Daily Archives: 25 September 2007

English as an Indigenous Pacific Island Language

From English on the Bonin (Ogasawara) Islands, by Daniel Long (Duke U. Press, 2007; Publication of the American Dialect Society, no. 91; Supplement to American Speech, vol. 81), pp. 3, 9-10:

IT IS A LITTLE KNOWN LINGUISTIC FACT that among a group of Western Pacific islands English is maintained as a community language of the indigenous population. These are the Bonin Islands. Today, these islands (also called Ogasawara Islands) are part of Japan and their population, Japanese citizens, but the English language has survived there, as both a tool of communication and a marker of their unique identity. This book attempts to provide an outline of the English of the Bonin Islands in its various forms and incarnations from 1830 to the present….

The Bonin Islands appear to have lain completely uninhabited until Pacific Islander women and European and American men of widely varying linguistic backgrounds began to settle there in the early 1800s (see sections 2.1 and 2.2). Evidence from a variety of sources indicates that a Pidgin English (with a substratum formed from the other settlers’ native languages) developed as the community’s common tongue. Later the children born and raised in this language environment are thought to have acquired this as their native language (i.e., creoloidization occurred).

In the 1860s and 1870s, Japan laid claim to the islands and they experienced a huge influx of Japanese settlers. The Japanese established the first-ever schools on the islands, initiating bilingual (English and Japanese) education. Increasingly intense bilingualism initiated the processes of SYNTACTIC CONVERGENCE, leading to the development of a second contact language (a Mixed Language) comprised of a Japanese substratum and a lexicon supplied by the earlier English-based creoloid.

After World War II, the linguistic situation on the islands took another sharp turn when the U.S. Navy took control, allowing only those islanders of “Western” ancestry to live on the islands and subsequently establishing a school conducted in English. This period of American occupation and absolute isolation from Japanese ended abruptly in 1968 when the islands were returned to Japanese rule and the displaced Japanese islanders (living then in mainland Japan for a quarter century) were allowed to return home. The Ogasawara Mixed Language and Ogasawara Creoloid English have long coexisted with Japanese and English acrolects, but increasing mobility and improved communication technology seem to be accelerating decreoloidization and (dare I say) “de-mixed-language-ization.”

In the 170-year linguistic history of the Bonin Islands, the dominant language has shifted from English (from 1830) to Japanese (1876), back to English (1946), and back again to Japanese (1968).

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