All hands on deck to save mutineers' lingo

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 July, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 July, 2001, 12:00am

The descendants of the Bounty mutineers, who live on a remote island off the east coast of Australia, are fighting to preserve their unique language, a strange patois which combines Polynesian words with 18th-century English.

The dialect, spoken by the inhabitants of Norfolk Island, which is administered by Australia, is slowly disappearing, but next year it will be taught for the first time in local schools. Linguists are also working to preserve words and phrases before they disappear forever.

The dialect, known both as Pitcairn or Norfolk, emerged from a tangled string of events more than two centuries ago which have been immortalised in books and films.

In 1789 the crew of the Royal Navy ship HMS Bounty, led by officer Fletcher Christian, mutinied against their commanding officer, Captain William Bligh. Bligh and 18 loyal sailors were set adrift in a long boat near Tonga, in the south Pacific, eventually making their way to Timor.

Christian and his mutineers sailed to Tahiti, where they collected local women with whom the crew had already formed relationships, and from there made their way to Pitcairn Island, where they hoped to evade British naval justice.

But the idea of establishing a self-contained community on an island paradise quickly turned into a nightmare, as the mutineers squabbled and then began killing each other.

Fears of overpopulation forced all 194 of the remaining islanders to flee to Norfolk Island in 1856. A few trickled back to Pitcairn over the next few decades, and the island is now home to about 40 people.

About a third of Norfolk Island's 1,800 population is descended from the original mutineers and their Polynesian wives, although fewer and fewer of them speak the distinct Pitcairn dialect of their ancestors.

While English is the most commonly used language on the island, locals still use some dialect words.'We baut yu gwen?' means 'where are you going?', while 'fut nort?' translates as 'why not?' The word for good is 'kushu'.

'Watawieh yorlye?' means 'how are you?' and 'daaset' means 'that's it'.

If an islander tells you 'daa letl salan waili ap in aa pain', he is bringing your attention to a small child stuck up a pine tree.

The unique dialect contains several nautical terms, as befits its origins as a language forged by sailors. If a party gets out of hand and a group of islanders drink too much, they will talk about 'all hands' (everyone) running the risk of 'capsizing' (falling over).

'Norfolk is the mother tongue of people of Pitcairn descent, but it was dissipating due to lack of use,' said Alice Buffet, a teacher who has compiled an encyclopaedia of the dialect.

The language is also dying out because native speakers are increasingly marrying Australians, who make up two-thirds of the island's population.

Official policy has contributed almost to snuffing out the language, according to Professor Peter Muhlhausler from Adelaide University, an expert on Pacific island languages. 'For many years, the school system on Norfolk Island had a deliberate system of marginalising the language.

'People were gradually shamed out of speaking it. Now there's a total rethink and people see it as an important part of their identity and history,' he wrote recently.

The language is highly localised, with some words referring to specific incidents and people in the island's history.

'Logan bin kik yu', for instance, means ugly, a reference to an islander who many years ago was kicked in the face by a horse named Logan. There are so many shared surnames among the descendants of the original small band of Pitcairners that the local phone book lists many of them by their nicknames, including Spuddy, Bubby, Diddles, Loppy and Lettuce Leaf.