November 10, 2006

Partial credit for "pigeon English": not new in New Zealand

A few days ago, there was a small bubble of news reports to the effect that the New Zealand Qualifications Authority was planning to follow the example of the Scottish Qualifications Authority and allow free-form spelling and "texting" abbreviations on the NCEA examinations. But according to a story by Claire Trevett in today's New Zealand Herald, this was all a mistake -- yet another example of the danger of trusting what you read in the mass media, a creative but undisciplined arena that has yet to work out how to impose the checks and balances that we in the blogosphere take for granted.

Bali Haque, deputy chief executive of the authority, said there had been no change to guidelines and there was no specific policy about text language.

However, he warned: "If people are expecting they can come up with an exam script full of text and pass, then they're dreaming.

"Examiners will be expecting the use of the English language in full. I think students are intelligent enough to understand that. Most would know the difference between using formal language in an exam and informal with friends on the weekend."

(If this is really what Mr. Haque said, by the way, it's an interesting example of the word text apparently being used to mean "writing of the kind found in cell-phone text messages".)

The best part of this story, in my opinion, was the statement issued by Bill English, who is described in the story as "National education spokesman Bill English", which apparently means that he is the spokesman for educational matters of the National Party. Mr. English's statement read in part:

This kind of pigeon English is fine for young people organising their social lives, but it is not an acceptable way of expressing an academic argument or idea.

The Education minister, Steve Maharey, used this to explain what story calls "NZQA's policy of forgiving minor mistakes that were understandable in an otherwise strong answer":

The statement is understandable, despite pidgin being spelt p-i-g-e-o-n, as in a bird from the dove family, rather than p-i-d-g-i-n, as in simplified language used between persons of a different nationality. But we will give him credit.

This is a sensible implementation of a sensible policy, familiar to anyone who has graded a set of college essays. I wonder if the Scottish Qualifications Authority case was a similar non-story, blown up by the Guardian and other British papers to fill a hole on a slow day. As we've often observed, the traditional media will never be able to fulfill their undoubted promise as an information source until they can find a way to impose some elementary standards of accuracy and accountability.

[Update -- Ben Zimmer points out that:

Through the late 19th century, "pigeon" was a common variant for "pidgin" -- in fact, "pigeon (English)" predates "pidgin (English)". An early citation for "pigeon English" from 1857 (which I contributed to the OED's latest draft entry) can be found here:

Train, George Francis, An American merchant in Europe, Asia, and Australia.New York, G.P. Putnam, 1857. (p. 101)

On every side of you, Pigeon English - that horrible jargon of multilated baby talk which custom has made law - meets you. From boatwomen to shopmen - house boy to compradore - you hear nothing else. I endeavored to get a copy of Hamlet's soliloquy, which was translated into Pigeon English, but I have failed to do it. I can only remember its commencement.
"To be or not to be" reads: "Can - no can."

"Pidgin English" shows up about a decade later:

Tileston, W. M., "Tea Leaves", Overland monthly and Out West magazine. Volume 3, Issue 6, Dec 1869, pp.539-544

(p. 539) The "pidgin English" which followed, was too much for our untutored intellects to comprehend.

(p. 543) We asked Ah Lum to translate one of the songs for us; but the effort to put the words of one of his native poets into "pidgin English" was too much.

Somehow I doubt that Mr. English was attempting to spell following pre-1869 norms. But this is one more reason to be tolerant of spelling mistakes -- as someone who often makes such mistakes, I certainly have a personal interest in the availability of forgiveness. Though I think that we are still allowed to enjoy the display of self-refuting hypocrisy on the part of the intolerant.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 10, 2006 10:44 AM