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Polynesia and Pigin

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Alexander Howard
1247892.  Tue Sep 05, 2017 11:31 am Reply with quote

Polynesia - that scatter of islands across an ocean and a collection of vibrant cultures which were unknown to the west until the modern age, unless the definition includes the Malays, who had come to the attention of the ancients.

We now divide the island groups and peoples into names derived from Greek - Polynesia ("many islands"), Micronesia ("small islands"), Melanesia ("brown islands" - a reference to skin-colour), and a more recent coinage; Indonesia ("Indies islands").

Their languages are many and various, but all related in a language family known as 'Malayo-Polynesian', spread from Madagascar to Hawaii. In Polynesia and New Guinea though there is another set of languages, generally known as Pigin or Pijin, which is derived from attempts to communicate between English-speakers and locals: that is the subject of another post though.

The scented isles of the Pacific have endless aspects and oddities, which we can dip into.

 
Alexander Howard
1247896.  Tue Sep 05, 2017 11:36 am Reply with quote

Pigin is not a language native to Polynesia but is official or semi-official on many islands and various forms are widespread across the south-west of the ocean where the islands are close and trade too. It derives from attempts to speak to the locals in a sort of simplified English,

For example, the national motto of New Caledonia (erm, Vanuatu) is "Long God Yumi Stanap": "Along with God", "You-me", "stand up" - "we stand with God". "Blong" or "bilong" and variants are used for "of".

Prince Charles opened the Papua New Guinea Parliament with a speech in Pigin: not his best speech. There he is known as 'Nambawan pikinini bilong Mises Kwin' ("Number one child of the Queen").

The words used show that it was not cultured missionaries who worked it out but, well, Australians. (A child being a “pikinini”? That is not a Methodist minister speaking?)

A favourite word is the (New Guinea?) word for "error": 'bugarap'. In the same land, the (Melanesian) North Solomon Islanders describe the mainlanders (or vice versa) as "As blong sospan"; too politically incorrect for use here. Oh.

 
suze
1247905.  Tue Sep 05, 2017 12:02 pm Reply with quote

Tok Pisin was not invented by a committee. Rather, it was developed by labourers from various parts on the South Pacific when they found themselves working together on plantations in (in particular) Fiji and Queensland.

Most of the vocabulary was English, with handfuls of words from German, Malay, Portuguese, and indigenous languages. (For instance, the Kuanua word kumul is almost universal over bird bilong paradais for the creature which is the national symbol of PNG.)

While the owners and managers of these plantations were from wealthy families and had been to good schools, the immediate supervisors of the South Pacific labourers were drawn from among poorer white settlers, guys of a fairly rough and ready disposition.

Their language tended to the industrial, and they found it amusing to teach the islanders rude words. That is why words like as (the posterior) and bugarup (an accident) are not considered vulgar in Tok Pisin. Quite simply, the labourers didn't know any other words for the things in question.

There have been books about whether or not it is the fault of these same supervisors that a rather lax attitude to sexual morality and an excessive fondness for beer are common in PNG. "Mostly, but it's not as if the islanders were complaining" is the unsurprising gist of the usual conclusion.

 
Alexander Howard
1249833.  Tue Sep 19, 2017 3:05 pm Reply with quote

I pity the poor Polynesian people: poked and pricked by pretend polymaths to prove pet premises and presuppositions.

As the last great world culture to be discovered by western civilisation (the Spaniards passed through but with little interest), they have been seized upon since the eighteenth century, the Age of Sail, in search of “the Noble Savage”. The gorgeous islands in the sun, where sailors far from home watched women barely clad, and the men at one with the sea (and conveniently away from home), living apparently idyllic lives by the sea in an apparently timeless existence, produced a great deal of philosophical speculation, particularly amongst those reading these tales who had not seen the harsh reality of island life.

In contrast, the Polynesian culture of New Zealand was a byword for savagery. Gibbon recounted that the Romans believed the tribes by the Clyde practised Cannibalism, and said the change to his own day would be as if a philosopher live Hume were to arise in New Zealand; and Macauley's image of a distant future when a traveller from New Zealand takes his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul's.

Then there is Easter Island, where rival ideas are battled out: did the Easter Islanders destroy their own environment in a frenzy of self-destructive obsession, or were they ingenious survivors adapting to the destroyed ecology, torn apart by their first contact with civilisation? The answers turn, alas, not so much on fact and evidence as what one wishes to see in primitive peoples.

 
Alexander Howard
1249885.  Wed Sep 20, 2017 7:25 am Reply with quote

In 1928, the American anthropologist Margaret Mead published a very influential book ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’ based on her field work in the islands, claiming that Samoan youth lived in a culture of free sex with no sexual jealousy. It was very influential, plugging into the ‘noble savage’ idea, in an age of reinvention. (In the next decade we found out what real savages were like when Europe turned its back on ancient civilisation.) The book was rediscovered in the 1960s.

In the 1980s though Derek Freeman showed that the Samoan youths she met were not the simple folk she thought. Theirs was an ancient culture, fortified by Christian missionaries, but Mead came looking for savages. She was a wide-eyed Westerner ready to believe whatever tales these beautiful young people told, which they must have found hilarious, and they played her for a fool. They told her what she wanted to hear, and she printed it.

