Finding out why people 'tok' the way they do
Palo Alto, Calif. — Yumi kechim mani long bank. How's that? Suppose it were spelled like this: You-me catch him money 'long bank.v.m Mean anything now?
In Tok Pisan (literally ''talk pidgin''), the national language of Papua, New Guinea, the sentence translates: ''We two put money in the bank.''
Tok Pisan is one of 250 pidgin and creole languages spoken by an estimated 30 million to 50 million people throughout the world. These languages have become the subject of respectable scholarship lately, and Stanford University is fast becoming its center.
Two Stanford professors, linguist John Rickford and anthropologist James Fox, recently took over the publication of The Carrier Pidgin, an international quarterly newsletter now accepted as the field's academic journal. Stanford's library is ''second to none in the world'' in pidgin-creole acquisitions, says Mr. Fox, and five of Stanford's professors are involved in pidgin-creole studies , making its program the strongest in the field.
Pidgins develop when two groups come together with an immediate need to communicate, but neither has the time nor inclination to learn the other's language. Often, the pidgin takes flight and a full-fledged language develops.
If a pidgin language is spoken by a second generation as its mother tongue, Mr. Rickford says, it becomes creole.
''I grew up speaking a creole language,'' says Rickford, who was born and raised in Guyana. ''I was fascinated by the fact that the language was socially stigmatized. Respectability was denied, yet I saw people using it in effective, creative ways.'' When Rickford came to the United States to study literature in 1968 and discovered American academics who were taking creole studies seriously, he switched to linguistics.
In addition to Stanford, the other centers of pidgin-creole studies are the University of Indiana, City University of New York, the University of Michigan, the University of Hawaii, and the University of Texas.
Ian Hancock, who teaches creolistics and languages of the black world at the University of Texas, says such study goes back to 1880. ''But it was marginal because of the social situation of the people who spoke it.'' The US black civil-rights movement made its study respectable, he says.
The English language is now peppered with expressions of pidgin origin. ''Chow'' (used in the US as a slang term for food) derives from the Chinese ''ch'ao,'' meaning to stir or fry or boil. ''Savvy'' is a direct descendant of the Portuguese word meaning ''to know.'' And the 1930s song ''Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?'' preserves the double-emphastic, double-negative structure common to creoles.
To linguists, the study of pidgins and creoles is important for what it reveals about the development of language. ''Pidgins and creoles are the linguistic counterpart of the geneticist's fruit flies,'' says Fox. As the fruit fly's short life cycle makes it an ideal subject for genetic testing, pidgins - which exhibit a great amount of linguistic change in short periods - give linguists the chance to study developmental changes firsthand.
The first pidgins emerged in the 15th century, the result of Portuguese colonization of equatorial Africa and Indonesia. The majority of pidgin languages still are spoken in third-world tropical countries, says Fox.
Fletcher Christian gave wings to one hybrid language. On April 28, 1789, Mr. Christian set the nefarious Captain Bligh adrift, and the Bounty sailed to the island of Tabuai, where the crew took Polynesian wives and slaves. The group eventually settled on the uninhabited island of Pitcairn. Though most of the original Polynesians, and all but two of the British men were killed off within a few years, their language - a blend of Polynesian and English - survived. Pitcairnese is still spoken today.
One of the most fascinating English creoles is ''Gullah,'' the language of ''Daddy Jack'' in Joel Chandler Harris's ''Uncle Remus.'' Gullah, still spoken on the Sea Islands off the coast of North Carolina and in some parts of Texas, is the precursor of contemporary Black English, Rickford says.
He studied the ''decreolization'' (push toward standard English) of Gullah by recording the speech patterns of older and younger generations on the Sea Islands. He was able to observe the transition from Gullah (''He does be sleeping'') to a closer approximation of Black English as it is spoken today (''He be sleeping'').
According to some linguists, Gullah emerged in the 18th century when African slaves in the US developed a mixture of English and their native languages. Mr. Hancock of Texas, a leading authority on English-based creoles, says, however, that recent research shows Gullah developed in Africa years before the intermarriage of European sailors and African women.