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Review of  Pitkern-Norf’k

Reviewer: David Douglas Robertson
Book Title: Pitkern-Norf’k
Book Author: Peter Mühlhäusler
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 32.2182

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(xx + 416 pp.) In the same year as RMW Dixon’s “Edible Gender”, another influential Australian linguist offers a kind of summary of his own life’s work; in this instance, a pillar of contact linguistics brings his decades of fieldwork and thinking to bear on a curiously under-researched yet long-documented speech variety. Ten chapters, some of them very unconventional, sketch what Peter Mühlhäusler (M) has to report about Pitkern-Norf’k (P-N, the language of the descendants of the Bounty mutineers of 1789) and about larger issues.

His novel first chapter, “Ontology” (1-27), apparently took some negotiating with the series editor to get included. This section of the book contemplates what a language is, or a dialect or creole etc., highlighting the fact that different observers have different answers. In short, insiders (P-N speakers, who are by definition community members) have a radically different view from those of outsiders (including everyone from tourists to linguists). The latter have labeled P-N as a creole, a semi-creole, a dialect of English, and in other ways; the islanders, meanwhile, have customarily not spoken of or in their language in the presence of outsiders. The perspectival differences are instructive, and the author, insisting that a language is not an object but a constant process of human interaction with an environment, comes down on the side of leaving it to the islanders to determine what their language is and how it is to be handled.

Chapter 2 “Orthography and Spelling Issues” (29-62) views its subject from the lens of P-N’s having been a primarily oral language throughout its history. Writing and reading, and by extension speech with outsiders, have from the founding generation of Pitcairners been dominated by standard English, in a diglossic situation that contributed to the islanders’ own language having been overlooked so often. Their descendants on Norfolk have come to write P-N more often as consciousness of its distinctness and its endangerment rise, surfacing issues of language planning and of gaining community acceptance of an orthography. M analyzes suggested orthographies for their structural consistency, societal buy-in, and etymological transparency, etc. He showcases various P-N writing systems, and proposes such approaches as quantum linguistics (Bailey 1996), ecolinguistics (cf. Mühlhäusler 2008b) and integrational linguistics (cf. Mühlhäusler 2018) as explanations for why a technically concise alphabet can nevertheless be rejected by a community. All dimensions of an environment, be they physical or social, must be duly considered by anyone aiming for a realistic understanding of a language spoken therein.

Chapter 3 “Geography, Demography, Cultural Factors” (63-100) implements this approach. He considers the influence on P-N of geography, including isolation, mountainous terrain; biological environment, encompassing plant and animal life; demographics; local culture; and contacts both among the founding cultures (English, Tahitian) and with outsiders.

Chapter 4 “Phonetics and Phonology” (101-133) proceeds from an acknowledgment that P-N is an “unfocused” language of a small population having many and varying role models over time (101). The phonology is not necessarily uniform, and data have been recorded in a profusion of notational systems by observers of greatly varying skill. M considers potential early influences from the founders’ languages, shows a “tentative” inventory of phonemes (124-125), and notes several processes and overall traits of P-N phonology.

The extensive Chapter 5 “Inflectional Morphology and Syntax” (135-200) proceeds from a similar observation, that P-N grammar leaks and that the islanders’ expectations of him as a grammar writer are at variance with his linguistic peers’. M is especially critical of generativist-style ideas such as that language is an object having a rational composition. He notes previous research, historical developments in P-N syntax, differences between P and N, before moving on to traditionally addressed areas. These include inflectional morphology, syntactic categories, phrase formation, representation of space, possession, and simple and complex sentences.

The similarly substantial Chapter 6 “Lexicon” (201-55) also begins with an acknowledgment of shortcomings of lexical documentation as usually practiced, and seeks to remedy them by working from M’s own database of vastly more P-N items than have previously been recorded. He takes on issues around words that not all speakers agree are P-N, and disputes that it is somehow a lexically deficient language. The historical development and etymological composition of it are examined, and nine pages are devoted to its unusual wealth of eponyms. Certain P-N words are of unresolvable etymology, and of simultaneously Tahitian and English provenance, while most are traceable to specific varieties of one of those languages, notably St. Kitts (Caribbean) Creole. Certain semantic domains have favored Tahitian over English, or vice versa, and P and N have definite lexical differences. Important lexical fields include plant names, basketry terminology, and whaling vocabulary. “Multifunctionality”, affixation, and reduplication are shown to be rare, but compounding and lexical phrases abundant. Both lexical attrition and some neologizing have recently occurred.

Chapter 7 “Discourse Features and Pragmatics” (257-291) examines language in use through a Hymesian ethnography-of-speaking approach. A rich section highlights local genres (273-278) and the speech acts that typify P-N (279-290).

Chapter 8 “External History and Changes in Progress” is concerned with diachronic factors that have crucially shaped P-N, including pre-mutiny language contacts and biographies of individuals who can be shown to have particularly influenced the nascent language. Further stages include the emergence of a stable diglossia in P-N and English, influences from newcomers and visitors, a disastrous relocation to Tahiti resulting in P-N’s solidification as an in-group language, emigration to Norfolk making it pluricentric, and intense contact with outsiders due to World War 2 and easy modern travel. Efforts to recognize the language’s unique value and to revitalize it are assessed.

Chapter 9 “History of Research” (343-382) weighs both overt and negative evidence on P-N. The author considers why this language was hardly noticed by most visitors and linguists for generations; in succeeding sections titled “The Motives”, “The Means”, “Opportunity”, and “The Usual Suspects”, he names the previous researchers and evaluates them individually, not omitting himself. He concludes that the cumulative total of research into P-N has been unsatisfactory, largely due to a failure to grasp how the language integrates with islander society.

