Sunday, April 20, 2014

Pacific English

One of the reasons I haven’t added to this blog for some time is that I’ve been out of Asia. Now that I’m back I thought I would write an entry about English in the Pacific island nations of Fiji and Tonga. This is slightly off topic, but both have some interesting Asian connections.

Fiji was a British colony from 1874 to 1970. The Union Jack forms part of its flag and Queen Elizabeth appears on its banknotes. Perhaps it is not surprising that most people speak English - but as I have suggested before (e.g. in the April, 2009 entry on the ‘invasion’ of English), the connection between colonialism and language is rarely direct. In the case of Fiji there seem to be several reasons favouring English, some dating to colonial times and others more recent.

The first is that there are two distinct ethnic groups. Nearly 60% are Fijians, who started settling the islands more than 5000 years ago and seem to have come mainly from the Melanesian islands to the west, with others from Tonga and elsewhere in the Pacific. About 40% are Indo-Fijians, descended from Indians brought by the British in the 19th century to develop agriculture. Many Indo-Fijians speak some Fijian, a language sharing common origins with Malay based on the dialect of one of Fiji's smaller islands. But few Fijians speak Fiji-Hindi, the main language of the Indians. This means that English is an important bridge between the two groups.
English is also the main language of education. As in many multilingual developing countries, local languages (i.e. Fijian and Hindi) are limited mostly to the early years of elementary school. Although many secondary schools target different ethnic groups (partly because the Indians tend to be Hindu or Muslim whereas the Fijians are nearly all Christian), both teach mostly in English. It is the language of higher education, with many institutions supported by Australia and New Zealand. Some students go to those two countries to further their studies, and others go to the various campuses of the University of the South Pacific (USP), not only in Fiji but also in other Commonwealth nations in the region.
Alongside sugar, Fiji’s most important industry is tourism, with most visitors coming from Australia and New Zealand. Culturally too, with a national obsession with rugby, the country is closely linked to these countries, and thus to their language.

My main interest in visiting Fiji was to look at the legal system. Given the importance of English in other areas, I was not surprised to find the courts using that language for proceedings. Interestingly, every court had a clerk who was fluent not only in English but also in Fijian and often in Hindi too. I never heard a judge speak any language other than English, and the court clerks were kept busy translating for people who did not understand the language so well.

Tonga has just 100,000 people, making it 10% the size of Fiji, and all of them speak Tongan. Although part of the Commonwealth, it was never formally colonised by Britain and has its own royal family. I therefore expected Tongan, which is the national language, to be more important than English.

In general that is probably true. When I went to the Magistrates Court, for example, proceedings were entirely in Tongan. There are now has many Chinese inhabitants (in a scheme to earn foreign currency, over 4000 have been granted citizenship in the last ten years), and two of the cases I saw involved burglaries on Chinese shops. I was expecting the Chinese witnesses to speak Mandarin or English and was surprised that they spoke quite fluently in Tongan.

I also learned that all laws are published in Tongan (as well as English), and that the national language must be used for debate in parliament. However, as in Fiji, English is very important in education. Many schools are run by international Christian organisations and teach in it. Although the University of the Pacific has a local campus, many people seeking a degree have to go overseas. Most lawyers, for example, study at the USP campus in Vanuatu, while others go to Auckland and Sydney.

Despite the use of Tongan in the lower courts, in the higher courts everything is in English. As far as I could tell, everyone in the courtroom except myself and the judge was from Tonga. But if defendants or witnesses spoke in Tongan, it was translated into English. (On the other hand, not everything spoken in English was translated for their benefit into Tongan.) I was given two reasons. First, every Tongan lawyer and judge has trained in English, so it is considered the language of law, except for the simple cases heard in the lower courts. Indeed the barristers look just like their counterparts in London, with wigs and black gowns – except that they wear sarongs and sandals. The second reason is that nearly all the judges are from Australia or New Zealand. I was told this was to prevent corruption: with only 100,000 people, most locals seem to know each other, and so it might be difficult to ensure impartial decisions without using outsiders.

When I looked at some laws written in Tongan I was impressed by how many local words exist for legal and business terms. On closer reading I noticed that many have been adapted from English to the sounds of Tongan. Examples include: Ateni Seniale (Attorney General), komisiona (commissioner), konisitutone (constitution), holoseila (wholesale), lesisita (registration), laiseni (licensing), peilifi (bailiff) and pisinisi (business).