A note on Pacific Pidgin English (PPE)

Pacific Pidgin English, alternatively Beach-la-Mar, is the name given to a new lingua franca that stabilized in the central-western Pacific between perhaps 1820 and 1860. It was spoken by the Pacific Islander crews of trading and passenger ships then calling at many places where whatever was spoken then has long since given way to a Pacific version of Standard English, or French: Rarotonga, Apia, Niue, Rotumah, Mare and so on.

Its successor languages are the four ‘Bislamic Pidgins’: Bislama (Vanuatu), Pijin (Solomon Islands), Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea), and Torres Strait Creole (islands of Torres Strait and islander communities at the tip of Cape York, Australia).

I enumerate these as four languages advisedly. Most writers have forgotten about Torres Strait Creole (also known as Broken or Ailan Tok), possibly because of the relatively small (<10,000) number of speakers. However, the arrival of Pacific Islander pearling crews in Torres Strait from 1864, and the content of Torres Strait Creole itself, leave no doubt whatsoever of its origins and affinity.

All writers have paid a varying degree of attention to historical connections, from a more generalized recognition of the affinity to a fairly lengthy examination of origins (e.g. Mühlhäusler 1979: 54‑79). However, discussions of origins have focused on English as the primary lexifying language. While it is true that English is the ultimate source of the largest part of all four languages, exposure to English is plainly not where speakers acquire, or have ever acquired, their particular pidgin variant; it is exposure to other speakers. This in turn means that the primary lexicon of Bislama, Pijin, Tok Pisin, and Torres Strait Creole should be considered to have come in the first instance, not from English, but from Pacific Pidgin English. The addition of Torres Strait Creole to new discussions may be quite helpful here, because of the arguably early separation of TSC from the other pidgins, 1864-1890, and the lack of connection between TSC and the melting pot of the plantations, whether in Queensland, Samoa or elsewhere.

This work

In the entries on this web site, proposed PPE etymologies are now given where it is plausible to do so.

Obvious candidates for original PPE words are: *bulmakau, *pikinini, *sanbis, *sidaun, *stanap, *wokabaut.

In these cases, the words are distinctively different from Standard English, or (like *pikinini) have a known path through earlier jargon languages, and have survived intact since the four pidgins separated.

With candidates that are not distinctively different from Standard English – possibly such as *sek, *skin, *skul, *smat – a case can be made instead that the meaning is consistently different that expected in English, or has a consistent variant usage not found in English.

Other words with no obvious extra spin in the pidgins – like *anka – must surely have been present in PPE, but give us no easy way of discriminating between a hypothetical PPE ‘anka’ and English ‘anchor’ as the precursor.

Further research and textual comparison may help us firm up a PPE vocabulary – this is a work in progress.

Principle reference sources for the Bislamic Pidgins

Jourdan, Christine with Ellen Maebiru 2002. Pijin. A trilingual cultural dictionary. Canberra: Australian National University. Pacific Linguistics 526

Mihalic, Rev. Frank S.V.D. 1971. The Jacaranda dictionary and grammar of Melanesian Pidgin. Milton, Queensland: The Jacaranda Press

Mühlhäusler, Peter 1979. Growth and structure of the lexicon of New Guinea Pidgin. Canberra: Australian National University, Research School of Pacific Studies, Department of Linguistics. Pacific Linguistics Series C, No. 52

Shnukal, Anna 1988. Broken: An introduction to the Creole Language of Torres Strait. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, Australian National University, Department of Linguistics. Pacific Linguistics Series C, No. 107.

Tryon, Darrell 1987. Bislama. An introduction to the national language of Vanuatu. Canberra: Australian National University, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Pacific Linguistics. Languages for intercultural communication in the Pacific area project of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Publication No. 4