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20 November 2017updated 04 Oct 2023 9:57am

“Full understand”: The new language of the Lesvos refugee camp

In the crucible of the overcrowded detention centre at Moria, English is undergoing an accelerated evolution.

By Matt broomfield

A: Since two days I am sleep to Moria.

B: Moria is too much alibaba.

A: yes, one man is come for alibaba my ausweis. I am speak him finish. after he is finish. understand?

B: full understand.

Such an exchange would be heard nowhere but the tiny Greek island of Lesvos, where thousands of refugees from scores of countries are still trapped in sordid, overcrowded conditions.

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Any fluent English speaker could follow the conversation in its essentials. And it is unsurprising that simplified English is the lingua franca of Moria prison camp and its environs, spoken between asylum-seekers from formerly-colonised states as disparate as Iraq, Uganda, Pakistan and Burma.

But in the crucible of the overcrowded detention centre at Moria, English is undergoing an accelerated evolution, tentatively beginning to develop its own unique grammar and idiom. My six months working on the island were a crash course in “Lesvos English” – and in the remarkable ways people adapt and communicate as they attempt to survive a worsening humanitarian crisis.

One striking change is the systematic simplification of vocabulary. To commonly stands in for other prepositions such as at, in or on: not only I go to beach now, but also I stay to beach tonight. The phrase too much is similarly overburdened, doing the work of a lot, very, many, and entirely: the camp at Moria is too much full with too much people. Other examples heard many times every day include after in place of then or next, and finish in place of stop, go home and so on.

The simplified terms of Lesvos English are not random, but show how languages are learned. For example, one of the first verbs all students of a foreign language learn is “to speak” – I speak English, I don’t speak Farsi. Thus speak often does the work of say, tell and ask, as in I speak him why?, he speak me because I am hungry. The sense is clear – why complicate matters any further?

In general, English as spoken on Lesvos displays an “isolating morphology”, meaning nouns and words tend to be used in their simplest possible form: I am sleep to Moria, and not I am sleeping. This is a trait typical of many pidgin languages.

Words are added as well as stripped away. One universally-understood idiom is alibaba, the name of the prince of thieves itself commandeered as a euphemism for the act of thievery. It occurs most commonly as verb – today I alibaba one packet of cigarettes – but also as noun or adjective – that place is full alibaba. Locals suspected of looting were nicknamed ‘Ali Baba’ by invading British and American troops during the Iraq War, and the word in time became a derogatory nickname for all Iraqis, but this elastic usage in an English dialect is unique to Lesvos.

Some loan words, such as the universally-used German ausweis for ID papers, were brought to the island by Western activists. Other often-heard phrases are evidently transliterations from Arabic and Farsi, while one common tic is doubling-up pronouns and proper nouns in a sentence to avoid confusion, for example stating Aiwan he go Athens or asking you stay beach you? Reduplication, either for intensification or to create a plural, is a feature of many well-established pidgins.

Refugees at the Moria camp on Lesvos.

Of course, this account is itself a simplification. Many refugees speak lucid, urbane, wickedly funny English, often alongside a mere three or four languages from their region of origin. The trends described here gloss over variations between nationalities and individual speakers, and conversely some of these linguistic tics are not unique to the island, but common to many non-native speakers of English. Is there anything so remarkable about less-able English speakers getting by how they can with a limited vocabulary – a phenomenon which occurs the world over?

But this is precisely what a pidgin is: the messy beginnings of the evolution of speech, a grammatically simplified language which evolves to enable speakers without a common tongue to communicate. Pidgins can be based on two or more original languages, or a simplified primary language like English.

The word pidgin itself is said to derive from a particularly mangled mispronunciation of the word business by Cantonese Chinese merchants in the 17th century. This original pidgin was the lingua franca of trading waterfronts for centuries, until stigma drove it into disuse. (One wonders how many of the British merchants who mocked the dialect bothered to learn rudimentary Cantonese.)

Mere broken English (or French, or Arabic) is not a pidgin. True pidgins “have their own norms of usage which, as with all languages, must be learned to speak the pidgin well.” Much like in Lesvos English, phrases in Chinese Pidgin English are intelligible to native speakers – “this have very poor place and very poor people: no got cloaths, no got rice, no got hog, no got nothing, very little make eat” – but constructed following particular rules, with subtleties an outsider would miss.

Lesvos English is not there yet, but it is certainly beginning to take on particular flavours and forms. Throughout the several months I spent working on the island, I picked up certain patterns of speech that made it far easier to communicate with my refugee colleagues and friends than I did when I arrived.

One could doubtless make similar observations about English as it was spoken in the Calais Jungle, or other hotspots of migration around the globe. Hearing Eritreans and Bangladeshis and Afghanis communicating freely in a boiled-down English presents a vision of the possible future of the language, accelerated and concentrated within the stifling walls of Moria prison camp.

Pidgins which are not eradicated – or abandoned out of shame – evolve into creoles, more highly-evolved languages with their own vocabulary and grammar taught as a first language to children. But Lesvos English is an ephemeral entity. No-one here wants to be stuck on an obscure Greek island speaking improper English, and as the European Union ramps up its programme of deportations it seems likely the majority of the thousands of refugees still stuck here will be deported back to their home countries to face persecution and death, with nothing to show for their troubles save post-traumatic stress disorder, the scars of police beatings and a slightly expanded vocabulary. Those few who secure asylum will exercise their right to move on, continue their studies or find work, and likely soon be speaking fluent English, French or German – if they don’t already.

In a sense, Lesvos English is closer to a very different sort of pidgin: simplified Englishes like the standardised Aviation English used by pilots all over the globe. Aviation English was created to reduce accidents and miscommunications by limiting pilots to a basic vocabulary.

For example, any error must be identified with the word “correction”, rather than “sorry,” “mistake,” or another synonym. There are clear parallels here with the reduced vocabulary of Lesvos English. Prepositions are stripped out of both dialects, while call-and-response exchanges like understand? yes understand and problem? no problem litter every phone call made on Lesvos, serving much the same purpose as Roger or Wilco (‘will comply’) in Aviation English.

One was professionally crafted to prevent catastrophes, and facilitate the free circulation of capital and passport-bearing consumers. The other is being forged in the heat of catastrophe.

Lesvos English may die out. It may evolve into a ghettoised creole spoken only in the militarised refugee camps of Fortress Europe. It is wildly optimistic to hope it will become one of the building blocks of a future lingua franca, spoken to facilitate cross-border communication in a truly multicultural Europe. But it encodes a dogged resistance to a border regime which facilitates communicative capitalism across the globe, as borders which are impassable to people are muddied and erased in speech.

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