Bounty mutineers' descendants struggle to keep language afloat

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am

One of the world's rarest languages is struggling to survive, despite a concerted campaign by inhabitants of Norfolk Island, a remote Australian territory in the South Pacific.

About half the island's 1,900 inhabitants speak Norfolk, a mixture of 18th century English and Tahitian developed between the HMS Bounty mutineers and their Polynesian wives when they fled British justice and settled on Pitcairn Island in 1790.

Overcrowding forced the Pitcairners to move to Norfolk Island in 1856, and the creole is spoken on both isolated outcrops, but it is being increasingly anglicised.

Nursery rhymes and word games are used to teach the language to the 310 children in Norfolk's only school.

It is spoken with a burr reminiscent of England's West Country, although the mutineers came from all over Britain, as well as Ireland and the West Indies.

'We've translated all the old nursery rhymes from English into Norfolk, and we bring in the grannies to teach pre-school kids,' said teacher Suzanne Evans. 'We do as much oral work as possible.'

The children are taught words such as watawieh [hello], kushu [I'm fine], naawi [swimming] and tiicha [teacher].

Many of the words reflect Norfolk's maritime heritage and its isolated position in the South Pacific, 1,760km from Sydney and 1,120km from Auckland. But intermarriage between islanders and Australians and New Zealanders, who make up the other half of the population, is diluting the language.

'If I talk broad Norfolk to people from the younger generation they say 'I beg your pardon?',' said Alice Buffett, 75, who compiled the first Norfolk dictionary. 'It's becoming anglicised because we are not marrying each other anymore.'

Until the 1970s, children were discouraged from speaking Norfolk. 'We were given a clip around the ear if we spoke it at school,' said Jackie Pye, head of the island's tourism authority.

The language may not be as vibrant as it once was, but islanders are determined to hand it down to the next generation.