WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ENGLISH IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC?

Or elsewhere where English comes into contact with other languages

(The material for this page is extracted from the work of two linguists from the University of the South Pacific, France Mugler and John Lynch.  It is perhaps the most informative description of the language situation across the region that you will find)

High South Pacific English

It is possible to speak of a single educated South Pacific English in terms of grammatical structure, although there are phonological and lexical differences between the various countries. In general, the morphosyntax of educated South Pacific English approximates that of the metropolitan varieties spoken within the region (Australian, New Zealand and, to a lesser extent, British and American). There are, however, a number of features of South Pacific English which are common throughout all or most of the region which differ from those of the metropolitan varieties. Among them are the following:

a.      Frequent omission of past tense/past participial suffixes (as a result of final consonant cluster simplification discussed in §3 above):

‘This office is close from 12 to 1.’

‘I am very concern about this problem.’

 

‘They should have lock the door.’

‘The meeting which was suppose to be held last Friday is now defer till next week.’

 

(On the other hand, there are hypercorrections like ‘a matured person’ and ‘a secured job’.)

b.     Use of non-count nouns as count nouns:

‘She had to go and have a surgery.

 

‘We need more furnitures in this office.’

 

‘All the machineries are old-fashioned.’

‘Some of the committees didn’t attend the meeting.’

 

‘He went to buy some more stationeries.

c.      Singular noun following ‘one of’:

‘One of my friend will bring it.’

‘She told one of my boys’ teacher.

‘Vanuatu is one of the nicest country I have been to.’

d.     Overt pronominal trace after relativisation:

‘Where is the book which you were reading it yesterday?’

‘Give me those vegetables which you were cutting them up.

e.      A distinctive use of prepositions in certain contexts:

‘I read about it on the newspaper this morning.’

 

‘We should discuss about this problem.’

 

‘I can’t cope up with this any longer.’

 

To my opinion …’

‘Taxis, in America they call them as cabs.’

f.        A generalised question-tag, varying in different countries between ‘isn’t it?’, ‘eh?’, and ‘or?’:

‘Did he come or?’

‘You should do it like this, isn’t it?’

g.     The phrase ‘and them’ as a plural collective:

‘We went to see Mere and them.

‘Paul and them will be coming tomorrow.’

h.      pronominal copy after an overt subject noun phrase:

‘John he was sick yesterday.’

‘The boys they were playing football.’            [return to top]

Go to the following sections if you are particularly interested in them:

Phonology - see immediately below

Vocabulary

Syntax

Local Pacific 'errors' (or are they dialectal forms?) and also here

Media use of English

Literature

Phonology  (relevant to spoken English, but affecting written English also) 

English is mainly used as a second language in the South Pacific, and the phonology of a speaker’s first language often has some effect on the way he or she pronounces English. At the same time, people from different parts of the South Pacific have been exposed to different dialects of English: New Zealand English is perhaps the major such variety in Polynesia, Australian English is the dominant variety in Papua New Guinea, with the other parts of the region being exposed to a mixture of British, Australian, American and New Zealand English. The constant movement of Polynesians to and from New Zealand is also a factor, as is the level of education of speakers.

bullet

 Vowels

Most of the languages of this region have the five-vowel system /i e a o u/, and many have no central vowels other than /a/, even phonetically. For many speakers, therefore, contrast between tense (long) and lax (short) vowels is often not made;  Many Polynesians who have worked or were educated in New Zealand, however, have incorporated New Zealand vowels into their speech patterns.

bullet

 Consonants

As far as consonants are concerned, however, differences between the languages spoken in this region are sufficiently great that it is difficult to make any Pacific-wide generalisations.

 Polynesian languages have very small consonant inventories: of all the languages in Polynesia, Tongan has the most consonants, with twelve – /p t k / f v s h m n ng l/. No Polynesian language contrasts voiced and voiceless stops, and there are few contrasts between voiced and voiceless fricatives. They have only one liquid (some having /l/ and others /r/), and they lack certain fricatives which occur in English, like 'th' 'sh'. Thus in the English spoken by many Polynesians, there is often no contrast between [p] and [b], [t] and [d], [k] and [g], [f] and  [v] and  [s] and [z], and some others besides.

