Lonely Planet Pidgin Phrasebook

Lonely Planet Pidgin Phrasebook, Trevor Balzer et al., 1999: 0864425872 (Blackwell’s, amazon.com, amazon.co.uk).

One day I met a Kurd on the seafront in Istanbul. He was bilingual, which was good; but bilingual in Kurdish and Turkish, which was less good. The structure of Turkish makes dictionary-pointing conversations impossible, and eventually we found that the only truly international language was beer.

When my mother was sacked from an Austrian V-1 factory for inefficiency and was having a pleasantly idle time in the picturesque Vorarlberg, the standard medium of communication among the displaced persons of the area was “ausländisch”, a kind of German from which all the grammar had been removed. There were people there from all parts of Europe (and even from Turkey) and this was the only language they had in common. “Sprach ausländisch?” was the first question you asked when you met a stranger.

A pidgin happens when people need to communicate and haven’t got a shared language to communicate in. Pidgins take the nearest “big” language – the majority language of the region, or the language of the colonial power – and they fillet and adapt it for their own use. When the need goes away – when the war ends and the displaced persons go home – the pidgin goes away as well.

In Australasia and Oceania things went on too long for this to happen. People didn’t go home, or they had no homes left to go to; or – especially in Papua New Guinea – they had moved into towns and needed to communicate not just with people from their own village or the next one, but with strangers from all over the country. So much of the terrain in Papua New Guinea is impassable that one valley can be isolated from another for centuries until the languages have evolved into mutual incomprehensibility. The only option left is pidgin English.

Finally the children come in. Children are not designed to learn or speak fractured jargons. From their first babbling words they are striving to speak a proper language with proper grammar and proper expressive power. If there isn’t one, they invent it. They take the bits and pieces of English that their parents have glued together anyhow, and out of it they create a real language. And so a pidgin is born.

The Lonely Planet Pidgin Phrasebook is, I suppose, a reliable phrasebook to the pidgin languages of Oceania. For one of these languages it is written by the man who wrote the language, who has worked for 20 years to take Solomon Islands Pijin from a purely oral language in to a written one. It is rare for a Lonely Planet phrasebook to be the authoritative scholarly reference work on a subject!

I said “I suppose”. I have no reason to doubt the book’s claim that it is the “best available guide to the pidgins and creoles” of the whole region, and no great interest in checking it. What is truly fascinating about this book is not that it is about the languages of a particular part of the world but that it is about language itself.

At one level, of course, it’s simply rather quaint. We’ve all been amused by hearing about helicopters being called “steam chicken” (because everything mechanically driven is “steam” and everything that flies is a bird and all birds are “chickens”) and for those infantile enough to like that sort of thing (I am), there is plenty of it in this book. “East” and “West” are sanrais-wei and san-gu-dan-wei (try saying them out loud). “Tired” or “damaged” is bagarap, a perfectly respectable word that can be used by perfectly respectable people. Pilai, on the other hand, has acquired a sexual connotation as in “play-boy”, and so pilai nogut means “to have illicit sexual relations”. In other cases there is no sudden semantic wrench, just a feeling that things are being said a bit differently, with the phonetic spelling thrown in to make the guessing game a bit more difficult: nogut yu kam bihain means “don’t come late”.

It is as if a language were an island bare of all life, and the first creatures to arrive there have to spread out, specialise, and fill every ecological niche. Like Darwin’s Galapagos finches, only more so, pidgins let us see a very few words invading, spreading out, and mutating to fill every corner of a linguistic landscape. You don’t see it in the old languages of Europe because they are so old that it seems to us that they’ve practically stopped evolving: but what you see in pidgins is what happened to all our languages many centuries ago, in most cases long before they started being written.

The other thing that is fascinating and beautiful about these languages is that they have felt an absolute need to reproduce, in English, distinctions that English doesn’t have but the underlying native languages do. Even our mature English does it a little. G.K. Chesterton reports Irishmen quoting Yeats: “I saw a young woman, and she walking like a queen“, using a construction that Gaelic has but English hasn’t. Pidgin does this sort of thing a lot. Pronouns are a particular delight. Not only is there a dual number (which Sanskrit has but even ancient Greek was already losing) but a triple one as well: if you’re addressing three people then you call them iutrifala, “you three fellows”, while four or more would revert to a simple iufala.

Better still, if I am a speaker of one of the native languages then I have a strong need to know, when you say “we”, whether you are including me or not. A Pacific islander is as bemused by the idea of a language where “we’ll go to the beach” may or may not include the person addressed as we are by Slavonic languages that have no word for “the”. And so the pidgins all carefully distinguish between mitufala / mitrifala / mifala and iumitufala / iumitrifala / iumi.

The parents never learned English tenses but the children need them: what to do? Grab the nearest relevant word and use that. For the future, bambae (“by-and-by”) or just bae will do it (of course English doesn’t have its own future tense either, which is why it has to use “shall” or “will”). For the past, bin (“been”) is sometimes used but often it’s just left out. More interestingly, there seems to be a glimmer of the Slavonic distinction between “imperfective” verbs for continuing action and “perfective” verbs for completed or self-contained action. Sikman i dai means “the patient is unconscious” while sikman i dai pinis (“finish”) means “the patient is dead”. It is at moments like these that you begin to see a whole new way of looking at language and meaning.

Pidgins are an important and normally invisible feature of linguistic evolution. When the marble edifice of Latin broke up into different heaps of random rubble, isolated and influenced by different underlying languages, the result was a grotesque and barbarous mess that took a thousand years to evolve into some of the most beautiful languages that have ever existed; and for most of those centuries nothing was written in them. With the English-based pidgin languages of Oceania something strange and unprecedented is happening, because the languages are being written before they have fully matured. On the one hand this gives us a privileged view into how languages grow, still more privileged because they are being built from bricks that we know; on the other hand, does the writing of a language at this early stage constrain the way it will grow?

This book is material for hours of enlightening thought. It may also turn out to be useful if you travel to Oceania.