RAMSI Pidgin

I’m sure we’ve all heard tourists trying to make themselves understood overseas by speaking loudly and slowly, as though the listener’s exasperating inability to understand plain English could be overcome with a little time and patience.

Well, that tactic actually works OK here. The shared English heritage means that you really can get by with a mixture of slow, simple English, Pidgin idiom and hand gestures for emphasis. Moreover, that’s the way the locals tend to reply to you as well, so it does’t feel like linguistic imperialism, as it would in an Asian country. It feels like everyone muddling along as best they can. This shared use of English words is useful, but it also has its down side.

In particular, it creates a difficulty if, like me, you are trying to learn Pidgin by osmosis. It is very diffcult for a non-Pidgin speaker to tell the difference between good Pidgin and bad English.  I don’t mean that in a racist or dismissive way. I mean that if someone says to me: “Wat time you come long Solomon nao?”, it is tempting to assume that this is good Pidgin for: “how long have you been living here in the Solomons?” But its not. It’s bad English in a Melanesian accent, but it’s easy enough to understand, so the conversation can move forward, haltingly. (I don’t know what the real Pidgin is for that sentence but I am sure it isn’t quite that simple).

I’m pretty sure this works the same way in reverse – i.e., if you are trying to learn English. A lot of the people in Honiara have done English at school (it is nominally the official language, after all) and are probably keen to dust it off and see if they can be understood – especially as it is the language of money and influence here.  A lot of the locals here will address you in English if they can, but at the same time, many of them like it if you try to speak Pidgin because it symbolises the fact that you are trying to fit in with the community and haven’t just come over to sponge up aid money and lord it over them for a while. 

My Pidgin now extends to saying things like: “Me go long Woodford International School fasttaem fo garam son blo me” (I’m off to Woodford, quickly, to get my son). I think that’s OK Pidgin. If it gets more complex, I need to slip back into English, keeping bits of Pidgin if I can: “And after, me go for swim long Honiara Hotel”. I know that’s not good Pidgin, and nor is it English, but it gets understood readily enough, although its probably no help to someone trying to pick up English through conversation.

The result of all this is that many of us end up speaking in a kind of garbled ‘RAMSI Pidgin’, a hybrid language of a language that was a hybrid in the first place and is now becoming further debased. And none of us really know whether we are getting any closer to learning real Pidgin or not. I suspect that before our arrival, Honiara Pidgin was already different from Pidgin spoken elsewhere, the city having had far more exposure to foreign media and more neccesity for imported words (‘disfala Parlimentary Commitee’, ‘Occupational Health and Safety blo iu me’, etc).  The arrival of RAMSI can only have hastened this process.  While there are commited individals such as Louise about the place, who have not only had lessons but actually stick to formal Pidgin in conversation, regardless of the psuedo-English they might get in reply, many of the other advisors talk the same way I do, and just try to get by.

It’s fine for shopping, and talking about the weather (“Mifala sweaty! Hem hot tumas!”) but I doubt that ‘RAMSI Pidgin’ is really a good language for conducting serious affairs in a complex post-conflict situation where cultural misundersanding is already rife. I suspect we all only get about 75% of what the other person is trying to say, at most. English is the official language of statecraft and the law, so this situation isn’t quite as bad as it sounds, but Pidgin still has a role to play (interviewing witnesses, explaining decisons to villagers, etc).  So some use of Pidgin in RAMSI business is inevitable.

Anyway, enough of disfala blog blo me! The weekend is upon us, so family blo me go long Sol Lanka for stacka curry disfala evening!  Then mi go long scuba diving tommorow! Well, blo me down with a feather! (groan).


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