 It is more difficult to generalise about the large number of languages in Melanesia. Most of these do show a contrast between voiced and voiceless stops, though in many the voiced stops are prenasalised, and sometimes English voiced stops are pronounced with prenasalisation. .

 Although there are South Pacific languages with closed syllables and consonant clusters, probably the majority allow open syllables only, and very few allow final syllables to be closed by more than one consonant. This is particularly noticeable with the frequent loss of the past tense suffixes -/d/ and -/t/ after consonant-final verbs in spoken English: a combination of various factors thus sees words like ‘turn’, ‘turned’, ‘tend’ and ‘ten’ pronounced identically, as /ten/, or ‘this’ and ‘these’ pronounced identically, as /dis/ or /vis/, by many South Pacific Islanders. In addition, almost all South Pacific languages have regular penultimate stress. These factors, on top of what we have already described about consonant and vowel systems, mean that many South Pacific Islanders have considerable difficulty in approximating to the pronunciation of mother-tongue speakers, and that their pronunciation is often difficult for speakers of some other varieties of English to understand.  [return to top]

 Vocabulary

As elsewhere in the world, South Pacific varieties of English differ lexically from other varieties, in a number of ways. Here we will briefly discuss (i) the incorporation of words or phrases from indigenous languages, (ii) hybrid forms, combining both indigenous and local elements (as either a word or a phrase), (iii) calques upon one or more indigenous languages, and (iv) the use of brand names as generic terms.

 The first of these – the incorporation of words and phrases from indigenous languages – is perhaps the most obvious to the outsider, and it also marks differences between different varieties of South Pacific English. A very brief selection of items follow. These are in very wide use in English as it is spoken, by both South Pacific Islanders and native English-speaking expatriates, in individual countries of the region, and usually refer to items or concepts specific to the social, cultural or ecological environment. 

Table 1. Selected borrowed words in South Pacific English

Word

Meaning

Region

Immediate source

umu

lavalava

wantok

bilum

nguzunguzu

osooso

nakamal

laplap

bele

sevusevu

baigan

bhindi

alofa

ta’ovala

hope

matai

fale

luku

earth-oven

sarong

person from the same area, friend

string-bag

canoe-prow figurehead

wheedle a favour

men’s-house; kava-bar

tuber pudding

edible greens

ceremonial presentation

eggplant

okra

group presentation of gifts

small mat worn round the waist

tuft of hair left to grow on a child’s forehead

titled head of an extended family

house, residence

edible fern

widespread

widespread

Melanesia

PNG

Solomon Is.

Solomon Is.

Vanuatu

Vanuatu

Fiji

Fiji

Fiji

Fiji

Tuvalu

Tonga

Tokelau

the Samoas

the Samoas

Niue

various

Samoan

Tok Pisin

Tok Pisin

Pijin

Pijin

Bislama

Bislama

Fijian

Fijian

Fiji Hindi

Fiji Hindi

Tuvaluan

Tongan

Tokelauan

Samoan

Samoan

Niuean

 Most of these forms are fully adapted to the morphology and syntax of English. Thus the following would be a perfectly acceptable sentence in Papua New Guinea English:

‘My tambus had mumued a pig and put the leftovers in their bilums.’ (= ‘My in-laws had roasted a pig in an earth-oven and put the leftovers in their string-bags.’ – all italicised words from Tok Pisin.)

‘He choroed all my sulus.’ (= ‘He stole all my lavalavas/sarongs.’ – choro from Hindi and sulu from Fijian.)

Many other words from Pacific (especially Polynesian) languages are, of course, now part of English as it is spoken in other parts of the world: hula, kava, lei, tabu/taboo, tapa, tattoo, taro and ukulele are examples.

 Hybrid forms are those which combine a word from an indigenous language with an English derivational affix (to form a new word) or with an English word (forming a phrase). Some examples are given in Table 2.

