Sunday 15 March 2015

Ripablik blong Vanuatu

As we sit safe in our houses in Kilkenny and Clonmel [or indeed Kiev] today, with a bit of frost or a light drizzle, we might reflect on how fortunate we are in the weather. Vanuatu has been in the news briefly (until the next multiple fatality on Irish roads) because Pam the most ferocious storm ever recorded (anywhere?) has just roared across the archipelago with winds records at 250km/h. Some are claiming that Cyclone Zoe, which gave the region a bad drubbing in 2002, was worse. 250km/h should require an extension on the Beaufort Scale which lumps every breeze higher than 120km/h as Force 12 = Hurricane. The map of the island ripablik [L.] is coloured pink to identify areas where you must take precautions against malaria - which is the whole country; so it's not just tropical storms, earthquakes and tsunamis the people of Vanuatu need to concern themselves about.  Before the Republic was established in 1980, the country was a French/British condominium which allowed missionaries of many Christian denominations to come and convert the locals.  But the number of languages far outstrips the numbers of sects: Vanuatu has the highest concentration of languages per capita, anywhere in the world,: there are only about 250,000 people (about as many as the city of Cork) but they speak somewhere around 125 different languages, spread unevenly across 65 inhabited islands.  It's as if the villages of Ferns and Cloyne, as well as absurdly having their own bishop, also each spoke it's own unique language.  I'm guessing that half of these languages are on their last generation of existence. Because you might have to buy a bicycle in the capital, almost everyone in Vanuatu speaks a pidgin called bislama [formerly bêche-de-mer] most of whose vocabulary is derived from English but whose grammar is typical of other Melanesian languages.  Richard Feynman has a famous story of sitting behind two chaps on a plane to Brazil and hearing enough to think that he was eavesdropping on a Portuguese conversation, but one that was not quite right.  It turned out that they were speaking Ladino, the Sephardic equivalent of the Yiddish spoken by the Ashkenazim on Northern Europe.  It's like that with bislama, listen to this propaganda from the .vu government: yumi = us; solwata = the sea; bata nus = snot; nambawan = best; sel blong fingga = fingernail etc.etc. Written down it could be Latin or Athabascan but if you sound out the words their meaning often becomes clear. And don't get me started on Tok Pisin, the equivalent glue that holds the 3,000 language-speakers of New Guinea together in a single nation. In some sense, pidgins can be thought of as a reduced instruction set: a vocabulary limited set of words [N=~5000] with which you can explain any concept at all without jargon; a bit like Globish.  If you're old enough you may remember Let Stalk Strine by Affabeck Lauder ca. 1965 - a guide to the weird pidgin they speak in Australia.

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