PITCAIRN: The islanders have their own word for it — in plain Pitkern

Sunday, August 22, 1999
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The islanders have their own word for it – in plain Pitkern


“Aboot yawly gwen?”

“I se gwen ah big shep.”

“Humuch shep corl ya?”

“I kawa.”

As bizarre as it may look, it’s a pretty basic conversation: “Where are you going?” “I’m going to the ship.” “How often do ships come here?” “I don’t know.”

The Pitcairners all speak fine English to outsiders, but among themselves they often use a local dialect that has developed over the last two centuries.

Alternately called Pitcairnese or Pitkern, the dialect is a mix of 18th-century English and Tahitian. The English mutineers and Tahitian women knew very little of each other’s language, and they created a language that is something of a midpoint between the two.

In linguistic terms, Pitkern started out as a “pidgin,” meaning a makeshift language used to communicate between two groups who cannot otherwise talk. Pidgins are often used by traders or peoples who have only intermittent contact with others. They are secondary languages; speakers still speak their native tongue to their own group.

In other words, immediately after the settlement, the mutineers spoke English to each other; the Tahitians spoke Tahitian to each other; and the groups spoke a form of Pitkern when they needed to cross cultural boundaries.

But as time went by, as mixed-race children were born, Pitkern developed from a pidgin into a creole. A creole is the primary language of a group and has a larger lexicon and grammar. Even though the Pitcairners speak lots of English, many, particularly the older islanders, use Pitkern almost exclusively among themselves. Linguists say creoles include all the elements necessary to be considered complete languages, even if derived from other tongues.

Some Polynesian structures survive, like the habit of repeating a word to signify magnitude; if a wave or swell is particularly high, it is “illy-illy.” Most of the terms for animals or plants are Tahitian in origin, likely because the Polynesian women had names for them and the English sailors did not.

But for the most part, there is more English than Tahitian in Pitkern, and a native English speaker would have an easier time making sense of Pitkern than a Tahitian would.

As Harry Shapiro, one of the first writers to visit Pitcairn, wrote in 1936: “The Pitcairn dialect today consists of mispronounced English and Tahitian words, with a spattering of coined words, the whole employed in a degenerate English syntax.”

An outsider quickly picks up a few important words: “weckle” means food, “naaway” means swimming, “plum” means banana. And eventually, a few phrases – like “Wut a way you?” for “How are you?” and the ever-present “I kawa” for “I don’t know” – become natural, too.

But some phrases (“Fut you ally comey diffy and do daffy?” , meaning “Why do you come and behave that way?” ) still seem incomprehensible.