Table 2. Selected hybrid forms

Word/Phrase

Meaning

Region

Source

wantokism

 

meri blouse

 

talanoa session

bula shirt

yaqona swiper

 

roti parcel

 

piala cut

pulaka plot

nu pia starch

nepotism, favouritism of people from one’s area

k.o. woman’s dress

 

a story-telling session

coloured casual shirt

person who drinks lots of yaqona (= kava)

meat/vegetables wrapped in roti

a basin cut (hair-cut style)

area for growing swamp taro starch derived from arrowroot

PNG

 

PNG

 

Fiji

Fiji

Fiji

 

Fiji

 

Fiji

Tokelau

Niue

Tok Pisin wantok (Table 4) + -ism

Tok Pisin meri ‘woman’ + blouse

Fijian talanoa ‘tell stories’

Fijian bula ‘greeting’

Fijian yaqona ‘kava’

 

Hindi roti ‘kind of unleavened bread’

Hindi piala ‘drinking bowl’

Tokelauan pulaka ‘giant swamp taro’

Niuean nu pia ‘arrowroot’

 A calque is an expression which is translated literally from an expression in a foreign language, such as ‘marriage of convenience’ in English, which is a direct word-for-word translation of the French phrase mariage de convenance. Some examples of calques in South Pacific English based on expressions in indigenous languages are given in Table 3: 

Table 3. Selected calques

Phrase

Meaning

Region

Source

go finish

 

something nothing

 

creep (someone)

 

full drunk

take the lead

leave the country permanently

something of no importance

go secretly in search of sexual partner

completely drunk

to take one’s leave (of those remaining)

Melanesia

 

PNG

 

Solomon Is.

 

Vanuatu

Fiji

Melanesian Pidgin: go pinis/finis (go completive)

Tok Pisin samting nating (thing unimportant)

Pijin kripim (transitive)

 

Bislama: fuldrong

Fijian: liu ‘lead, precede, go before’

 Greetings and leave-takings are often calqued on those of Pacific languages. The initial greeting (often simply ‘hello’) is typically followed by ‘where (are) you going?’ or ‘where (are) you coming from?’, rather than ‘how are you?’. Similarly, interlocutors indicate their intention to leave at least by saying ‘OK’, sometimes followed by ‘I’m going now’ or ‘I’m going this way’, if the interlocutors are going separate ways, or by ‘I’ll take the lead’ or ‘I’ll go first’, said by the person leaving first if they are eventually going in the same direction.

There are also cases of brand names being used as generic terms (in the same way as terms like ‘kleenex’, ‘biro’ or ‘hoover’ are used in other varieties of English). Some of these are listed in Table 4: 

Table 4. Brand names as generic terms

Word

Meaning

Region

Source

nescafe

omo

colgate

susuki

instant coffee

washing powder

toothpaste

motorcycle

widespread

PNG

Solomon Is.

Vanuatu

Nescafe instant coffee

Omo washing powder

Colgate toothpaste

Suzuki motorcycle

 [return to top]

Syntax

I will use the term "High South Pacific English" to describe those varieties spoken and written by educated South Pacific Islanders who are fluent in English, and the terms "middle" and "Low South Pacific English" to describe those varieties spoken by South Pacific Islanders with less education, or by people who are not fluent in English and who use it on a less regular basis.

 Semantics

In this section on semantics, we look at a number of areas in which English words have different meanings in the South Pacific than they do in (most) other varieties of English.

 Perhaps a good place to start is with kin terms. There is no single kinship system which is dominant across the South Pacific, but in all South Pacific societies there are systems which can be described very generally as ‘clan-based’ and in which the extended family plays a vital role. For many South Pacific English speakers, then, the following terms would differ from their metropolitan equivalents in the following ways:

Word

Meaning

grandfather

any senior male of the same clan in grandfather’s generation

grandmother

any senior woman in grandmother’s generation

father

father + his brothers

mother

mother + her sisters

uncle

mother’s brothers, father’s sisters’ husbands

aunty [usually not ‘aunt’]

father’s sisters, mother’s brothers’ wives

brother

brother + father’s brothers’ (and sometimes mother’s sisters’) male children

sister

sister + father’s brothers’ (and sometimes mother’s sisters’) female children

 In at least some parts of the South Pacific, the terms ‘cousin-brother’ and ‘cousin-sister’ are used. These differ from the term ‘cousin’ (a) in being sex-specific and (b) in excluding the children of one’s father’s brothers (and, in some societies, those of one’s mother’s sisters as well). Interestingly, terms for in-laws – especially brother-in-law – are often borrowed from local languages: tambu in PNG (from Tok Pisin), tawi in Vanuatu (from Bislama), and tavale in Fiji (from Fijian).

