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Littell's Living Age/Volume 128/Issue 1655/"Pigeon English"

From The Pall Mall Gazette.


It is quite possible that before very long the shout "You wan-che one pe-sze boat?" which greets the ears of every visitor to Hong Kong as the anchor drops into the still waters which lie at the base of Victoria peak will be no more heard. At last English merchants are beginning to be ashamed of making use of a jargon which would never have existed but for their strange unwillingness to acquire even a smattering of the language spoken by the people among whom they were destined to live. Grammars, dictionaries, and vocabularies in the local dialects are now beginning to find their way into houses into which they have never hitherto been admitted, and some masters and mistresses have set an example which it is to be hoped will be followed — of communicating with their servants in Chinese, even though they speak it imperfectly, to the exclusion of the gibberish which up to this time has been their solitary means of intercommunication. On the other hand, a generation of Chinaman is growing up which has learned to speak English grammatically in the schools established at Hong Kong and at the treaty ports. There is therefore some prospect that, what between English-speaking Chinamen and Chinese-speaking Englishmen, that diseased growth yclept "pigeon English" will soon cease to exist.

A certain amount of interest must always attach to any form of speech which has acquired even a temporary separate existence, and this at least "pigeon English" can plead for itself. It is too soon yet to pronounce a funeral oration over it, but as opposing forces proclaim that its days are numbered, and as very little is known in England of the rubbish which our countrymen are talking in China, it may not be out of place to glance briefly at its origin and characteristics.

To call it English, even when qualified by the word "pigeon"(i.e. "business"), is a misnomer. It is a mixture of English and Portuguese words tortured into Chinese idioms, and when it is added that only a very small percentage of these words are at all correctly pronounced, the outcome may be imagined. Only a few specimens of this lingo have found their way into English literature. The parodies on "Excelsior" and "My name is Norval," which begin, "That nightey time begin chop-chop," and "My name belongey Norval," are, with few exceptions, the only scraps we have on record. But these lines, absurd as they are, are improvements on "pigeon English" pure and simple. This is to be found only in the native vocabularies published for the benefit of compradores and servants entering the service of English masters. We may take one as a specimen of this class of work. It is a little volume of some twelve or fifteen pages, and is entitled "A Vocabulary of Words in common use among the Red-haired People." Its outer cover is adorned with a full-length portrait of one of the red-haired race dressed in the costume of the Georgian period, in breeches and stockings, and armed with stick and sword.

The author begins with the English numerals, and gets over "one" and "two" very creditably, but "te-le"is his nearest approach to "three" the letter r is an insuperable difficulty to a Chinaman—"sik-sze" to "six," and "sam"to "seven." "Ten" he pronounces, as though he had been tutored in the Emerald Isle, "tin;" "lim" stands for "eleven," "tui-lip" for "twelve," "toon-te" for "twenty," "one huntoon" for "a hundred," "one taou-shan" for "a thousand." In Chinese there is always inserted between the numeral and the substantive to which it applies a word which it is customary to call a classifier, since it points to the kind of object represented by the substantive. For example, instead of saying "two knives," a Chinaman would say "two to-be-held-in-the-hand knives;" or, instead of "a table," he would say "one length table." These various classifiers the authors of pigeon English have melted down into one word, "piece." The writer therefore translates the Chinese equivalent of our indefinite article as "one pe-sze," and a knife he would render by "one pe-sze nai-fo." The use in Chinese of the verb "to have," which is to be pronounced "hap," has given rise to strange confusions. "No hap" is the orthodox expression for "not at home," and a death is announced by "hap tai" (has died). In the same way "fashionable" becomes hap fa-sze (fashion); "to be busy," "hap pigeon;" and "to be at leisure," "hap tim."

Expressions relating to sailors are, as would naturally be expected, of frequent occurrence in the vocabulary. "A young officer" is a "mit-chi-man" (midshipman), "a second mate" is a "sik-kan mit," a sailor" is a "say-le man," and "ready money" is "nip-te ka-she" (liberty cash). About military rank less is known. "Sho-che man" (soldier man) is the only equivalent of a military officer, and is held to include all ranks from the general downwards, the only other distinction recognized in this service being the "kan-a man," or "artillery man." It is descriptive of the state of foreign society in China to find that "a wealthy man" is translated into a "ma-chin" (merchant). The relations of life bear strange and unusual guises in "pigeon English." A wife speaks of her spouse as her "ha-sze man," and he of her as his "wai-fo." A friend is a "fo-lin" — here the r is again a puzzle; and an uncle is a "yeung-ke."

To enable him to converse with his future English master the would-be servant should make himself acquainted with such "common phrases" as "ting-ke" (thank you), "how mut-che ka-she" (how much cash), "ko aou sai" (to go out), "ko sit-te" (to go into the city), or "ko hom" (to return home); and he is given to understand that when his master says to him, "I ko she-lip," that he is going to sleep; or that if he receive the order, "No sze-pik-ke," he is not to speak. The Portuguese element in the jargon is noticeable in words such as "man-te-lin"(mandarin), "pa-te-le"(for padre, priest), and "sa-pe" (saber, to know).

The above specimens are sufficient to show the grotesque absurdity of "pigeon English." But its absurdity is not its worst feature. Its general use among foreigners at the ports has tended to create an impassable gulf between them and their Chinese neighbours. It has entirely prevented the one from gaining any intelligent information about the other. "Belong aou-lo custom," or "Belong joss pigeon," is the sum-total of the explanation which the Chinese in foreign employ are able to give of any ancient oriental rite or any strange local custom; and the same words are all that their masters have at their command to convey to an inquiring employé the meaning of any of our English usages. Thus it has been the means of stereotyping blunders and of perpetuating misunderstandings; and it does not say much for the enterprising intelligence of British merchants in China that they should have been content to accept this wretched jargon as their vernacular for more than a quarter of a century, without making an effort either to learn Chinese or to teach their servants English.