White Girl Jive Talk

Appreciate, good. Appropriate, bad.

I’m a white, bookish, Midwestern chick with an English degree.


I frequently break into Caribbean slang.
I simply cannot help it.

Well. I suppose if I tried very hard, I could maintain the standard English upon which I prided myself for the first quarter of my life. But the more time I spend with Caribbean people, the more often I slide into the Creole lilt that permeates the islands.

Let’s get one thing straight up front. In my opinion, Caribbean English is not a second class version of standard English any more than any other regional dialect.

Different styles of English are used for different purposes. Standard English for when it’s important to sound educated and respectful, and local vernacular for when it’s time to talk with your peeps.

Beyond simply respecting English Creole as a legit form of communication, I so appreciate its direct, earthy humor and wisdom. When you listen closely, there is such delightful color and candor to the local speech, my writer artist soul can’t help wanting to soak it up.

screenshot of cruciandictionary

from the super impressive site www.cruciandictionary.com. (click to check it out.)

It’s not just about the words and how they’re put together, it’s also about the tone, syncopation, rhythm, and pitch. It’s a musical language that dances and bends in beautiful ways that standard English can only envy.

I often try to emulate the sound of English Creole without realizing it. I’ll say something in standard English first, then I’ll repeat in Caribbean English. I even do this when visiting my kinfolk back home, which I realize must absolutely befuddle my friends’ new boyfriends, extended relatives, and others with whom I’m not well-acquainted.

I realize how absurd it must seem. (Not to mention annoying, for reasons too numerous to specify here.) Especially since I look a bit like a librarian, and the last thing people expect from a bespectacled brunette is anything that sounds remotely Caribbean.


…kind of like the woman from this scene in the very non-PC classic, Airplane!

My imitation, sad as it may be, is indeed a sincere form of flattery. The local lingo has fascinated me from the start when I used to glean language lessons from my coworkers on St. Thomas. It likely comes as no surprise that what did the most to deepen my facility with the local speech was to date a West Indian man for the better part of 18 months.

Perhaps since we spent much of our time together in heated debate, and since he’s a smart ass, I find the island talk really comes out in full force when I’m making a point about some bit of human behavior. I start talking like an ornery island man, beginning with a teeth suck, “Maaan, I tellin’ you, this woman he’eh, she vex me so…”

Which brings us to Katy Perry.

I was almost done writing this piece when I made the mistake of Googling “cultural appropriation” and was confronted with Katy Perry’s face and a host of recent blog posts about her cultural crimes.

She’s accused of thoughtlessly plucking styles or trends from “ethnic” or  “exotic” cultures without regard for the significance they hold within the traditions she’s stealing from. Then she incorporates those ideas into her own work, and makes mad money broadcasting her garish pastiche around the world.


Last year’s “geisha performance,” on the American Music Awards, where Perry attempted to portray a geisha (Japanese) jumbled in with, among other inconsistencies, background video footage of sky lanterns (Chinese) is an example of her pattern of spewing what one blogger deemed, “Orientalist Vomit.”

So, hours of online reading and no writing later, I was paralyzed with the fear that I’ll be perceived as doing the same. Which, of course, would never be my intent.

But as a college-educated, American white woman, I know that I’m pretty darn close to the top of the privilege ladder. And I’m aware that the world looks wildly different from each and every rung.

And thus, this piece went from being lighthearted to one in which I stumble over weighty, intellectual issues of race and culture. Apologies. Maybe I’m too politically-correct. (And then again, maybe not…)

To be honest, the fake white people approximation of English Creole has gotten on my nerves for a while now.

hey mon no problem smiley face

I could be wrong, but it feels like a Jamaican person probably didn’t come up with this…

Take the most ubiquitous example: mon. Mon spoken short and tight like a buzzcut, rhyming with Cinna-bon is not an accurate representation of how this word is actually pronounced. It’s longer and looser, more like, “maan” or “mahn.”

And just like in my teenage years when hearing Iowans use double negatives made me feel a little violent, it now agitates me to see stateside-to-island business people use “dem” incorrectly in their marketing materials. It happens all the time.

You will never hear a Caribbean person refer to “dem people” or “dem horses” or “dem gyals.” Rather, they will say, “da people dem,” “da horse dem,” or “da gyal dem.” Dem goes after the noun to indicate plural, and the noun is left in its original singular form.

While putting together the donkey page for the St. John Guidebook, I brought up that the working title, “Love Dem Donkeys,” was an incorrect, white person version of island English.

Somehow, the powers that be were persuaded by my observation, and the title currently published (and available for free all over St. John) is Gotta Love Da Donkey Dem. It may sound foreign to standard English ears, but knowing we opted for authenticity over the familiar and easy makes my scholar’s heart swell with appreciation. I mean, if we’re gonna add a bit of island essence, let’s at least go to the trouble of doing it right.

So after sleeping on it, and torturing myself writing what was supposed to be a light, entertaining blog post, I’ve decided that I’m not guilty of cultural appropriation, after all. My love for and sporadic use of island English comes from a place of genuine appreciation and respect, yes. But even more so, it developed pretty naturally just by talking with local people in my daily life.  Also, if I’m being exploitative, someone will need to explain how, because I sure as hell ain’t making any money off of West Indian culture.

I guess from my perspective, I’ve moved to a semi-foreign country and I’ve learned a little of the language. Taking the time to do this, and even pronouncing words in their native fashion, demonstrates respect for the culture.

I must admit, however, that at times, it has seemed like I might be suffering from some sort of identity disorder. A verbal tussle I found myself in at the barge dock a few months ago brought this rather dramatically to light.

Now, I’m usually one to avoid conflict.

