ABC Broadcast: Saturday 10 November 2007
Peter Mühlhäusler: Norfolk Island was discovered by Captain Cook in 1774 and in 1788 became a British penal colony. It was abandoned in 1814, but a second settlement was built in 1825 for the ‘extremest punishment short of death’. It lasted until 1854 but, instead of abandoning the island, the British government decided on an ‘experiment’: to settle a small community of God-fearing people on an isolated island and watch their moral progress. To this purpose, in 1856, the entire population of Pitcairn Island, 6,000 km distant, was relocated to Norfolk Island.
The story of the mutiny on the Bounty is known from numerous novels and films and Pitcairn Island, where the mutineers settled in 1790, has become a metaphor for a South Sea Utopia. Pitcairn was uninhabited when nine British sailors, twelve Tahitian women and six Tahitian men arrived. By 1800, following a period of violence, the Englishman John Adams was the sole male survivor with 10 Tahitian women and 23 children.
Towards the end of his life he became deeply religious and realised that the maintenance of Christian values and the English language required outside help. To this purpose, three British men joined the island community. The Tahitian language was not encouraged by them and within a generation disappeared from Pitcairn.
Earliest references to an English-Tahitian contact language date to 1789 when the British sailors, to taunt their captain, Bligh, deliberately mixed Tahitian and English words. On Pitcairn, the Polynesians communicated with the British in a mixture of Tahitian, West Indian Creole and English. But as outsiders began to visit the island after 1808, westernisation accelerated and Tahitian ways of dress and food preparation declined. The community increasingly identified with the British side of their heritage.
The contact vernacular, which became known as Pitcairnese, Pitcairn English and Pitkern-Norf’k, continued to be used in most families. The first generation women needed it for intercommunication. The Pitcairn-born children adopted it as their informal language. However, when outsiders settled on Pitcairn and took control of education and religion, the language became restricted to non-official domains and occupied the low position. English was the superordinate language and some new arrivals did not bother to learn Pitkern. A revaluation of the Pitkern language occurred in 1831 when the community attempted to resettle in Tahiti. This disastrous experiment lasted only five months. Diseases ravaged the Pitcairners and they were disgusted with the moral state of Tahiti. At this point, the Pitkern language became a symbol of non-identity with outsiders and a positive marker of a separate community.
By 1850, the population of Pitcairn had reached 156 and the island became degraded. The inhabitants asked the British Government to transfer them elsewhere. In 1856, all 194 Pitcairn Islanders were relocated to Norfolk Island, situated about 1,600 km north-east of Sydney.
Life on Norfolk in the first decades after 1856 underwent few changes. The isolation was even greater than before and the Norfolk language, now called Norf’k, became dominant or even the first language in some families. In 1859, the Englishman, Thomas Rossiter, was appointed as a schoolmaster with the aim of improving ‘the tone of the children’. Governor Young in 1862 argued:
… it is indispensable to continue Mr. Rossiter’s service for years to come … Upon the school must be placed the main dependence from preventing these interesting colonists from relapsing into the listlessness which the climate and abundance with which they are surrounded are so apt to superinduce; without it there might ensue a complete forgetfulness of the habits and pursuits of civilised life.
One of these habits, of course, was speaking the King’s English. Speaking Norf’k was referred to as ‘killing the King‘ or ‘breaking the King’s crown‘. The ‘experiment’ required constant intervention by the experimenters. Strict control was relaxed when two consecutive headmasters of islander background were employed between 1884 and 1906, but an Australian expert recommended their replacement by a headmaster from New South Wales. This has remained common procedure to date. As these mainlander teachers did not speak Norf’k, they showed little sympathy for the language and the education system became the principal means of assimilating the community to mainstream Australian English. The annual school reports illustrate the persecution of the Norf’k language. In 1912, Mr. Ray inspected the Norfolk Island Public School and comments:
During an address to parents, I pointed out that the continuance of the use of the Norfolk Island language was likely to hinder the progress of their children and seriously hamper them when in competition with others in afterlife. I advocated the suppression of the language in their homes. The people appeared sympathetic, but it remains to be seen whether the reform will be carried out.
At any rate the use of ‘Norfolk language’ in or about the school grounds should be prohibited.
The language was indeed prohibited and older islanders can tell many tales about the punishments they received for speaking Norf’k at school.
Report after report make critical comments. Headmaster Matthews reports in 1914:
The teachers here work at a great disadvantage. The little ones come to school scarcely able to talk or understand any English. The Norfolk Island ‘jargon’ is almost exclusively spoken in their homes, and I have known cases, where children have been ridiculed by the Islanders for speaking proper English.
Headmaster Passmore, in 1915, argues:
I love these people but I hate their language because of its limitations and for another reason in which my opinion has been lately corroborated by Professor Adams. He says that peoples’ language determines their moral character. If the Norfolk dialect could be wiped out I am convinced that there would be a moral uplift.
Over time, these efforts began to bear fruit and the first source mentioning that Norfolk was becoming an endangered language appeared in the Pacific Islands Monthly of 26 August 1932. Its anonymous writer mentions several reasons for this endangerment.
First, the increasing number of outsider settlers: today’s statistics indicate that Pitcairn descendants are a minority among Norfolk Island’s 1,600 permanent residents; marriages within the Pitcairner community are becoming rare; the language in mixed households is almost always English. Second, the passing of the eldest generation, who provided social and linguistic role models. And, third, education policies have made the islanders ashamed of their language, or, in the words of their writer:
[As it is,] for some mistaken reason, they seem ashamed to live as their fathers and mothers did and to speak the tongue that is a thousand times superior to the ugly English they learn in the State school. (Anon. 1932:11)
The eradication of the Norf’k language was no longer official education policy after 1930, but teachers continued to believe their pupils speaking Norf’k outside school hindered their progress. Many parents also felt that if their children talked and thought in Norf’k, their schoolwork was likely to suffer.
The result was a further decline in use and status of Norf’k and by 1960, English was the dominant language for most children.
The decline of Norf’k illustrates how deliberate linguicide combined with neglect and linguistic and social assimilation has led to the decrease of power of an already powerless language, a fate shared by most indigenous languages of Australia. But, like many other endangered small languages, Norf’k has undergone remarkable revival in recent years.
Importantly, the school, once an instrument of suppressing Norf’k, is now seen as an instrument of its revival. A survey of parents carried out earlier this year confirms that a clear majority want more Norf’k taught. From the 1980s, informal language classes were given by community members and from the mid-1990s, Norf’k has been taught officially as part of Norfolk Studies.
Whether these developments will help revive the language remains to be seen. However, it has by now become clear that, far from being a liability, the Norf’k language is one of the greatest assets of the island; it plays a major role in keeping this popular tourism destination culturally distinct and it is a central component in strengthening social cohesion, a sense of identity, and well-being among the islanders.
In 2004, the Norfolk Island Assembly unanimously passed an Act giving official recognition to Norf’k. This has created the legal basis for its use in the public domain. Positive feelings and talk is not enough however. Norf’k will further decline unless major steps are undertaken now. The island lacks expertise and resources. There is a very small pool of people, and financial resources for language work are lacking. There is a need for training Norfolk Islanders in language documentation, language teaching and revival, and an effective action plan.
Foundation Professor of Linguistics at the University of Adelaide, who wrote the submission to UNESCO for the Norfolk language be recognised as endangered.