Norfuk Language

Dec 9, 2010 by

To continue our theme of the fate of English in far and remote places, today we will look at Norfuk language, a form of English spoken on Norfolk and Pitcairn islands in South Pacific.

In fact, Norfuk is not just a form of English, like Falkland Islands English or St. Helenian English. Rather, it is a creole language, a blend of two distinct and unrelated languages — in this case, English and Tahitian. It developed from a pidgin, an ad hoc language of communication of the descendants of the British mutineers from the Bounty and their Tahitian consorts, who settled on the uninhabited Pitcairn Island in 1789. There, they founded a mixed British-Polynesian society and developed some distinct customs. By about 1850, the population of Pitcairn had outgrown the natural resources of the island, so in 1856 the entire group was relocated to Norfolk Island, about 930 miles east of Australia. Originally, Norfolk Island served as a penal settlement, but around 1850 it ceased to play that role, and the island remained uninhabited until the Pitcairners arrived six years later. In the following years, a small number of Pitcairners returned to Pitcairn, where about 50 of their descendents still live.

Given its descent from tongue of the Bounty mutineers and its rather isolated nature, it is unsurprising that the Norfuk language retains the peculiarities of the 18th century English. But more curiously, it also retains some peculiarities of the local variety that (some of) the original settlers-mutineers spoke, in particular of Scottish English and Scots. Apparently, several of the original Bounty mutineers were from Scotland and Cumberland (in extreme northwest of England, where the local dialect is very much like Scots; see the map below).

Traces of Scottish accent can be heard in the Norfuk language in that the vowel of ka doo ‘No good’ is pronounced similarly to the vowel in good in Standard Scottish English (to which the pronunciation of this vowel in Middle Scots was quite similar). In both Norfuk and Scottish English the sound of “oo” is pronounced further front (and possibly as more lax) than in other varieties of English (such as Standard Southern British English, or RP, Received Pronunciation).

Similarly, in the sound of “i” in it or sit is pronounced in Norfuk more open/low than in standard English, almost as we would pronounce the vowel in set. The same pronunciation is found in Antrim dialect of Irish English, spoken in Northern Ireland, where Scots is also common (see the map above).

In addition to these Scottish- and Scots-influenced features of Norfuk pronunciation, certain grammatical features reflect its history as well. For instance, recall that the use of nicknames is very pervasive on Tristan da Cunha. The Norfuk language takes this even further by extensively using the so-called anthroponyms: common nouns and even verbs derived from proper names of its (former) inhabitants or visitors. For example, luusi in Norfuk means ‘to cry in public’ after some lady called Lucy, whereas toebi means ‘to help oneself to other people’s vegetables’ (whoever thought you’d need a distinct word for that?!) after a man named Toby.

And the language of the original Tahitian consorts is reflected in Norfuk as well. There are many words of Tahitian origin in Norfuk, many of them with a negative connotation, such as hoowi-hoowi ‘filthy’ and unna-unna ‘to lack self-confidence’. Note that these words also feature reduplication, a process by which part of a word or the whole word is repeated. This is a process very common both for creating new words and for making grammatical forms of the same word in Polynesian (and more generally Austronesian) languages. For example, in Samoan manao is ‘he wishes’ and mananao — ‘they wish’, matua is ‘he is old’ and matutua — ‘they are old’, punou is ‘he bends’ and punonou — ‘they bend’. Full reduplication — when a whole word is repeated — is found in many Austronesian languages, including Indonesian (e.g., oraN ‘man’ vs. oraN oraN ‘all sorts of men’, anak ‘child’ vs. anak anak ‘all sorts of children’); as well as in Rapanui, Fijian, Balinese, Chamorro, Madurese, Malagasy, Maori, Mokilese, Sundanese, Marquesan and Hawaiian. Note that in Norfuk reduplication can apply even to words of the English origin, as in break-break ‘broke, carelessly grated’, pick-pick ‘kind of fish whose flesh when cooked is easy to pry from the bones’ and — my favorite example! — make-make ‘fiddle about’.

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