Colonial borrowing from ‘exotic’ languages:

Captain Cook and the English Vocabulary


Douglas Gray, “Captain Cook and the English vocabulary.” Five hundred years of words and sounds: a festschrift for E.J. Dobson. Ed. E.G. Stanley and Douglas Gray. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1093. 49-62.


Captain James Cook

§       where? Pacific Ocean

o      Australasia

o      Polynesia

o      Antarctica

o      NW coast of North America

§       when? 1768-71, 1772-75, 1776-79


Effect on English language

§       instrumental in its spread to Australasia

§       place names and geographical features

§       flora and fauna, e.g.

o      the Cook pine araucaria cooki

o      the large wild pig of New Zealand (“Captain Cooker”)

§       loanwords, mostly from Polynesia

o      most names of “animals, plants, foods, implements, or customs”

o      only 3 regularly used in Standard English: kangaroo, tattoo, taboo


Need or prestige?

“It is probably misleading, even in this extreme case of a totally strange animal, to think simply of a ‘gap’ in the lexis which ‘needed’ to be filled in this way.”

§       could have used existing words:

o      for kangaroo, hare, deer, jerboa

§       report: “an animal something less than a grey hound, it was of a Mouse Colour very slender made and swift of foot

§       Cook: “of a light Mouse colour and the full size of a grey hound and shaped in every respect like one, with a long tail which it carried like a grey hound, in short I should have taken it for a wild dog, but for its walking or runing in which it jumped like a Hare or a dear

§       Banks: “making vast bounds just as the Jerbua (Mus Jaculus) does

o      for tattoo, “painting”

§       British predecessor Wallis (cf. peinture by Bougainville)

§       Banks could have produced a new ‘scientific’ name

o      e.g. platypus (“that even more extraordinary Australian animal”) “eternizes its flat-footedness

§       other recorded rivals ornithorhyncus ‘bird-bill’ (1800), duck-mole (1819)


Why a loanword?

§       very weird animal: “it is clear that the visitors found ‘the animal’ very unusual, and quite unlike others that were known”

o      was called ‘the animal before mentioned’ for weeks in the journals!

§       interested observers: “some at least of these visitors were themselves very unusual in their keenness to record and describe fauna and flora and to make friendly contact with the inhabitants of newly discovered lands.”

o      Royal Society’s instructions: “lastly, to form a Vocabulary of the names given by the Natives, to the several things and places which come under the Inspection of the Gentlemen


Contact issues

§       importance of first/early contacts in establishing the loanword (e.g. kangaroo) and its form (e.g. taboo)

o      kangaroo from the Endeavour River area; not known by the inhabitants of Port Jackson 18 years later when the First Fleet arrived

§       there were “many diverse and difficult” languages in Australia but this wasn’t known until British settlement period

§       kangaroo and the words picked up from early contacts in the Port Jackson area form the majority of the Aboriginal loan-words in Australian English”

·       cf. North America, “where a substantial portion come from Algonquian languages, those first encountered by white settlers (and where an early accepted loanword like wig-wam would be used for similar lodges of deerskin in different parts of the country without regard to local native names.”

o      Tongan tabu was the first form met with by Cook: the general Polynesian and Maori form is tapu


§       importance of observers’ interest in and knowledge of local culture

o      “Cook’s knowledge of Polynesian life ... was deepened over his three voyages ... much greater than his knowledge of New Holland”

o      “the large numbers of Polynesian words in the journals indicates that although the contact was – by the standards of linguistic history – relatively brief it was quite intense.”

o      taboo: Cook learned the word during “a fairly extended stay in Tonga”


§       possibility of misunderstanding at source when “signs” only medium of communication

o      Banks very aware of this: “he and his companions checked and compared their lists”

o      easier with nouns


§       importance of somebody’s knowledge of the local languages

o      in Tahiti Cook had companions “who spoke the language tolerable well” and could answer questions

§       I began with asking questons relating to the several objects before us: if the Plantans &c were for the Eatua; ... if they sacrificed men to the Eatua, he answered Taata eno they did, that is bad men, first Teparrahy or beating them till they were dead ... I asked if any Aree’s he said no and said these had Hogs &c to give to the Eatua and again repeated Taata eno...”

o      in Tonga, Cook had a Tahitian Omai with him, and had made friends with a great chief (whom he took to be ‘king’)


§       but the most misunderstandings arose over “words involving ethical or religious concepts”

o      Cook: “if it is a Religious ceremoney we may not be able to understand it, for the Misteries of most Religions are very dark and not easily understud even by those who profess them.”

o      when Cook learned taboo on his second voyage, “it seems as if with the arrival of this new word he has a key which will unlock at least some of the mysterious behaviour he meets”



§       words glossed? italicized?

o      both sexes paint their bodys Tattow as it is called in their language”

o      “When dinner came on table not one of my guests would sit down or eat a bit of any thing that was there. Every one was Tabu, a word of a very comprehensive meaning but in general signifies forbidden.”


§       spelling variation?

o      Kangooroo or Kanguru

o      first Cook’s form tattow “which probably represents the Tahitian diphthong, and then as tattoo (by end C18th)

1769 COOK Jrnl. 1st Voy. July (1893) 93 This method of Tattowing I shall now describe... As this is a painful operation, especially the Tattowing their Buttocks, it is performed but once in their Life times. Ibid. 27 Nov. 164 Few of these people were Tattow'd or marked in the face,..several had their Backsides Tattow'd.

1803 J. BURNEY Discov. S. Sea I. ii. 61 They [natives of the Philippines] had the custom of marking their bodies in the manner, which, to use a word lately adopted from the language of a people more recently discovered, we call tattow.


§       adaptation to English phonological or morphological rules?

o      spelling tattoo doesn’t preserve Tahitian diphthong

o      morphological reanalysis:

§       e atua ‘a god’ appears as Eatua (cf. el lagarto ‘alligator’)

§       C18th Otaheite for ‘Tahiti’


§       frequency of use

o      taboo: “It is noticeable how frequently he uses the word once he has it. On shipboard, it seems to have become thoroughly accepted.”

§       Back in England, it seems to have worked its way into the standard vocabulary very quickly ... It clearly answered a ‘need’, both in its more specialized sense (it lived on as a technical anthropological term for the Polynesian concept, but by the beginning of this century was being used as a convenient term to describe similar customs in other parts of the world) – and in its popular one – the distant echoes of a powerful, sacred prohibition have prevented it from becoming a straightforward synonym for forbidden.”

1826 MISS MITFORD Village Ser. II. 63 (Touchy Lady) The mention of her neighbours is evidently taboo, since..she is in a state of affront with nine-tenths of them.


§       conversion

o      on shipboard it appears as a past participle tabooed

o      and in the compound taboo man ‘priest’


·       compounding

o      kangaroo ‘Australian’: kangaroo apple, fly, grass

o      kangaroo ‘involving kangaroos’: kangaroo dog, kangaroo hunt, etc.

o      kangaroo ‘like a kangaroo’: kangaroo rat, kangaroo court (?)


·       figurative use

o      on shipboard Tahitian heiva ‘dance, amusement, dramatic performance’ applied on the third voyage to Cook’s violent foot-stamping rages

§       I had a heiva of the old man”

§       “the old boy has been tipping a heiva to such and such a one

o      occasional uses of kangaroo ‘inhabitant of Australia, kind of chair, kind of bicycle’

o      but otherwise most of the other loanwords retain their specialized original meanings

§       ... “with the exception of the curious kangaroo-court