NOBODY’S AND SOMEBODY’S NATIVE LANGUAGE IN MELANESIA

Pidgin and creole languages. You have heard about them, right? While the names sound familiar to most people, only some know what exactly hides behind these terms. In the Pacific, pidgins and creoles are present mainly in Melanesia, where they function as lingua franca. But how were they brought into existence in such a remote part of the world?

Let’s start with the basics. Pidgin and creole are not the same thing, so the words cannot be used interchangeably. Pidgin is a makeshift form of communication between speakers of different languages, and that is why it is often defined as nobody’s native language. It is characterized by simplified vocabulary and grammar – the former usually derives from one tongue and the latter from another. Now, when nobody’s native language becomes somebody’s native language, it is no longer called a pidgin but a creole. With expanded lexicon and more complex grammar, creole is a fully-fledged language and a mother tongue for many.

The history of pidgins and creoles is directly connected with colonialism. Pacific Islands have always been a playground for adventure-seeking explorers. From the 16th to the 20th century, navigators, missionaries, traders, labour recruiters, and colonial administrators were continuously visiting the islands, introducing smaller or bigger changes into the lives of their inhabitants. One of those changes was the development of so-called “third languages” – pidgins – which, in the latter half of the 19th century, were spoken in nearly all of Oceania. Despite this enormous popularity, pidgins died out in most places in the region. However, in more linguistically diverse countries, they not only survived but thrived, becoming the first language of local communities.

So this is basically how Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea, Bislama in Vanuatu, and Pijin in Solomon Islands came into being. Those knowledgeable in the field still dispute whether the languages should be categorized as pidgins or creoles, stating that they don’t really fit the definition of either. On the one hand they are used on a daily basis by thousands of speakers, but on the other, most of those speakers have a different native tongue.

To make things even more confusing, John Lynch – a linguist who is an expert in Oceanic languages – writes in his book that the Melanesian Pidgin spoken in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu is “recognizably the same language – with recognizable differences between how it is spoken in each of these three countries”. The example he gives seems to prove his “theory”. If you look at the following sentences, which mean: “This child is sitting down and eating eggs and cake”, you will most certainly notice at least a few similarities.

Tok Pisin

Dispela pikinini i sindaun i stap na kaikai kiau wantaim kek.

Pijin

Desfala pikinini i sidaon an kaekae eg weitim kek.

Bislama

Pikinini ya i stap staon mo kakae eg wetem gato.

The similarities are indeed easy to spot; but so are the differences. Both are the result of Melanesia’s colonial past. In the 19th century, native men from Vanuatu and Solomon Islands were recruited to work on plantations in Australia and Fiji, then part of the British Empire, while their neighbours from Papua New Guinea were sent to Samoa, which was under German rule. These labour recruitment patterns largely shaped the lexicon of each language: Bislama and Pijin were heavily influenced by English, Tok Pisin – by German and, to a lesser extent, Samoan.

The pidgins have, of course, evolved with time. Bislama has absorbed a significant number of French words, due to the fact that Vanuatu (or rather New Hebrides) was jointly ruled by the French and the British for most of the 20th century. Tok Pisin, on the other hand, has lost much of its Germanness and become more anglicized, especially in the urban areas.

Today, all three languages are in vigorous use. There was a time when they were stigmatized and often thought of as “inadequate” for certain speech situations, but this has thankfully changed. Now the pidgins are used in public administration and can regularly be seen in the press or heard on the radio and TV. Bislama and Tok Pisin have even been granted official language status in their countries. Maybe one day Pijin will join the group. We shall see.

I cannot help but wonder: 150 years ago, was there at least one person who foresaw that nobody’s native tongues would grow to be not only somebody’s native tongues but, most importantly, an integral part of Melanesian cultures? I would love to know.


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