 A second semantic area concerns kava-drinking in Vanuatu. Below are some words which have specific meanings in this domain:

Word

Meaning

drunk

affected by kava

kick

(of kava) to have a sudden or delayed effect

plastic

a plastic bottle which one takes to a nakamal to get take-away kava: ‘Go to Ronnie’s [nakamal] and bring back a plastic for us.’

shell

a bowl of kava – usually glass or porcelain in urban nakamals (rarely an actual coconut shell)

 There is also a large number of words which have additional, or different, meanings in all or some South Pacific countries from other varieties of English. In the list below, a + sign at the beginning of the second column indicates that the word has the usual meaning(s) plus the additional meaning given. 

Word/Phrase

Meaning

baby-sitter

+ someone who looks after children while the parents are at work – often a young relative of one of the parents

drink

+ eat wet or sloppy foods (like watermelon, mangoes, ice-cream, etc.)

fair fight

to fight one-on-one

plastic

+ plastic bag, plastic bottle

sometimes

+ some time: ‘I’ll see you sometimes tomorrow’

spoil

+ 1. damage someone’s reputation: ‘they were spoiling her and saying bad things about her’. 2. cause someone an inconvenience: ‘while he was working they came along and spoiled him’.

[return to top]

 Media use of English

Television was introduced to the region only in the last decade, and the cost of producing local programmes in countries with small populations accounts for the overwhelming domination of English, since most programmes are imported. The Cook Islands and Niue get New Zealand television directly, while the other countries that have television (all but Tokelau and Solomon Islands) also import programmes in various proportions from the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Britain. Vanuatu also imports many programmes from France.

 Satellite television is available to some people in some countries. This is virtually exclusively in English. Video stores are common in many South Pacific towns; again, most films for rent are in English (though in Vanuatu many are in French and in Fiji many are in Hindi).

 English also has an important share of the print media. In most Polynesian countries there is a rough balance between English and the national language in the major newspapers. Tonga, for instance, has three weekly papers, one in English, one in Tongan, and one in both languages. There is also a bilingual monthly. But more specialised publications, such as various church newspapers, are mostly in Tongan, with no more than 20% in English.

 English has a greater share in Fiji, which has two dailies and half a dozen monthly magazines in English as against one Hindi and two Fijian weeklies. In the other Melanesian countries, English and Pidgin tend to share space, sometimes in the same newspaper. The Vanuatu Weekly/Hebdomadaire has French, English and Bislama sections, roughly in equal proportions. Papua New Guinea has two national English-language dailies and one weekly, but also one national Tok Pisin weekly; some provincial governments produce newspapers/newsletters as well, usually in Tok Pisin and/or a predominant vernacular. English dominates in Solomon Islands, however, because of the low prestige of Pijin.

Although English is also present on radio, this is where South Pacific languages are best represented. In some countries, different stations broadcast in different languages, while in others, air time on a single station is shared between English and the local language(s), including, in Melanesia, Pidgin. In Samoa, for instance, the AM station broadcasts mainly in Samoan and one FM station mostly in English. There is also a religious channel based in American Samoa, which broadcasts mainly American gospel music in English. The two local radio stations in Vanuatu use a mixture of the three official languages, with Bislama predominating. In Papua New Guinea, national radio uses mostly English (with short news bulletins in Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu), but provincial radio stations use very little English, concentrating on languages widely known in the particular province concerned.

 The electronic media are developing very fast in the South Pacific, with several newspapers, such as the Tonga Chronicle, the Vanuatu Weekly/Hebdomadaire and Papua New Guinea’s three major newspapers now publishing electronic editions. A number of magazines and radio and television stations also have websites. Nearly all of this is in English so far, but there are plans to have Wantok Niuspepa, the weekly Tok Pisin newspaper in PNG, on line, and other news sites in South Pacific languages may follow.   [return to top]

 Literature in English: oral and written

The South Pacific has a rich oral tradition in its many indigenous languages, a multifarious tradition where performance is central and which ranges from story telling to epic poetry and genealogies, oratory, songs, and drama. Literacy, introduced by missionaries in the Nineteenth Century, spread fairly quickly and many South Pacific languages – though far from all, given their very large number – were soon written. But most literature in English about the South Pacific was for a long time written by outsiders (among them Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Pierre Loti, Jack London, Somerset Maugham and James Michener), with outsiders’ points of view, so that places and people were by turns romanticised, demonised, or simply marginalised.