Chapter 10 “Conclusions and Findings” (383-395) brings the expected summation, but also a meditation on the motives that have led M to research this language, and to do so on such a long term and deep basis. Here again he reconsiders the nature of what linguistics studies, and how linguists choose to do so. Participant observation, acknowledging context in many dimensions at all times, is the essence of what he has found to produce different and more rewarding results from previous work.

The printed book includes a Foreword (vii-viii), Acknowledgments (ix-xi), Contents (xiii-xx), References (397-416). Appendices of data on the topics noted above, equal in length to the book, are downloadable free of charge online at


To begin with the last point mentioned above, it is a small unfortunate oversight that the Appendices, while cited in the text, are not indexed there, nor is their online location mentioned. (They lack indexing online as well.) In fact, curiously, there are no Indexes at all in this information-dense book.

The other unconventional features of “Pitkern-Norf’k”, however, are a great net positive, lending welcome perspective to the linguist’s enterprise of analyzing and describing a speech variety in a way that will be recognizable to its speakers and usable by one’s colleagues. I came away keenly interested in knowing more about ecolinguistics, having seen M use it to compellingly explain multifarious traits of this language that most extant theoretical approaches would have little or nothing enlightening to say about, and would thus be less able to render a thoughtful depiction of P-N. His theoretical stance is not stated up front by M (page 61 seems to be its first mention), and an earlier introduction of it it might help readers to grasp the stance behind what he says in the first two chapters.

Similarly, the introductory materials might benefit from the addition of a timeline of the islanders’ history, because several locally important events such as ‘repolynization’ (a conscious reintroduction of Tahitian cultural elements) and ‘recolonization’ (Australia’s removal of local autonomy from Norfolk) are invoked without explanation.

Not an omission but a stumbling block may be met by many readers navigating the mind-boggling array of writing systems in which example data are shown; this tactic is true to M’s honoring of various points of view, but it mirrors objective history in retarding the building-up of a coherent picture of the language. As I understand it, the book was being written around 2011, which explains M’s claim (44) that “human beings...process quite different physical signals as mentally the same...This ability is not shared by machines”; although computers have become no more genuinely intelligent, the excellent performance of speech-recognition software in billions of mobile phones in 2021 would seem to undermine this point. It is true that one comes away from this book with a coherent sense of P-N, but as informative as it is to see how previous researchers have perceived and portrayed the language, some sort of ad hoc standardization of the example data would probably have made for an even smoother read than this approachable book already is.

There is a great deal of compelling data-grounded critique of standard linguistics in this book, which is more than worth the cover price. To take examples from page 101, M’s insistence that proper names must be included in any serious full analysis of a language – one reason being that the phonology of these frequent types in daily speech tends to change more slowly over time than other lexemes do – rightly spotlights what is an enormous gap in linguistic business as usual. (On page 141 his sensitivity to names in the lexicon further allows him to note that eponymous adjectives do not take the same range of affixes as others.) His acknowledgment that P-N is a sociologically unfocused (quite variable) language of a very small community is a rarity, but it allows him to reach the insight that certain standard tools of linguists such as the comparative method, internal reconstruction, and variationist methods, cannot be assumed to be applicable to all languages.

In many instances M provides so much data that the reader can go beyond evaluating the author’s claims and perhaps expand on them, a welcome change from the common approach of supplying only just enough data to convincingly show a simple pattern. He observes that there are apparently homophonous morphs that directly follow a verb stem, the optional passive “-et” and the obligatory personless anaphoric pronoun “et”. These can be exemplified with sentences from page 196:

- “Myse horse dar gude fer see et” (ANAPHOR)
(‘My horse is really good to see’)

- “Seed se ready jes fe pick(et)” (PASSIVE)
(‘The seeds were ready to be picked’)

The reader might further speculate that these morphs are a single item, or that e.g. the passive developed from the anaphor. Particularly by exploiting the singularly voluminous Appendices, linguists reading this volume should be able to conduct further research of their own, which is perhaps the highest compliment to M’s stated mission of total language description.

A final observation regarding M’s embrace of ecolinguistics and integration linguistics: on page 291 he offers a critique of the limitations of the approaches that he has brought to bear, “all of which fall short of delivering what I had hoped to deliver. Integrational Linguistics and Ecolinguistics offer many valuable theoretical insights into human communication but as yet lack the methods of dealing with large bodies of empirical evidence.” Possessed of such self-critique, M is a thoughtful practitioner rather than a follower of those theories. He has in fact produced what is by far the fullest document among the many to have appeared in the literature on P-N, and it is also one of the best on any English-derived contact variety.

This book is highly accessible to readers who have any level of comfort with linguistic terminology, as the author tries to define terms as they come up. It might supply excellent material for language activists, for undergraduate or higher seminars in language contact or descriptive linguistics, or indeed for courses on world Englishes.


Bailey, Charles-James N. 1996. Essays on time-based linguistic analysis. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mühlhäusler, Peter. 2008b. Diachronic approaches to ecolinguistics: The changing language ecology of Norfolk Island. In Martin Döring, Hermine Penz, Wilhelm Trampe (eds.), Language, signs and nature: Ecolinguistic dimensions of environmental discourse, 219-234. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl.

Mühlhäusler, Peter. 2018. What creolistics can learn from ecolinguistics. In Alwin F. Fill and Hermine Penz (eds.), The Routledge handbook of ecolinguistics, 135-148. New York and London: Routledge.
David Douglas Robertson, PhD, is a consulting linguist working on the historical development and structural workings of Chinuk Wawa, Lower Chehalis Salish, and other Pacific Northwest languages in contact.