Probably the weirdest language crossover

What happens when a bunch of speakers with no common language come together and want to communicate? A simplified form of the languages involved starts to form, usually impromptu, or through social conventions. Pidgins are not considered a native language by any speech community, instead learned as a second language (L2). However, pidgins usually form a pathway towards creolisation, where pidgins are learned as a native language in subsequent generations, and a fully patterned grammar and vocabulary develop.

Speaking about these crossovers of language, communication, and culture, there are a few which I find particularly weird, but not necessarily abundant in their evidence or documentation. Some have suggested anything to do with Basque that would result in the “most ambitious crossover” in the language multiverse, especially Algonquian-Basque pidgin which was attested in the 16th to 18th centuries. As weird as it sounds, it was apparently a thing.

However, the stability of such pidgins are quite contentious, especially when working with potentially lacking sources in the corpus or otherwise. Issues like this often make their corresponding Wikipedia entries for these effectively stubs, and who knows how many other pidgins or creoles have existed without being documented. But anyway, I would like to chip in my two cents on what I think is probably the weirdest language crossover in our linguistic multiverse.

The pearling industry in Broome, Western Australia was booming by the turn of the 20th century, attracting a vast number of people to the area to pearl, trade, and communicate. As such, a diverse number of ethnicities and people groups converged on Broome, where the pearling industry was rather booming. Anyone from Japanese, Malays, Torres Strait Islanders, Koepangers, Hakka Chinese, Filipinos, Sri Lankans, and Koreans could be found working in the pearling industry there, interacting with the local indigenous Australians, particularly the Bardi people, but also included people groups like the Nyulnyul, Jabirr Jabirr, Jukun, Yawuru, and the Karajarri peoples.

It was an extremely diverse bunch, although Broome’s total population barely made up 4000 people in around 1900, according to the Kimberley Australia website on Broome’s history. Nevertheless, it was a whole bunch of various language families interacting all at once, without any common language between them. Yet, communication was needing to keep the pearling industry and livelihoods up.

Enter the Broome Pearling Lugger Pidgin. It is quite a mouthful to say, but so is Algonquian-Basque pidgin. It is a Malay-based pidgin, with further influences from Japanese, English, and local indigenous Australian languages. From these interacting languages, we could deduce the relative proportions of speakers by their language group. While there were accounts on expectations that a Broome pidgin would be something based on Japanese, the Broome Pearling Lugger Pidgin was indeed a Malay-based pidgin. Interestingly though, there seemed to be no direct European-based influences in the formation of the pidgin, although the English used in the pidgin was a form of Australian Aboriginal Pidgin English.

Kupang Malay was the predominant form of Malay forming the substrate for the pidgin to develop, contributing perhaps a majority of words and vocabulary, which are not really drastically modified in pronunciation (like tau, tahu in Malay, but tau in Kupang Malay, meaning the verb to know). Australian Aboriginal Pidgin English also contributed a fair amount of words, but their pronunciations may deviate a fair bit from English (like po:rr, for pearl).

Japanese however, contributed something extra, in addition to certain Japanese phrases and cultural terms like sasmi ~ sasimi ~ chachimi, from Japanese sashimi. These were grammatical particles, added in an almost-Japanese fashion. This includes the copula that some might equate to the verb to-be, –ya (originally –da in Japanese). Interestingly, the copula –ya is found in the Kansai dialect of Japanese, so could there be more Japanese workers in the pearling industry who come from the Kansai region?

Other particles include the particle -nga, which comes from the Japanese topic marker -wa. This should not be confused with the Japanese nominative or subject marker -ga, which can sound like -nga at times. An example sentence is:

  • po:rr kicchi: -ya.
  • The pearl is small (kicchi: is the Kupang Malay version of kecil in Malay, both meaning small)

Japanese and Malay have a rather similar forms of the question particle, even though the usages may differ between languages. Japanese -ka marks both wh-questions and yes-no questions, but the Malay -kah marks only yes-no questions. And so within the Broome Pearling Lugger Pidgin, the particle -ka: marks only yes-no questions, aligning more closely with the Malay usage of the question particle.

There were several uses of the particle -ka: noted in this source by Hosokawa Komei, but one of the more peculiar features is the suggested use for the conditional mode. Neither Japanese nor Malay have this usage for their respective particles.

  • ujan banya: ratang -ka: tera karaja dekko anga:.
  • If the rain gets heavier, we shall stop working and drop the anchor. (tera being the Malay negative marker).

A more interesting feature is the pitch accent behind the particle -ka: which distinguishes between these meanings. The conditional mood -ka: is pronounced with a high flat pitch, while the question marker -ka: is pronounced with a low or a mid-high pitch.

As mentioned, there are not really any L1 native speakers of Broome Pearling Lugger Pidgin, and its use was mainly limited to particular social contexts, especially in the pearling labour setting. With the decline of the multicultural labour force composition in the Broome pearling industry, so too went the pidgin in the late 1960s.

While the pearling industry today has been largely relegated to cultured pearl farms, distancing from the rather dangerous occupation, some remnants of the Broome Pearling Lugger Pidgin lives on. English has long since become the lingua franca, reducing the need to develop pidgins or creoles to communicate across languages, and so too died the Broome Pearling Lugger Pidgin. Unfortunately, documentation and accounts of this pidgin today are quite scarce and obscure, with one publication being made available to read for free, while the other is locked behind a paywall, available to those who have academic access, or financial access to it.

So this has been the rather intriguing story of the Broome Pearling Lugger Pidgin, what could be the weirdest language crossover. Hopefully this has been a fresh perspective of what we perceive as weird pidgins, and perhaps we could cover more of these linguistic oddities here in the future.

Additional reading

Hosokawa, K. (1987Hosokawa, Komei (1987). “Malay talk on boat: an account of Broome Pearling Lugger Pidgin”. In D. Laycock and W. Winter (ed.).Β A World of Language: Papers Presented to Professor S.A. Wurm on his 65th Birthday. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. pp.Β 287–296.

Source could be found on the Open Research Repository of the Australian National University.

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