On the Social Salience of Grammatical Variation: Existentials in Bequia (St Vincent & the Grenadines)

Meyerhoff, Miriam, James A. Walker

University of Edinburgh, UK, York University, Canada


An ongoing question in the study of linguistic variation and change is the extent to which speakers are aware of variation above the level of phonology and make use of such variation in reflecting and constructing social identity. In our ongoing study of the varieties of English spoken on Bequia (St Vincent and the Grenadines), we find two salient points of variation in the form of existential (or presentational) sentences. First is the choice of expletive subject (it vs. there), a feature shared with other varieties of Caribbean English. Second is number agreement on the verb (‘singular agreement’ vs. ‘plural agreement’), a feature found in existential constructions in varieties of English more generally.

There is/are NP

Yeah, there is so jokes when you're in school you know. (BQ.2003.005:621)

It has/have NP

I like it being alone and it have all kind of book I coulda read (BQ.2003.020:542)

It got NP

Because it got several spirits out there. (BQ.2005.303:1197)

In this paper, we examine the distribution and conditioning of these three variants in recordings made with speakers from three villages on Bequia. We focus in particular on individuals we refer to as ‘urban sojourners’ (Meyerhoff & Walker 2007), who have migrated to large cities for work at some time in their past but have since returned to Bequia and their home village. In previous work, we found their patterns of BE absence to mirror that of their stay-at-home peers, despite a noticeable shift in relative frequencies among the urban sojourners. From these results we infer that there has been no fundamental change to their underlying grammar and BE absence operates below the level of speaker awareness.

However, although existentials also involve predicational BE, their patterns are very different. First, the urban sojourners have systematised their preference for existentials, focusing either on English there is/are pattern or on creole it have. Second, in the latter case, this focusing results in a loss of agreement characteristic of the speech of stay-at-home peers in the village. Both these facts suggest that existentials are a form of grammatical variation that operates above the level of speaker awareness, and thus may in fact be more lexical than grammatical, necessitating a review of previous work on BE absence and existentials (Walker 2007; Walker & Meyerhoff 2005).

Session: Paper session
Variation 1 (Grammar)
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 09