Chapter published in:Keeping in Touch: Emigrant letters across the English-speaking world
Edited by Raymond Hickey
[Advances in Historical Sociolinguistics 10] 2019
Memoirs from Central America
A linguistic analysis of personal recollections of West Indian laborers in the construction of the Panama Canal
This chapter introduces and linguistically evaluates a hitherto unexplored source of earlier Caribbean vernacular English. It comprises more than one hundred letters written in 1963 by former Panama Canal workers as part of a competition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Canal. I first provide an overview of some of the non-standard features evident in the letters and then zoom in on a single variable, i.e., past inflection. Applying the principles of comparative sociolinguistics (cf. Tagliamonte 2013), I demonstrate that the abstract patterning of variation observed for this variable greatly resembles that found in previous studies of Caribbean English-lexifier creoles and related varieties, such as African American Vernacular English. All in all, the pilot study presented here provides impressive evidence of the value of the “Panama letters” as a window on vernacular usage in the late nineteenth-century Anglophone Caribbean.
Keywords: Panama Canal, personal letters, earlier Caribbean vernacular English, creole, past inflection, Varbrul
Published online: 28 November 2019
Bailey, Guy, Tom Wikle, Jan Tillery and Lori Sand
Baker, Philip and Adrienne Bruyn
Brown, Patrice C.
1997 The Panama Canal: The African American experience. Prologue 29 (Special Issue on Federal Records and African American History), https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1997/summer/panama-canal.html (last accessed March 20 2017).
Chambers, J. K. and Peter Trudgill
Chung, Sandra and Alan Timberlake
Conniff, Michael L.
D’Costa, Jean and Barbara Lalla
2013 Phonological factors in social media writing. Proceedings of the Workshop on Language Analysis in Social Media, 11–19, https://people.mpi-sws.org/~cristian/LASM_2013_files/LASM/LASM-2013.pdf (last accessed March 20 2017).
Isthmian Historical Society. N.d
. Competition for the Best True Stories of Life and Work on the Isthmus of Panama during the Construction of the Panama Canal, http://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00016037/00115/pdf (last accessed March 13 2017).
Johnson, Daniel Ezra
Labov, William and Joshua Waletzky
Lalla, Barbara and Jean D’Costa
Migge, Bettina and Susanne Mühleisen
Nevalainen, Terttu and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg
Patrick, Peter L.
Poplack, Shana, and Sali A. Tagliamonte
Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik
Reinecke, John E., Stanley M. Tsuzaki, David DeCamp, Ian F. Hancock and Richard E. Woods
Rickford, John. R.
Rickford, John A. and Jerome S. Handler
Sankoff, David, Sali A. Tagliamonte, and Eric Smith
2005 Goldvarb X: A variable rule application for Macintosh and Windows. Department of Linguistics, University of Toronto, http://individual.utoronto.ca/tagliamonte/goldvarb.html (last accessed March 21 2017).
Tagliamonte, Sali A.
Tagliamonte, Sali A. and Shana Poplack
Thompson, Connie A., Holly K. Craig and Julie A. Washington
van den Berg, Margot C., and Norval S. H. Smith
Westerman, George W.
Whiteman, Marcia Farr
Winer, Lise and Mary Rimmer