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Preserving an ancient dialect

16 March 20160 comments

Five thousand kilometers east of Sydney and five hundred kilometers north-west of Rarotonga lies Palmerston Island, a remote Pacific atoll where unparalleled isolation has allowed a unique dialect to be preserved and untouched by outside forces that have shaped the commonplace concept of language.

Settled and annexed from the British government by Englishman William Marsters and his two Polynesian wives in the early 1860s, Palmerston Island is home to just 50 families – all descendants of the settler – and remains impervious to forces of globalisation.

Palmerston Island lies five thousand kilometres east of Sydney and five hundred kilometers north-west of Rarotonga

Palmerston Island lies five thousand kilometres east of Sydney and five hundred kilometers north-west of Rarotonga

At least three days’ boat journey from the nearest civilisation, the island is a rare opportunity to observe how an ancient dialect can survive and flourish true to its original form.

Dr Rachel Hendery, of the Western Sydney University Digital Humanities Group, was granted access into a Palmerston Island to observe and discover how the distinctive language has endured.

There is “not much in the way of direct communication with the rest of the world”. In 2009, the remote island consisted of one satellite telephone, which was expensive to use and not very reliable, according to Dr Hendery.

This segregation provides a unique research environment and an “unparalleled example of how human civilization can evolve in isolation”, says Dr Hendery.

When Mr Marsters left England in the mid-1800s, the “idea of a ‘standard language’ with a correct way to speak and so on was not yet as widespread as it is today”, according to Dr Hendery.

“An acceptance of lots of different dialects” was prevalent, says Dr Hendery, an attitude that has remained rife on Palmerston Island.

“Palmerston Islanders are comfortable with and even proud of their dialect”, according to Dr Hendery. It is “only really from outsiders that they hear the idea that they speak ‘bad English’ or that the way they speak is uneducated”, says Dr Hendery.

“I don’t think they consider their language to be a separate language or dialect in its own right – it’s just the way they speak”, says Dr Hendery.

In the “rest of the English-speaking world, I think there’s much more widespread beliefs in ‘good’ ways of speaking and ‘bad English’, and most people want to classify dialects and accents to pin down where speakers come from”, an attitude that Palmerston Island does not represent, according to Dr Hendery.

For Dr Hendery, it is certainly the seclusion of the island that has led to the preservation of the dialect.

While the island now has mobile phones and wifi, they “do not seem to use them very much, and I suspect the system goes down a lot”, Dr Hendery asserts.

Dr Hendery compares Palmerston Island with Norfolk Island, which was primarily settled by small groups of native Pitcainers, but now they are merely “a small minority” of the Island’s population.

The Pitcairn-Norfolk language is mostly used in private and unofficial conversations and contexts, while Palmerston English is still used in almost all contexts, says Dr Hendery.

“There are a lot of distinctions made between these traditional Norfolk Islanders and newcomers, and it’s a very different atmosphere from what we find on Palmerston”, according to Dr Hendery.

When asked about the impact of outsiders on the community, Dr Hendery told AMES Australia that currently “people have an immense obligation to look after each other because they are all families… outsiders would dilute that”.

Dr Hendery draws a further parallel between Rarotonga and Palmerston.

According to Dr Hendery, in early 2000s there were fewer tourists in Rarotonga, and locals would offer fruit from their gardens while visitors where able to explore the island freely.

Dr Hendery observes that this “isn’t possible anymore because of the sheer amount of visitors to Rarotonga”.

For Dr Hendery, this influx has resulted in Rarotonga being “much more like other tourist spots in the Pacific” and a “very different experience to visit now”, something that should be avoided for Palmerston Island.

Primarily the elders on the island were “skeptical” of her presence on the island, due to the “colonial history of how Europeans have often taken things from people in the Pacific… in a one-sided and sometimes violent manner”, Dr Hendery commented.

“I was actually overwhelmed with the hospitality and generosity with which I was treated”, says Dr Hendery, who was fed and hosted for no cost by various families on the island.

This hospitality can only go so far however until outsiders begin having negative effects on the island, according to Dr Hendery.

Dr Rachel Hendery’s recently published research, ‘One Man is an Island’, further explores the community dynamic of the isolated Palmerston Island and the unique species of dialect it as allowed for.


Chloe Tucker
AMES Australia Staff Writer