Friday, June 26, 2009

English for the cognitively impaired

In October 2001, I went to visit my mother in Papua New Guinea, where she was stationed at the time.  We met up in Australia, spent a couple of days touring around Sydney and the Blue Mountains, then headed up to Port Moresby.  We hung out there for a few days, hanging with her friends and colleagues, doing some touristy stuff, and then headed to East New Britain (a PNG province) to do some scuba diving in Rabaul.

The Sydney Opera House.  We even went to see an opera there (Mozart's The Magic Flute).  Seeing an opera in the Opera House is fun, but The Magic Flute is a shitty opera, as much as I love Mozart.

The Jamison Valley in the Blue Mountains, about 60 miles west of Sydney.  They're blue because the air is full of eucalyptus oil.

It was an incredible trip.  Mom and I got some great quality time together, we did some fun touristy stuff, and I saw a beautiful part of the world that I will likely never get back to.  And life in the ambassador's residence, with servants and a driver and a pool and a gorgeous view of the ocean, doesn't suck.  

A bird of paradise tries to get fresh with me at the botanical gardens in Port Moresby.

The volcano in Rabaul, which was still smoldering from an eruption 7 years earlier (in 1994)

But Papua New Guinea is seriously one of the most fucked up countries ever.  It's culture is still astoundingly primitive, its economy is and has pretty much always been in the toilet (notwithstanding vast natural resources), the government is rife with corruption and largely ineffective, law and order is a pipe dream, and there is no free public education (which I think dooms any country hoping to become a progressive society).  
One of the things that amazed me most of all was Pidgin (or "Tok Pisin"), which is the national "language," to the extent that such a heterogenous place with hundreds of different tribes and distinct cultural groups has a single unifying language.  

And I know this is indelicate and incredibly politically correct, but from the outset I maintained that Pidgin is basically English for morons.*  Yes, it's charming and hilarious, but also alarming in how simplistic and childish it is.

My mom is still on a Papua New Guinea listserv, so she gets emails from time to time that include news and gossip about PNG, as well as a glossary of select Pidgin words.  It never ceases to crack me up.

Here's the latest.  Enjoy.
(it helps to say the words out loud for full effect - I've also included some translational guidance in italics)
dai pinis =  die  (i.e., die finish)
em tasol = that's all ("
em" is sort of a pronoun/placeholder)
glas bilong kapten = binoculars (
glasses belonging to a captain)
glas bilong lukluk = mirror (
glasses to "look look")
hallans / hailens = highlands
haus sik = hospital ("
house sick")
hausboi / hausmeri = servant (
"house boy" or "house mary/woman")
het i pen = headache ("
head in pain")
hukim pis = catch fish / fishing
husat = who
kago = cargo / goods / baggage
kagoboi = porter ("cargo boy")
kilim i dai pinis = kill
kilman = murderer ("
kill man")
*My mother, who is far nicer than I, suggested to me that the simplicity of the language stems from the fact that because the culture was so heterogeneous, it was necessary to boil things down to their most basic points in order to be understood across tribes and language groups.  I stand by my assessment, however, that another reason for the simplicity of the language is the absence of highly developed culture and thought processes (see, George Orwell's 1984, in which Big Brother simplified language in an effort to eliminate advanced, abstract thought processes).

1 comment:

  1. So incredibly interesting. I don't really remember the little I learned about pidgins and creoles in grad school, but I do find this kind of thing fascinating.