“There’s no excuse for not learning the language,” an ex-voluntary aid worker on the flight from Brisbane to Honiara told me.
“You should learn Pidgin.”
Her name was Tania. She had previously worked in the Solomon Islands for two years as a torture and trauma psychologist with victims of domestic violence. Tania was on a trip back to visit a pregnant friend – a local. Tania had “culturally integrated” herself, she claimed.
I became a bit suspicious of Tania and wondered if she was patronising me, the tourist, but I uncharacteristically bit my tongue, offered a few perfunctionary questions and let her rattle on. Typical bloody ‘pat me on the back’ aid worker, I thought, telling me what I should do. Not everyone has the facility or time to learn a foreign language and I’m one of those people.
Most of us pass through places making an effort to remember a handful of key words and phrases, usually enough for a smile, a bit of understanding, and some help to move along. That’s where the learning fizzles.
Though on one point Tania and I agreed wholeheartedly. Conversing with people in their native tongue, understanding the nuances, peculiar expressions, and gestures of communication, offers deeper cultural insight than you might experience just getting by with an, “Hola, dos cervezas por favor.” For the anthropologically inclined traveller this is priceless.
“They will really welcome you in the villages if you make an effort to speak Pidgin,” the ex-expat continued. “It’s easy to learn, easy. They’ll love it.”
Of course, Tania was right. It is fair and reasonable to expect visitors to at least try. I’d give it a bash. “Pidgin is broken English,” people kept on telling me.
Too true. If you speak a shortened, rudimentary version of English you are halfway there. Then a handful of words in Pidgin can be strung together with English to do more than get by and order beer.
Interestingly, the legacy of English colonialism has left some old, sophisticated words in working use, such as ‘fetch’. Watch out for these, they will surprise you.
Also, the Spanish-born Mendana was the first European to discover the Solomons and it follows that some Pidgin words are cognisant of Spanish. For example, in Pidgin, ‘to know’ is savvy, for which the Spanish verb is saber. Other words are identical, such as ‘grapefruit’ – pomelo in both Spanish and Pidgin.
Depending on the region, the word fela, as in the colloquialism for ‘man’, is thrown in willy nilly. And adding em to the end of words also seems to help people’s understanding.
After a couple of months, some effort and a lot of encouragement my Pidgin was fluent enough for a few meaningful conversations, which were enjoyed immensely.
Here are a few words and phrases that will be useful. They are pronounced as they are read, with short vowels and a hard R.
Mi – I
Yu – you
Yumi – us, let’s
Fela(s) – me, him, her, them
Yes – yes
No – no
Stap – stay
Savvy – know
Long – for, in, by, over
Barava – very
Pikinini – child/children
Gud – good
Garem – have
Bae – will
Kai Kai – food
Fis – fish
Kumara – sweet potato
Mi set – I’m set/ready
Moa – more
Lil bit – a little bit
Angre – hungry
Fullup – full of food
Mi stap lo Honiara lo five days – I will stay in Honiara for five days
Yu garem lil bit moa rice – Do you have a little bit more rice
Mi fela barava angre – I am very hungry
Bae mi go lo boat – I will go to the boat
Yu fela set? – Are you ready?
Yu garem pikinini? – Do you have children?
No moa kai kai mi fullup – No more food for me, I’m full