 Except for a few early works, such as Miss Ulysses of Puka Puka, an autobiographical story by the Cook Islander Florence (‘Johnny’) Frisbie in 1948, literature in English by South Pacific Islanders did not emerge until the 1960s. In 1960, perhaps the first novel by South Pacific Island writers was published, Makutu, by the Cook Islanders Tom and Lydia Davis. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the first works of a number of writers: short stories by Fiji’s Raymond Pillai and Subramani and Tonga’s ‘Epeli Hau‘ofa; poems by Konai Helu Thaman, of Tonga, and Fiji’s Pio Manoa (who also often writes in Fijian); and short stories, poems and, in 1973, the novel Sons for the Return Home, by the Samoan Albert Wendt, of all South Pacific writers perhaps the best known outside the region.

But it was the establishment of the two regional universities, the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) in 1966 and the University of the South Pacific (USP) in 1968, which provided a focus and a forum for writers and other artists and encouraged the development and publication of creative writing, through courses, workshops, regional conferences and the establishment of literary journals.   [return to top]

Middle and Low South Pacific English

The written English of speakers of Middle and Low varieties of South Pacific English can, in many cases, be characterised as containing numerous errors as well as consistent departures from metropolitan norms. Their spoken English often differs quite significantly from country to country, and also to some extent according to their level of education. For that reason, it is difficult to make general statements about the region as a whole, and so to illustrate these levels of English, we will look at just one country – Fiji.

Fiji is the only country of the region where English has a substantial role as a lingua franca, primarily between Fijians and Indo-Fijians but also with the smaller groups of speakers of other languages. As elsewhere, Fiji English is influenced by the first languages of its speakers, mainly Fijian and Fiji Hindi. The combined influence of an indigenous language and an imported one, each belonging to a different family, makes Fiji English the most distinctive variety in the region – indeed perhaps unique. It is probably also the best studied variety, although published research to date is still limited.

 Because of its more varied uses than elsewhere in the South Pacific – from official language to lingua franca – English in Fiji probably also has the greatest continuum of high to low varieties, with some speakers clearly being multi-lectal. But with diverse first languages influencing the phonology, syntax, vocabulary and semantics of English, it is questionable whether there is such a thing as a homogeneous "Fiji English", rather than a number of related sociolects.  It is worth noting that within Fiji, the term "Fiji English" tends to refer only to the low end of the continuum, perhaps because only that lect is recognised as distinctive. I will use "Fiji English" here to refer to the entire continuum, however.

 Fiji English has a common core of Fijian and Hindi borrowings and these two languages each have an influence on the phonology of the English of their native speakers. A number of features are common to other varieties of so-called New Englishes or to other varieties of English in the South Pacific (e.g. invariant verb forms, copula deletion, lack of overt plural marking, non-count nouns as count nouns). Perhaps one phonological feature common to all varieties of Fiji English, including the high one, is deletion of /y/ in words like annual, education, regular etc.

 There are also a number of grammatical features, some of which are most common in the low. Perhaps the most distinctive are listed below:

a.      verbal particles as verbs:

‘You want me to on the alarm?’

‘I been come down and off the light and do the washing up.’

b.     been as a pre-verbal past tense marker:

‘I been study all week.’

‘He been swear at me.’

c.      full as an intensifying adverb:

He was full dancing in front of everyone!’

d.     gang as a plural marker, especially with pronouns:

‘We’re gonna be like those gang.

‘Us gang own this store... you gang don’t belong here!’

e.      fala as a third-person pronoun with [+ human, + male] referent (= ‘guy’, ‘bloke’, ‘chap’ in other varieties; in the basilect, fala can also refer to a female):

Fala can fight!’

f.        the thing as a third-person pronoun with [- human] referent, rather than Standard English ‘it’:

‘I bought a Fiji Times but left the thing on the bus.’

g.     first person dual pronoun:

Us two going to the movies.’

h.      zero definite determiner:

‘The money in grog [kava] keep wheels of economy rolling.’

i.        one as an indefinite determiner:

One Indian man come to the door just now.’

j.        subject pronoun and base form of the verb for imperative:

‘Come, we go.’

k.      repetition of go to mark continuing action, often with the Fijian particle ga (/Na/), a general intensifier:

‘… go go ga …’ = ‘… on and on, and then …’

 [return to top]