The first Antilleans to arrive in the archipelagic province of Bocas del Toro were slaves of English-speaking colonists from San Andrés and Isla Providencia in the early nineteenth century (Westerman 1980 & Herzfeld 1983; cited in Aceto 1998: 31). A second wave of immigrants later in the same century and into the twentieth century came from Jamaica and Barbados in order to work on both the railroad canal (Holm 1989: 482) and banana plantations (Aceto 1996: 48). In 1996 Aceto (1996: 48) estimates that the island is inhabited by approximately 1,000 people, 600 of whom are of West Indian descendent and 400 of whom belong to the indigenous Ngobe tribe. Aceto claims that at this time the two ethnic groups are living on separate parts of the island and communicate with each other in Spanish – the official language of Panama (Aceto 1998: 32).
Aceto (p.c, 2011) informs me that when he was conducting field work on Bastimentos in 1994-5 the native language, Guari-Guari, is not being acknowledged in the local primary school – something Aceto notes is ‘obviously problematic and accounts for the incredibly high drop-out rate, especially among males.’ Although speakers of Guari-Guari have little (if any) knowledge of Spanish when they begin school, as adults they become bilingual to varying degrees (Snow 2003:300). The role of Spanish is reserved for formal occasions and Guari-Guari for ordinary conversation (Snow 2000: 168).
Snow (2000: 167) claims that Guari-Guari shows wide variation in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, also borrowing many Spanish lexical items. Nevertheless, there remains a stable relationship of diglossia between Guari-Guari and Spanish. Snow (2000:168) believes a gradual shift towards Spanish is unlikely and at the same time the fact that Spanish is the contact language, and not English, limits the effects of decreolization. However, by 2001 (Aceto 2001: 6) the island begins to attract (mostly) English-speaking tourists. Prior to 1995, the vast majority of any outsiders or visitors to Bastimentos are monolingual speakers of Spanish. English speakers occasionally visited from the USA, e.g. extended family members (Aceto p.c). Acess to television broadcasts is restricted to Spanish at this time. Conversely, it is noted that as the economy of the province increases its reliance on international tourism, Guari-Guari speakers are now conversing in some variety of English with tourists (Snow 2003: 299-300).
It is predicted by Snow (2003: 8) that this new sociolinguistic situation could potentially have a significant impact on language maintenance and language change. Snow (2007, 2003, 2000a, 2000b), rather than describing in any detail the grammar of Guari-Guari, observes the general linguistic situation of the community of Guari-Guari speakers. Aceto (2001/5, 1999, 1998, 1996, 1995) on the other hand, has published several articles (based on his PhD thesis), which explores variation in the past and future preverbal markers.
As a result of transcribing and analysing some of Aceto’s data from 1994-5 I was able to confirm the observations of Aceto (1996: 55); that variation along the creole continuum reveals itself in the progressive aspect, and in the future- and past tense. Aceto (1998: 38) argues that the creole continuum only partially explains the variation here, i.e. another motivation for variation is at work – that of internally-induced change. This suggests a need for a multi-dimensional approach to account for variation, confirming the claim made by Winford & Migge (2007).
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Snow, Peter. 2003. Talking with tourists in a Panamanian creole village: An emerging site of production. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages. 18:2. 299-309.
Snow, Peter. 2000a. The case for diglossia on the Panamanian Island of Bastimentos. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages. 15:1. 165-169.
Snow, Peter. 2000b. Caribbean creole/non-lexifier contact situations: A provisional survey. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages. 15:2. 339-343.
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Winford, Donald. Predication in Caribbean English Creoles. 1993. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Unesco. 2010. Atlas of the world’s languages in danger. http://www.unesco.org/culture/languages-atlas/. (7 January, 2011.)