Languages of the Overseas Territories

By Jonathan Kitto, Research Assistant

The UK is home to a wide variety of linguistic diversity - boasting numerous native languages such as Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, Irish, Scots and Ulster Scots. Each of the Crown Dependencies also have their own languages, despite their small size.

Across the British Overseas Territories, English is by far the most dominant language - as it is in the UK. While the territories may be best known as English speaking parts of the world, a number also have their own native tongues.

Perhaps the most well-known is Llanito, the local language of Gibraltar. Llanito encompasses a unique blend of Andalusian Spanish with British English loan words and hybrids. Llanito can even claim to have inspired certain words in the Spanish vocabulary - a perfect example of the cultural exchange the Rock shares with its neighbour, as well as Gibraltar's unique identity. Recently featured in the news there are some concerns that Llanito is in decline, largely due to greater use of English in the territory and a declining use of Spanish - with which Llanito shares many similarities.

There are several creole languages scattered across the British Overseas Territories in the Carribean, although there is some debate on whether these constitute a “true” language or a very distinct dialect of English. One of these creole languages is the Virgin Islands Creole. Virgin Islands Creole is spoken not only in the British Virgin Islands but also the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rican Virgin Islands and several territories administered by the Dutch. Being found across numerous islands under various jurisdictions, there are number of variants of the creole, referred to locally as dialects. Each dialect is associated with a particular island on which it is spoken. In recent decades American English has greatly influenced the development of the creole, breaking down some of its defining characteristics. As such, the purer form of the language is predominantly spoken by older residents, while younger Virgin Islanders speak a version which is more similar to English.

Creoles are also found in the Turks and Caicos Islands and on the Island of Montserrat. The Montserrat Creole has sadly experienced some decline since the eruption of the Soufrière Hills Volcano in 1995 which saw the majority of the population forced to evacuate the territory. Nonetheless its resilience speaks to the determination of the Montserratian people in the face of a natural disaster, the impact of which continues to be felt today.

Some may be surprised that the Pitcairn Islands - the overseas territory with the smallest population - is also home to its own language, Pitkern. Though the use of the language has declined in correlation with the shrinking population on Pitcairn, the language (or at least a variant of it) is also spoken on the Australian Territory of Norfolk Island. Pitcarin islanders took the language with them when the majority of the community permanently migrated to the island in 1856. The Pitkern language is again, categorised as a creole language and consists of a mix of antiquated British English mixed with Tahitan. This is a result of the fascinating foundation of the territory, having been settled by mutineers from HMS Bounty and a number of Tahitan men and women that the crew picked up along their voyage. 

While not every British Overseas Territory can claim to have its own unique language, it is fair to say that virtually all the territories have their own local dialect. These range from Bermuda or Cayman English to Falklands or St Helian English, to name a few. Of course, some territories such as the British Antarctic Territory have no permanent population so have not given rise to their own language. It is also worth noting that Greek is spoken by Cypriot nationals residing in the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia. 

The linguistic diversity of the territories is a great reminder of their unique characters and the role they play in culturally enriching the wider British family of nations.