cognates English-pidgins

Julian Fox jbfox at
Thu Jun 20 03:31:27 UTC 2002

Further to the discussion on cognates generated by Adrian Clynes, I would be interested to know if anyone has stats on a cognate 'triangle' that interests me presently: Tok Pisin-Bislama-English. If, as I imagine, the percentage is reasonably high, what does this say about the relationships of these three entities?

You may ignore the item below and just stick to the request above, but what I say below will certainly tell you where i am heading!

Julian Fox

Or Throwing the cat in amongst the pidgins!

Fasten seatbelts!  What follows is likely to be a fast ride and for some, a rough one.


If it could be said that one photograph changed human beings' perceptions of their environment, then it might be the one that astronaut Bill Anders snapped through the window of Apollo 8's cramped cabin on Christmas Eve 1968.  What he saw on that occasion was what no human being had seen previously - Earthrise! And what we saw, thanks to Anders, was something that rendered the old classroom globes with their multi-coloured patches immediately superfluous.  Even the Green Movement had to realize that from that point on there was moral 'ground' still higher than anything yet discovered, courtesy of the grey lunar landscape;  from that Christmas Eve, we knew ourselves to be denizens of the Blue Planet.


It is not the first time in history, nor will it be the last, that the simple process of turning things upside down has resulted in a fresh perspective, indeed a stunningly new one.  It is in such a context that I dare to suggest something hitherto unpublished about much of the English spoken in Fiji. I hope it is not a case of Pope's 'fools rush in..'   In 1977 Paul Geraghty, who then declared himself to be 'a linguist studying Fijian and living among Fijians in Suva' prefaced his comments on Fiji English in the March Fiji English Teacher's Journal of that year by 'announcing that the colloquial English which Sr. Francis Kelly describes is a pidgin language.' (1977).    Linguists who announce what they believe to be good news with such outrageous candour have to be prepared to handle the onslaught of friend and foe alike.  (There was a precedent for that, of course - 'In the beginning was the Word.').  Geraghty was prepared, and while not ready to be crucified over a term that remains less than precisely defined ('pidgin', and for that matter 'creole', is a slippery entity even in the hands of skilled linguists), continues to claim to this day that what he knows of Fiji English through his experience coincides to a large degree with what he also knows about pidgins and creoles.  


Twenty five years later I too am a student of Fijian living amongst Fijians in Suva.  Presently though and more to the point, I am living amongst Samoans who are living in Suva.  And amongst them are some who are picking up an English that is different from the English they arrived in this country with, as it is also different from the English I speak.  No great surprises there, but it has set me thinking, along with other evidence, to the point where I too wish to announce something:  Fiji English, or at least that variety which some linguists since Francis Kelly (1975)  have begun to describe as Basilectal Fiji English (Siegel:1987), is not a version of English, but a language in its own right whose more likely parent is Fijian, and whose differences and similarities may also lie in the productive processes that belong to acquiring another language.  To declare my bias in this latter possibility, I intend to draw from the thinking of linguists like Lightfoot (1991,1999) who entertains the possibility of some grand surprises in language development.  Lightfoot maintains a close connection between the notion of child language acquisition and that of language change.  That too seems to coincide with my own experience as a teacher and now also as a close observer of child speakers of Fiji English.


Like the view from Apollo 8 such claims, if provable, are not just different by degrees from views previously propounded.  They are radically different.  It is a case of declaring a different linguistic space within which to site Fiji English, one which is as different as is blue from green and, especially for educators, must challenge the approach we take to the language that most urban (at least) Fijian children use as a lingua franca in the school compound and in many domains now of daily life beyond the school.





In the course of a number of discussions with Geraghty about his 'pidgin' claim, I have become uncomfortable not so much with that label but with the whole exploration of Fiji English within the branch of linguistics known as creolistics.  It is creolistics that has given us the theoretical understandings of pidgin, creole and acro-meso-basi- lect, via the so-called post-creole continuum.  If there are good reasons to state that there was never a true pidgin English in Fiji, and there appear to be good reasons for stating such, then the use of the remainder of the creolists' labels is suspect.  This is never more obvious than when linguists attempt to describe Fiji English as a creoloid.  At this point we are in some kind of linguistic outer space!  At least one prominent linguist,  former devotee of the term, has now recanted and declared that it serves no useful purpose (Sarah Thomason LINGUIST List 1.1721 Dec. 1996).  Describing a particular variety of Fiji English as basilectal is partly helpful, but just as I have often worried about the bamboo scaffolding I sometimes see around, I worry too about linguistic scaffolding that was not designed to carry the weight of something that is more substantial than people might realize.  


Recently, in a rather homely discussion with a colleague and friend who has worked in Swaziland, I became more acutely aware that what one terms a 'language' depends more on political and social factors than on a particular linguistic system.  My friend, who was working amongst street children and generally poor people,  noted that in an area where siSwati was spoken, the local Catholic Church was happy to use hymnbooks printed in siZulu, since these had been available for some time and funds to produce siSwati books were unavailable.  But people who could read the siZulu books without any difficulty would still claim that the two language were 'different'.  I believe this is equally the case with Ndebele.  Three varieties, really, of the same language but, for the speakers, the conviction that there are three languages. 


