Much as gidday is often used as a greeting in Australia, or howdy in parts of the U.S., the Tristan Islanders frequently say how you is? when they encounter one another. Uses of these kinds of formulaic greetings vary in different countries, according to a recent linguistics journal article, and the variations often convey local identities. Daniel Schreier explains that greetings like howdy have become associated with rural America and the users of the expression have been stereotyped as American country dwellers.
English speakers throughout the world rarely say how you is? People tend to use, instead, expressions such as how are you?, how you doing?, how are things?, and so forth. On Tristan da Cunha, however, people routinely greet one another with how you is?, and most visitors to the island are not familiar with the expression.
The Tristan Islanders commonly use “is” rather than “am” or “are,” such as in “I is,” or “they is.” Also, they tend to not invert the word order in questions, a speech trait that Schreier suspects may have been brought to the island by the women who immigrated from St. Helena in the early 19th century. He does note that these linguistic traits may also have reached the island via other routes. Examples of questions the Islanders may ask without inverting the word order might include, “Where they was?” or “What she’s doing out there now?” (p.371).
Allan Crawford, who wrote a book about Tristan da Cunha in 1945, said that the residents of the island greeted him immediately and consistently with the how you is? expression. But Schreier points out that uses of the term with visitors are not always the same now, a fact which he attributes to changing social relations with outsiders.
He collected examples of language usage during his fieldwork on the island in 1999 and again in 2002. He found that when he used the how you is? greeting, it elicited a range of responses from the Islanders. A 47 year old male responded by immediately replying, “I’s fine, brother. How you is?”
On the other hand, a 32-year old male responded to the author’s question, “No complaints, brother, how are you?” Despite being prompted by the local form of the polite greeting, in a relaxed and informal setting, the man used the more formal greeting in reply, a response that he might give to an outsider, even though he knew the author. He did not appear to be expressing disapproval; rather, he was demarcating a sociolinguistic identity by using the formal rather than the local form of greeting.
Other, older, men responded with some surprise, or even disapproval, when they heard the author use their own friendly greeting. A 53 year old replied, amid some laughter, “Funny to hear a station fella say that” (meaning an outsider). Another 52 year old man reacted even more sharply by responding to the author’s question, “You mean how are you? How I am? Well, I’m fine, thanks. You?” (p.362). This attitude showed that the author had crossed a line, using local expressions that these people felt should be reserved for themselves only.
Schreier examines the erosion of dialects on other islands, including Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, Ocracoke Island off the coast of North Carolina, and Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay, in order to search for possible clues about the use and retention of language on Tristan da Cunha. These examples, he argues, show that the social conditions of an island can affect the ways language is used, and whether or not older speech patterns are maintained.
While Tristan is extremely isolated compared to most islands, it has had a continuing pattern of visitors over the recent decades, though it is not threatened by huge numbers of tourists such as Martha’s Vineyard or Ocracoke Island. Tristan Islanders are quite familiar with mainstream English usage, and they are aware of their locally distinctive speech patterns. But the ways how you is? are used on the island appear to be changing. Different generations of adults use the phrase differently with outsiders.
The author examines the recent history of the island in an attempt to pinpoint the ways different people respond to the term how you is?, and perhaps why. He explains that there have been two major events in recent Tristan da Cunha history that have affected the attitudes of the Islanders. During the Second World War, the British established a naval station on the island. Not long thereafter a fishing factory brought permanent wage employment. The evacuation of the island due to the threat from the volcano in 1961, and the return of almost all the residents two years later, also had a significant impact on the Islanders.
Elderly people, born before World War II, have no trouble returning the author’s how you is? with the local form of the greeting, without comment. Men in the generation who were born between the end of the war and the exile to Britain from 1961 to 1963 tend to react with disapproval to the use of the term by an outsider. They appear to have strong opinions as to who should or should not use their language. The author’s use of how you is? appears to be an unwanted intrusion into their cultural and linguistic sphere.
Younger people are less critical, but they also tend to use standard English forms more frequently than their elders, especially with outsiders. Interestingly, the young Tristan Islanders who live abroad will still use how you is? when talking on the phone with people back on the island. It is a very persistent expression. The author concludes that reactions by islanders to the use of how you is? by outsiders demonstrate a growing individual linguistic awareness, but he says it is not clear yet if the expression has become a socially significant linguistic marker for the community as a whole.
Schreier, Daniel. 2007. “Greetings as an Act of Identity in Tristan da Cunha English: From Individual to Social Significance?” Topics in English Linguistics 54: 353-374