Norfolk Islanders speak out to save their colourful past

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 April, 2005, 12:00am

Nearly 150 years after the descendants of the Bounty mutineers settled on a remote Australian island, its inhabitants are fighting to preserve its unique language, a curious mix of 18th century English and Polynesian.

Norfolk Island, a pinprick of land in the South Pacific, 1,600km northeast of Sydney, was first sighted by Captain James Cook in 1774 and later used by Britain as a savage penal colony.

In 1856, the entire population of Pitcairn Island, an even more remote British colonial outpost, was moved to Norfolk because of overcrowding. Today, about half of Norfolk Island's 2,000 inhabitants are descended from the Pitcairn settlers and continue to speak the colourful hybrid of Tahitian and archaic English brought by their forbears.

To outsiders the creole, known as Norfuk, is almost incomprehensible, although pronouncing words slowly helps to untangle their meaning.

'Daad'wieh' means 'that is the way' and 'daaset' means 'that's it'. 'Whataway yorle?', a common greeting, means 'how are you?', while 'where-bout you-gwen?' means 'where are you going?'.

Other words are from archaic English - 'wattles' means food, derived from 'victuals'. The English word children has morphed into 'sillen'. The accent is reminiscent of southwestern England, although the men who mutinied against Captain William Bligh on HMS Bounty in 1789 came from all over the British Isles and the women they settled down with were from Tahiti and Hawaii.

Over the past few decades, Norfuk has been under threat from the influence of television, radio, inter-marriage with English speakers and the annual influx of thousands of tourists.

Now the island has decided to fight back. Its tiny nine-member legislative assembly has declared Norfuk an official language, alongside English, and the island's 400 children are being taught it in school.

'It's going very well,' Alice Buffett, a seventh generation islander who has written a Norfuk text book and dictionary, said. 'We are sending the children on language camps where they only speak Norfuk. It's vital that we keep it alive because it's part of our identity.'

Mrs Buffett, who is descended from the leader of the mutiny, Fletcher Christian, said children were enjoying learning the language.

Government spokesman Peter Maywald said: 'It's frozen in time because for a long time Norfolk was out of touch with the outside world.' A generation ago children were punished for speaking the dialect in school.