Conversely, there are areas where languages that are quite different, by anybody's standards, are commonly regarded as a single language.  The most outstanding case is that of Chinese.  Two varieties amongst many others are mutually unintelligible - Cantonese and Mandarin.  But why travel to China for examples when we have one on our doorstep.  Fijian is a term commonly used in reference to the entire set of dialects or varieties (for which Paul Geraghty prefers the term 'communalects') sharing enough common features to distinguish the 'language' from others of the 'family', e.g. Tongan, Kiribatii, Samoan.  But linguists and speakers of said 'Fijian' would say that Western languages can be so different from those of the East as to be mutually unintelligible, especially on first hearing.  It is really only by some sleight of linguistic hand that one can hold both sides of the  dialect divide together.


My point?  That there is no linguistic reason why Fiji English could not achieve the status of a language other than English.  There are sociolinguistic reasons, of course, why many would find this odd if not also confronting.  Not even Fijians (I am thinking of Fijian parents) would be happy to think that the English they speak amongst themselves is the English they would like their children to learn at school.  Why, the very thought that their children might be formally taught that in 'Tailevu no leqa, no bus, paidar' (in Tailevu, if the bus doesn't come, no problems, you walk) would curdle the lovo!  The generally accepted view is that Fiji English is English ambushed by Hindi and Fijian  or English gone bad or English that never quite made it.  I think this view is untenable linguistically and that consequently it behoves the responsible linguist to try to convey that message!   And while the 'bad English' view is the basic reaction to be expected of Fiji English, there is yet another: surely it is just too similar to English to be though of as different.  'There - you will need to be Houdini to escape that one!'


I have always wanted to be like Houdini.  Just because two things look to be similar does not make them so.  Or better, should we not look closely at what is similar - and at what is not?  I teach ESL to Tongans, Fijians, Samoans, I-Kiribati, Tuvaluans - and New Caledonians.  Now the reality is that the latter group gain control of Standard English much faster, generally speaking, than the others.  I contend that this is because of so many similarities between French and English.  Again, nothing remarkable about that given what we know about the Indo-European language family.  But look at this another way - Scots.  Here is a passage written in Scots:

Scots texts for thaim that's wantin tae lairn Scots or for thaim that haes it an wants tae enjye hit.

Scots texts for those who are interested in learning Scots or for those who already speak it and wish to enjoy it.

(Taken from a Scots language page on the Web.


Scots is commonly regarded by many from outside Scotland as a variety of English, a nonstandard variety of English no less.  From the above extract it could be claimed to be less than perfect in its spelling.  But the truth is that Scots is Germanic and distinct, far more so than English can claim to be.  300 years of political pressures (I'll remain objective in my language) have wrought many changes in Scots in the direction of English, but that simply and ironically confirms the 'dooters' that Scots is a poor cousin, if not an illegitimate one whereas the truth is that It looks like a duck, it quacks like  duck but it ain't a duck!



One of the biggest battles linguists have to fight is with language. Tautology?  No - every discipline has to carefully define its terms, but linguists understandably have to define them more carefully than anybody else!  There is constant talk about 'standards' these days, in education, but especially in language.  The problem is that this is not a univocal term.  There are two kinds of standard - minimal limits and arbitrary agreement.  The Health Department is entitled to set standards for restaurants.  If I am going to order Lamb Vindaloo, then I expect lamb, not mutton nor mongoose.  It is not just a question of my tastes, but of my health.  But who is entitled to set standards for language?  I note that when I go to Cost-U-Less in Suva to purchase some stationery items, I have to contend with American standards in paper size - and that affects the defaults on my printer, the size of manila folders in my filing cabinet and so on.  But 250 million people seem happy enough to adopt a standard amongst themselves, so that's their business I guess, which becomes my business if I insist on buying their goods.


Languages are more at home in Cost-U-Less than they are in the Health Department.  And in the end it is not doing Fiji English a favour to set up a rearguard action to defend it on the basis that it is a systematic basilectal form.  In the final analysis it will still be compared with the acrolect or the 'standard' (whatever that is, because the acrolect may still contain many colloquial features and the standard is by definition so pure that probably nobody ever speaks it).   Is Fiji English 'bad' English?  Well yes, and here is a way you can have your cake and eat it too - It's bad like French is bad English, and like English is bad French.  There's a logic we keep missing about the label we are using - Fiji is the head of the (Fiji English) compound, yet in the popular mind the compound is immediately anglicized.  I suggest we argue for a case of good old equality here and describe the entity for what it is: a genuine contact between two languages.


I realize now that I am out on the proverbial limb with but one direction to go; I must adequately prove that the Fiji 'thing' (just what do we call it after all, if not Fiji English.  Fijin?) is able to converse with English on equal terms, as language to language. No longer can we be content to locate it in interlanguage space, but in a new frame.  Proving that will provide some serious fun.  But here's the nub of the argument: 'the thing' owes rather more to Fijian than it does to English, and that's what makes the difference.

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