwardside, and Hell's Gate. The Dutch sea captains and their families lived in The Bottom, located in the island's valley. Higher up the mountain, the Irish families formed the community of St. Johns. Around the side of the mountain, the English settlers formed the Windwardside community. Finally, many Scottish families moved up to the green mountainside of Zion's Hill, more commonly known as Hell's Gate. Although Saba's hilly terrain precluded any major plantation setups, slavery and indentured servitude were a reality for the island. African slaves and their descendants typically lived on the outskirts of each village, but they moved inward as the years went by and integration became more commonplace.

Lack of a connecting road or public electricity caused these four communities to remain relatively isolated from each other until the mid 1900s. Thus, while the current population of Saba is less than 1,600 local residents, the island has sustained distinct dialects in each community. Similar to the regions of North Carolina, whose settlers had a lasting influence on dialect and culture, Saba provides a unique opportunity to explore isolated island enclaves within different linguistic influences. For instance, it is probable that early Hell's Gate speech was influenced by Scots-Irish varieties of English and Windwardside by the English of southwest England. As a whole, the island of Saba offers a unique field site to explore English variation in a "very small place."


Saba, Dutch CaribbeanSaba, Dutch Caribbean

Research Questions

Our primary research goals in the area have been:

  1. What differences index the varieties of each community and mark the sociolinguistic 'other'?
  2. Are differences correlated with class, race/ethnicity within and across communities?
  3. What role do long-term contact effects play in the construction of community identity?
  4. What effect has technological progress and subsequent decrease in intra-community isolation had on the community-based dialects?

We have interviewed over 30 Saban English speakers from the communities of Hell's Gate, Windwardside, and The Bottom. Our focus is on the comparison of structural traits of the Englishes spoken in each community, the interrelationship between substrate effects from Dutch, English, and Scots settlement, and the effects of community identity, race/ethnicity, and class.

Linguistic Features


Myrick, Caroline. 2014. Putting Saban English on the map: A descriptive analysis of English language variation on Saba. English World-Wide 35(2): 161-92.

Williams, Jeffrey P., and Caroline Myrick. 2015. Saban English. In Jeffry P. Williams & Peter Trudgill (eds.), Further Studies in the Lesser-Known Varieties of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 144-64.