But it seems I have absolutely no tolerance for tourists trying to boss me around on an island I’ve very much come to consider my home. (The only people allowed to boss me around on these islands are West Indian, dammit.) 

So, when a sweaty fellow who looked like he should’ve been wearing a feathered cap at a yodeling tournament in the Alps, bolted out of his rental vehicle, marched over to me, stood between my car and the security guard house, and ordered me to the back of the line when I was simply going to ask the guard a question about the schedule, I sort of lost it.ricolablogedit

The angry Ricola commercial guy and I hollered at one another until the security guard intervened. But I somehow managed to get the last word…something along the lines of, “Get your pink-faced, white ass the fuck out of my way and back into your tourist jeep.”

Uh…where did that come from?
Have I mentioned that I look like a librarian?
And that my own ass is most definitely (and unfortunately) white?

But hey, at least I didn’t call him a m*****sc***.
Which means there must be some Norwegian restraint left in me yet.

And unless this blog post somehow makes me famous, I think I’m safe from being accused of culture teefin’ theft.

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Ashley Ladlie

About Ashley Ladlie

Ashley lives on St. John in the US Virgin Islands where she can be found drenched in sweat while communing with the hermit crabs who live in her yard. The irony of living in a shac-teau on the most remote part of a tiny secondary island in the Caribbean while spending the majority of her time with a creature named after people who prefer solitude is not lost on her.

Despite constant inquiry as to how long she’ll be on St. John, Ashley has learned in her three decades on this planet that setting one’s life plans in stone is the best way to ensure their futility. For now she remains enchanted with the beautiful absurdity on her rock of residence, which is colorful in far more ways than one.

You can hire her to write and design for you at www.badashbabe.com.

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19 thoughts on “White Girl Jive Talk

  1. I do the same thing with the Bay Island Creole where I live. Most of the islanders I know and talk to appreciate the fact that I respected it as an independent language and tried to learn and speak it… the same way I learned and spoke Japanese when I lived in Japan. I’ve been on the island for nearly three years and for the first two years 90% of my interactions were with locals, so I think it’s only natural I picked it up (and from dating an island man too…you know how that goes!) Plus, they totally get a kick out of a white girl ‘doin island talk’ and I bust it out on occasion to fend off swindling taxi drivers and the guys on the beach trying to sell me parasailing tours. Works waaaaaaaaaaay better than saying “no” 😉

    • Glad to know it’s not just me, Rika. I know that I would pick up the local style of speech anywhere I live. It takes like 5 seconds for me to start in with the Minnesota nasal once I get around my people from back home. The first year and a half I lived here, most of my daily interactions were with locals too. And I agree, it does come in handy when you need to show that you’re not some naive white woman! In fact, my island man TOLD me to do that when random men tried to hit on me. And yes, some people really get a kick out of hearing a white girl talk island- and I don’t mind being the source of entertainment when that happens. 🙂

  2. Very good post Ashley. Love how you transitioned from lighthearted to serious and thoughtful and back to finish with a chuckle! ( Journalism major here). Teefin and teeft are two of my fave Island Words. Since I lived in S. Florida I also speak a bit of Spanglish.

    Which is kinda helpful on St Croix since quite a few Puerto Ricans live here. They totally get Spanglish.

    • I could write an entire blog post just on communicating with my friends/coworkers from the D.R.! It’s Spanglish + Charades. 🙂 Thanks for your comments, as always! So happy that I impressed a journalism major!

  3. I have to insist that my kids use state side English and not Broken Engilsh. The reason is that one day they will go to state side college and job interviews. While my kids will be exotic to others because they live on a island I think using “dem” might make them look low class even though it’s not low class.

    • Hi Bethlyn. Thanks for your comment. I agree with you 100%. That’s why standard English if for official purposes, and when it’s important that you represent yourself as educated and articulate. Island English (or any other more informal/vernacular/slang style) is appropriate for casual times.

  4. Had to laugh at your comments. As a family counselor, I learned early that the best way to communicate was to pick up on words and sentence patterns of the other person, in other words, to speak their language. This was difficult when we moved to Oklahoma. Something about double negatives (I ain’t got none) and other local idiosyncrasies just made me mentally rebel. But amazingly my kids could be heard out in the neighborhood “speaking okie” and immediately converting to Midwestern English when they came inside the house. Their only problem came when learning to spell phonetically. It took awhile to convince them that the word “get” was not spelled “git”.

    • Ha! Yes, spelling is a whole ‘nother challenge! I would sometimes show stateside friends texts from my island boyfriend and they were super impressed that I could translate. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Ja, ven my sister and I watch dat dere movie Fahrgo, we tend to start usin’ hard r’s an say silly stuff like ja, sure, you betcha for a few days afterword, doncha know? I dated a Brit for a while and found myself using his accent by accident. Same thing when I go to Mexico. It’s not usually intentional. Good thing I’m with an Irishman now, eh? Instead of words, it’s alcohol…well, and potatoes 😀

    • Teehee. I know. Realizing that you’re not alone is comforting. Writing about the shit that happens…now, that’s therapeutic.
      So glad you found us. We have a pretty fun and active Facebook community too with a daily post from island life. Check us out there too, if you haven’t already.

  6. Finally! Smaddy (Someone) who understands how and when we use ‘dem’. (LOL! Just said to someone: A sake a di ants dem mek mi nah go tek up di clothes dem affa di line enuh. Dem need fi wash off wid di rain wata.)
    As an islander who has never yet left her rock and a trained Language teacher I will confess that my parents insisted on standard English always. I did not learn the local creole until I started high school. And even though I can switch from one to the other I’m told “Nuh bodda try. Yuh soun’ too stoosh (prim and proper). Patois a nuh fi you.” It’s a beautiful thing to wrap your tongue around, though, no matter which rock you’re on.

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