The English spoken in Earth’s most geographically isolated island

There are hundreds and thousands of islands, but not all of them are inhabited. Some are not large enough to support communities, while others are located in places that transport networks do not typically reach. Yet, in the South Pacific, there exists an island still inhabited by people. Located more than 5 000 kilometres from major landmasses like Chile, Peru, and New Zealand, and 2 000 kilometres away from Tahiti in French Polynesia, this island is called Pitcairn Island.

But Pitcairn Island is not the only island in this volcanic island group. Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie, and Oeno Islands form the Pitcairn Islands, with Henderson Island being the largest. But only Pitcairn Island is inhabited, by less than 50 people. And behind this, hides a very bizarre history, and an interesting language.

The first people who lived on Pitcairn Island were originally the Polynesian people, estimated to be in the 11th century CE. These people established a culture, with their own language, on Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, as well as Mangareva Island in what is today part of French Polynesia. But this did not last. The settlements there declined, and the cultures were lost to history. Perhaps what remains were some artefacts showing what they traded, and carvings into rocky cliffs which could have told us something about their elaborate navigation system of the Pacific, or something about their mythology. While theories have been put forth, no conclusion has been made regarding the purpose of the carvings.

The Pitcairn Islands, following the decline of Polynesian cultures there, went uninhabited until the early 17th century, when it was rediscovered by a Portuguese explorer called Pedro Fernandes de Queirรณs. In 1767, the British rediscovered the islands as well, but gave the group the name we have today, named after the crew member who first spotted the island, Robert Pitcairn. But this island was mapped wrongly on the British maps.

Cue the infamous mutiny on the Bounty. Some British crew members who were disgruntled by the captain of the HMS Bounty seized control of the ship. These mutineers, who had formed relationships with the indigenous Polynesian people on Tahiti, thus became traitors to the British Empire. The mutineers needed to find a safe haven. The leader, Fletcher Christian, thus had this idea to settle on Pitcairn Island, the island which was newly rediscovered. And incorrectly mapped. Nevertheless, it took months of searching to find Pitcairn Island, with the help of the Polynesians’ navigational skills, for the crew to rediscover the island once again in 1790, 348km east of the recorded position by the British in 1767. Uninhabited, remote, and inaccessible, this island thus proved very safe for the mutineers.

Although these settlers lived in relative peace at first, having children along the way, this peace was only short-lived. To oversimplify a lot of events, many killings occurred. Some mutineers were killed by the Tahitian men, while further in-fighting amongst the remaining settlers led to the death of all the Tahitian men who settled on Pitcairn Island. At the end of all the chaos, John Adams was the only mutineer who stayed alive. Along with the Tahitian women, and children, John Adams went on to help keep peace on the island, as well as teaching literacy and religion to the remaining settlers. The people living on Pitcairn Island today are in fact, descendants of these very mutineers.

A very truncated history aside, it is important to note the cultures and languages that interacted to form the variant of English we hear on Pitcairn Island today. The mutineers, while British in nationality, had English, Cornish, Manx, and Scottish descent. When combined with the Tahitian language spoken by the Tahitian settlers on Pitcairn Island, a new language was born, most likely out of creolisation. This language is Pitkern.

Pitkern has an interesting classification. Despite it being spoken in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it is somehow classified as an Atlantic Creole by some scholars. This language has its own descendant, namely the Norf’k language spoken on Norfolk Island, after Pitkern speakers took their language when they moved to Norfolk Island, a move of a staggering 6 200 kilometres across the south Pacific. Being a predominantly spoken language, there is no standardised orthography for Pitkern, although the letters c, q, v, x, and z are not particularly used when writing Pitkern or Norf’k.

Looking at the Wikivoyage Norfuk-Pitkern phrasebook, although incomplete, one might wonder where the Tahitian influence comes from. After all, all these words and grammar generally resemble some form of English speech, although conjugations, tenses, and aspects differ from the Standard Englishes we are more or less familiar with. It turns out that Tahitian is used where taboo or undesirable concepts are mentioned, according to this Norf’k source. Why this is so is not really mentioned.

Perhaps one of the more prominent phrases you would hear on Pitcairn Island is the greeting whata wey ye, which means “how are you” or even “hello”. Negation in the present tense at least is represented by the particle nor, as in I nor believe, translated as “I do not think so”. The negation for the imperative, as in “do not [verb]”, seems to be translated as “dea nor”, pronounced something like [dสŒnษ™]. These patterns were what I could infer from reading the example sentences on the mentioned sources, and other excerpts or transcriptions I could find while searching the Internet.

Today, Pitkern is classified as a vulnerable language, a threatened state where a majority of its 50 or so speakers on Pitcairn Island and beyond are middle-aged, with limited transmission or education to their children. This island is facing a depopulation problem, since younger residents would prefer to go abroad and seek opportunities, amidst an interconnected world that they would not otherwise experience living on Pitcairn Island. Understandably, this causes a decrease in interest in Pitkern, where the number of speakers has been steadily decreasing, from the reduced transmission to younger generations, and the loss of the older ones to mortality.

The scene from the Norf’k perspective is a little bit different. While having around a thousand native speakers, travel to and from Norfolk Island, being a more accessible island than Pitcairn Island, has eroded Norf’k’s use, putting it in a similar state of vulnerability as Pitkern. However, efforts are made to ensure Norf’k’s preservation, including the education of Norf’k to children there, and the “Norf’kisation” of some of Norfolk Island’s attractions. But this is where the paths could diverge between Pitkern and Norf’k. While the preservation of Norf’k seems optimistic, the depopulation crisis faced by Pitcairn Island puts it, and Pitkern, in more dire straits.


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