Since then there has been some debunking of Freeman’s work, but then we meet the clash of philosophies: if you build your philosophy on one set of presuppositions and someone comes along and shows the foundations of your worldview to be fiction, you will fight back (and that goes for both sides).

In the meantime, while academics throw verbal brickbats at each other from their ivory towers, the islanders live their lives as they always have, working, playing and worshipping, in all the delight and despair, wealth and poverty as everyone else.

What we don't want to hear is that we can cross the whole world over wide, trackless oceans and find that people everywhere are people like us.

 
Alexander Howard
1251348.  Thu Sep 28, 2017 9:54 am Reply with quote

The death of Captain Cook is a fine example of cultural misunderstanding between the west and Polynesian peoples.

Cook first landed in 1778 in the islands he named the Sandwich Islands, in the course of a voyage to explore a possible sea route through the fabled North West Passage. (He named two archipelagos 'the Sandwich Islands' after the First Secretary of the Admiralty: the other was later renamed "the South Sandwich Islands", the isles of his doom are now Hawaii.)

Hawaii is the farthest-flung of the Polynesian islands and was unvisited until Cook's arrival in the Resolution. On his return from the ice, the islanders welcomed Cook and his crew with more than effusive hospitality, to the extent of exhausting their provisions (and spoiling many prospective marriages) before Cook sailed away.

However the ship was forced to return to replace a broken mast, and their reception was very different: it seems that at first arrival the Hawaiians had taken the white men to be gods, hence their hospitality; now they saw they were fallible men and the islanders were resentful. Hostility and the theft of a boat escalated into Cook seizing the King as a hostage - but again the islanders were culturally unfamiliar with their duty to knuckle under to superior firepower and they attacked and slew Cook as he launched his boats.

 
brunel
1251995.  Sun Oct 01, 2017 7:15 am Reply with quote

Alexander Howard wrote:
The death of Captain Cook is a fine example of cultural misunderstanding between the west and Polynesian peoples.

Cook first landed in 1778 in the islands he named the Sandwich Islands, in the course of a voyage to explore a possible sea route through the fabled North West Passage. (He named two archipelagos 'the Sandwich Islands' after the First Secretary of the Admiralty: the other was later renamed "the South Sandwich Islands", the isles of his doom are now Hawaii.)

Hawaii is the farthest-flung of the Polynesian islands and was unvisited until Cook's arrival in the Resolution. On his return from the ice, the islanders welcomed Cook and his crew with more than effusive hospitality, to the extent of exhausting their provisions (and spoiling many prospective marriages) before Cook sailed away.

However the ship was forced to return to replace a broken mast, and their reception was very different: it seems that at first arrival the Hawaiians had taken the white men to be gods, hence their hospitality; now they saw they were fallible men and the islanders were resentful. Hostility and the theft of a boat escalated into Cook seizing the King as a hostage - but again the islanders were culturally unfamiliar with their duty to knuckle under to superior firepower and they attacked and slew Cook as he launched his boats.

Do you really mean to have your post carry a slightly uncomfortable tinge of racial superiority?

 
crissdee
1251999.  Sun Oct 01, 2017 8:34 am Reply with quote

I rather think (hope) that we are supposed to read that last bit of AH's post in an ironic tone.

 
monzac
1252028.  Sun Oct 01, 2017 3:37 pm Reply with quote

That's how I read it.

 
brunel
1252062.  Mon Oct 02, 2017 1:35 am Reply with quote

crissdee wrote:
I rather think (hope) that we are supposed to read that last bit of AH's post in an ironic tone.

I was referring to his comment about how the local population "had taken the white men to be gods", which is now being discredited as a mistranslation by those on board the Resolution.

 
'yorz
1252065.  Mon Oct 02, 2017 1:57 am Reply with quote

Even if it was a mistranslation - I really do not see what the problem is. If people get into a situation that is beyond their comprehension they often tend to invent beings with superhuman powers so as to be able to intellectually 'cope'. In this case they saw the light and were cured PDQ. Lucky them. Others cling on for many centuries. AH was just stating a fact - I cannot read willful racism into it.

 
Alexander Howard
1252076.  Mon Oct 02, 2017 4:00 am Reply with quote

The point is cultural misunderstanding: a clash of the Georgian world with an uncontacted Polynesian culture, neither understanding the other. The Georgian idea of progress and superiority of culture met a people they considered mere children in development. The islanders for their part encountered men in a vast ship beyond their comprehension and treated them with awe.

And yes, "for any given meaning of 'gods'". However our only accounts of the meeting are from the interpretation placed upon it by the British naval officers.

We can look at it with detachment today, with our own understandings and preconceptions but it is the interpretations and preconceptions of the men on the beach that day which drove the events. The Sandwich Islands, first so hospitable, were now hostile: how should the captain and officers interpret that and react in the moment?

There was, it seems, no malice nor contempt, but no understanding. Looking back we can read it that people are people the whole world over, though that was not how it was seen at the time. The result was deadly.

 

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