B. Traven on ‘Yorikkian English’

With so many different nationalities aboard, it would have been impossible to sail the Yorikke unless a language had been found that was understood by the whole crew.  From that Syrian, who of all living people I have ever met knew the Yorikke longest and best, I had learned that the universal language used on the Yorikke had been usually the language most widely known at the time on the seven seas.  When the Yorikke was still a virgin maiden the language spoken by her crew was Babylonian; later it changed to Persian, then to Phœnician.  Then came a time when the Yorikkian language was a mixture of Phœnician, Egyptian, Nubian, Latin, and Gaul.  After the Roman Empire was destroyed by the Jews, through the means of a renegade puffed-up religious movement, with Bolshevik ideas in it, the language on the Yorikke was a mixture of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabian, and Hebrew.  This lasted until the Spanish Armada was knocked out.  Then French influence became more dominant in the lingo of the Yorikke.  At Abukir the Yorikke was on the side of the French, and old man Nelson took her as a prize.  He sold her to a cotton-dealer and shipping agent in Liverpool, who in turn sold her to English pirates who worked the Spanish Main, then already in its declining glory.  Anyway, from that time on until today the lingo on the Yorikke was English.  At least that was the name the language was given, to distinguish it from any other language known under the moon.

Only the skipper spoke English that was without flaws.  A prof of Oxford could not have spoken it any better.  But the lingo spoken by the rest was such that Chinese pidgin English would be considered elegant compared with the Yorikkian English.  A new comer, even a limey, a cockney, or a Pat, would have quite a lot of trouble during the first two weeks before he could pick up sufficient Yorikkian to make himself understood and to understand what was told him.

Every sailor of any nationality knows some thirty English words, which he pronounces in such a way that after half an hour you may get a rough idea of what he wishes to say.  Each sailor, though, does not have the same vocabulary as the others, and hardly two have the same pronunciation of the same word.  Living together and working together, each sailor picks up the words of his companions, until, after two months or so, all men aboard have acquired a working knowledge of about three hundred words common to all the crew and understood by all.  To this vocabulary are added all the commands, which are given without exception in English, but in a degenerated cockney flavored with Irish and Scotch, the r’s and ch’s mostly out of place.  This lingo, of course, is enlarged by words which are brought in by sailors who, owing to their lack of the right words, have to use occasionally words of their own home-made language.  These words, used over and over again, are, after a while, picked up by others and used at the proper place.  Since usually one fireman at least was a Spaniard, it had become proper to use for water and for fuel never any other words but agua and carbón.  Even the engineers used these words.

We found ourselves able to tell each other any story we wanted to.  Our stories did not need more than three hundred and fifty different words, more or less.  And when a good story, born in the heart and raised in the soul and fattened on one’s own bitter or sweet experiences, had been told, there was nothing left unexplained or misunderstood.  They all could have been printed, but, of course, it must be added that no bookstore would have sold two copies and bookstore-keeper, printer, and publisher would have been in the pen for thirty years.

Regardless of how far from the academic the Yorikkian English strayed, the fundamentals remained English; and whenever a newcomer hopped on who spoke English as his mother tongue, the Yorikkian lingo once more was purified and enriched with new words or with a better pronunciation of words which by long misuse had lost their adherence to the family.

A sailor is never lost where language is concerned.  He always can make himself fairly well understood, no matter which coast he is thrown upon.  He surely will find his way to an answer to the old question: when do we eat? Yet whoever survived the Yorikke could never be frightened any more during his lifetime by anything.  For him nothing had become impossible as long as it was within reach of a courageous man.

(from The Death Ship, B. Traven, 1934)

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3 Comments

  1. M. Jones said,

    July 9, 2009 at 4:01 am

    I finally leave a comment. The site is dope, no its better than that the site is the freshest blog to cross my eyes in some time. Nice work and its clear you have been really studying. A hobby outside of girls and the IWW, I have to change my whole theory on you.
    Great Traven post. Shows just how much he understood how people communicate. This had slipped by me, I had mostly thought of how he discusses the relationship between a worker and a machine (he even has Pippin talking to the wench which might make for another post) and the bonds that develop out of our labour.
    Makes me think about work here. The bottle line is so loud we rely a lot on hand signals and reading lips. When I am not working I catch myself leaning in close to read someones lips or utilizing the same hand signals.
    Anyone who has every played cribbage with an old sailor knows that they have some interesting words and terms that are used. Traven clearly spent some time in this environment. Reminds me of one last story from when I first started at UPS. There was a guy there from deep south, Alabama or something. I could not understand a word he was saying. I would go in a trailer to work with him, he would ask something and I would stare blank. Tood a few weeks, maybe a month before I was able to make out his request, but still to this day I have an easier time when I am getting yelled at by a southerner.

  2. catalina said,

    May 20, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    Beautiful! As a girl that appreciates everything deliciously weird about languages, I’ll be coming back!

  3. thedialect said,

    December 31, 2013 at 1:59 am

    Glad you paid a visit Catalina!


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