Sunday, August 18, 2013

Unexpected places (pidgin English)

Our housemaid (four hours on Fridays, from an agency) is from Colombia and speaks English as her native tongue. She’s from San Andres off the coast of Nicaragua, which is home to forty thousand descendants of African slaves taken there by their British owners when the Island was British.

Our first-ever maid in Cayman was from Nicaragua – a large and cheerful woman who was on hugging terms with us and our son for years afterwards, till she retired back to Bluefields on the Caribbean coast, which used to be a British protectorate. She was a Miskito Indian, who spoke standard English, too, as well as Spanish and the local patois. I remember her with tears streaming down her face one day in 1980. The last of the Nicaraguan Somoza dynasty had just been assassinated. “They have killed my President”, she sobbed. I hugged her until she stopped crying.

The English language pops up in one form or another in unexpected places all over the world, as a by-product of Britain’s former trading empire. The Bay of Islands off Honduras is populated with families of early settlers from Cayman and Jamaica, as evidenced by the surnames. On the north coast of Panama, the black residents of Colon are descended from the diggers of the Canal, recruited from Jamaica and the eastern Caribbean islands. After Castro’s revolution, English-speaking residents of the southern islands of Cuba fled to Cayman, from where their ancestors had emigrated.

What should amaze us, but doesn’t, is the fluency of English spoken by so many black people of African descent in the Caribbean and North America. It was the strict policy of slave-owners and traders to split up tribes, clans and families on their arrival in the New World, in order to minimise the danger of revolt. Pidgins and patois originated to provide means of communication between owners and slaves and among the slaves themselves. Nevertheless, most blacks in the US, for instance, speak standard English.

Trade is the most powerful of forces. The word pidgin is reckoned to be the closest the Chinese merchants of Canton could come to the English word business. (It’s plausible.) Pidgin is called creole in most languages other than English. In Haiti everybody speaks a French-based creole except the brown-skinned social elite. In Curacao, Papiamento is Portuguese-based. The best-known Dutch-based pidgin is Afrikaans – influenced by so many other tongues as to be almost a separate language today.

Almost. Chris, my flatmate in London all those years ago, spoke Afrikaans, and could be understood in the Flemish part of Belgium. Once, though, he narrowly escaped getting beaten up in a bar for speaking what the locals heard as mocking baby-talk.

In the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in the South Pacific, a pidgin called Bislama (from the French beche-de-mer, the sea-cucumber animal of the region) was the simplest possible pidgin. English words strung together separated only by long and blong (= belong). Something like that. We all made it up as we went along. It doesn’t seem to have developed much since we lived there in the 1970s, but – as happened in New Guinea – the native politicians changed the spelling of words to disguise their English origins.

It is now the main official language. The national motto (Wikipedia says) is "Long God yumi stanap", which translates as “in God we stand”: yumi is you-me, and stanap is stand-up. I would have said “blong God” was more correct, but what do I know? Bambae is “soon” or “later”, a vaguely phonetic rendition of “by and by”. Olgeta is “everybody”, literally “all together”. And so on. Wonderful stuff!

Well, that’s what politicians tend to do, especially in artificial nations with no common language and no sense of the ridiculous. In other circumstances, the process works in reverse. One of Britain’s former Australian colonies has a city called Air Delight, named for a British Queen Consort. Fortunately, the original spelling, Adelaide (she was German, actually), has been retained. Thank God for small mercies.