The Tiny Island Where Men Have Their Own Language

Arika Okrent
Ngatik island (left) on the Sapwuahfik atoll.
Ngatik island (left) on the Sapwuahfik atoll. / Image ISS002-E-6383 courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center
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In 1837, the British cutter Lambton sailed to Ngatik (now Sapwuahfik), a tiny atoll in Micronesia. On orders from Captain Charles “Bloody” Hart, who hoped to take control of the valuable supply of tortoise shells he believed to be there, the crew massacred all the men on the island. They left behind some European and Pohnpeian crew members and made an Irishman named Paddy Gorman “chief.” The sailors claimed the widowed women on the island as their wives. Over the next few decades, other groups arrived. 

Today, the islanders speak a dialect of the Pohnpeian language of the region. But there is another language spoken on the island that is spoken only by men. Alternatively called Ngatikese Men’s Language, Ngatik Men’s Creole, or Ngatikese Pidgin, the language was described by Darrell Tryon, the late, well-known linguist of Austronesian languages [PDF]. The women and children on the island can understand the language (and according to some experts, women will use it jokingly), but it’s primarily used among men engaged in activities like fishing and boat-building.

Ngatikese Men’s Language developed from an English-based pidgin—one of many in the region—and the Ngatik dialect of Pohnpeian, but after an initial surge, it resisted further mixing thanks to the fact that Ngatik lies so far from the main shipping routes of the region. Today, it remains a sort of preserved historical crumb dropped from a passing ship. It is the echo of the voices of those 19th century sailors.

This makes it different from the other pidgins/creoles of the region, such as Tok Pisin and Bislama, which developed over a long period of steady contact with shipboard language, and have many features in common with each other. For example, many of those languages use something like blong or bilong (from “belong”) as a marker of possession, and bambae or bambai (“by and by”) as a marker of future tense. Ngatikese Pidgin uses kon ko (“going to go”) instead of bambai and possessive pronouns instead of blong (hi nihm, “his name” as opposed to Bislama’s nem blong em), features that make it more similar to the New South Wales Pidgin of the 1820s and ‘30s, now extinct.

Overall, the Ngatikese Men’s Language is more Ngatikese than English. Most of the words and grammatical structure come from Ngatikese. The English and English-based pidgin used by the European and Pohnpeian sailors eventually receded, but there remained this one strange little practice, this thing that men do, that preserves a piece of tragic history from another time.

A version of this story ran in 2013; it has been updated for 2023.

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