Pigeon English


Stephen Kelman

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Language, Culture, and Norms Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Home and the Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Language, Culture, and Norms Theme Icon
Pluralism vs. Prejudice Theme Icon
Masculinity, Violence, and Death Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Pigeon English, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Language, Culture, and Norms Theme Icon

The title Pigeon English immediately emphasizes that the novel is concerned with questions of linguistic and cultural hybridity. The word “pidgin” refers to a hybrid language developed so people who speak different languages can communicate with one another—usually in a colonial context. Pidgin English, therefore, refers to languages that hybridize English with another language. The title of this book, Pigeon English, is a play on words, echoing Harri’s idiosyncratic use of language, as he mixes British English with Ghanaian slang and Pidgin English (and, of course, the title also gestures to Harri’s love of pigeons). Harri makes an effort to assimilate into London culture by studying and imitating the ways in which English is spoken in London. However, considering that London, its customs, and its slang are constituted by different multiethnic factions, Harri adds to the culture rather than assimilating into it. 

Harri’s narration is peppered with words and phrases like “Advise yourself,” “Adjei,” “Dey touch,” “Bo styles,” “Ease yourself,” and “Hutious.” If the reader doesn’t understand these words at first, they likely will by the end of the novel due to seeing these words repeated and picking up on the context in which they are used. The reader’s learning curve mirrors Harri’s own adjustment to the language, signs, and norms of London culture. Although Harri partially learns about life in the UK through school—in classes such as English and citizenship—he mainly learns simply from observing and copying the world around him.

This type of experiential learning inherently involves a process of trial and error, which can prove challenging and even dangerous, as Harri is sometimes punished for misunderstanding the customs and expectations that exist in London. For example, when the Dell Farm Crew say they have a “job” for Harri, he says that he doesn’t need a job, not realizing that X-Fire is assigning him a task as a trial for whether Harri can join their group. Although X-Fire forgives Harri’s ignorance in that instance, Harri is later punished for not showing enough respect and deference to the Dell Farm Crew. For young, vulnerable immigrants like Harri, assimilating into a given culture and understanding its language, customs, and social norms, is not just a courtesy, but can—under certain circumstances—be a matter of life and death. 

Signs serve as a tool for “reading” the norms of a certain culture in a similar way to language. It is therefore unsurprising that Harri is intrigued by the signs that exist around London, such as the sign on the doors of the shopping center that reads, “NO ALCOHOL… NO BICYCLES… NO DOGS… NO SMOKING… NO SKATEBOARDS… NO BALL GAMES.” Harri notes that underneath this, someone has written “NO FUGLIES.” This shows that language is created both through “official” methods, such as the instruction of English in schools and the dictionary, as well as unofficial processes, such as the development of slang. Similarly, the defaced sign shows that rules, expectations, and norms are established by authority figures (governments and business owners), as well as ordinary people. It also highlights that even as signs proclaim to explicitly lay out the rules of a given culture, the reality is much more complex. It is not always possible to read signs in a straightforward way, and background context is often required to understand their meaning.

By presenting the difficulties Harri faces in coming to grips with the language, culture, and norms in London, the novel challenges the assumption that immigrants can and should simply “assimilate” into a given culture. Instead, Pigeon English suggests that the immigrant experience involves contributing to the language, culture, and norms of one’s new home, thereby creating a new, hybrid culture. However, Harri also highlights that failing to understand and assimilate into certain norms can have extremely serious consequences, including violence and death.  

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Language, Culture, and Norms ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Language, Culture, and Norms appears in each chapter of Pigeon English. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Language, Culture, and Norms Quotes in Pigeon English

Below you will find the important quotes in Pigeon English related to the theme of Language, Culture, and Norms.
March Quotes

The flowers on the coffin said Son and Forever. But it felt like Forever was already finished. It felt like somebody took it away when they killed the dead boy. It's not supposed to happen. Children aren't supposed to die, only old people. It even made me worried for if I was next. I spat out the rest of my Atomic Apple Hubba Bubba for if I swallowed it by mistake and my guts all got stuck together.

Related Characters: Harrison Opoku (Harri) (speaker), The Dead Boy
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

We're proper detectives now. It's a personal mission. The dead boy even told the rogues to leave me alone one time when they were hooting me for wearing ankle-freezers (that's when the legs of your trousers are too short). I didn't even ask him, he just helped me for no reason. Wanted him to be my friend after that but he got killed before it came true. That's why I have to help him now, he was my friend even if he didn't know about it. He was my first friend who got killed and it hurts too much to forget.

Related Characters: Harrison Opoku (Harri) (speaker), The Dead Boy
Page Number: 47-48
Explanation and Analysis:
April Quotes

Altaf is very quiet. Nobody really knows him. You're not supposed to talk to Somalis because they're pirates. Everybody agrees. If you talk to them you might give away a clue to where you keep your treasure and the next

thing you know, your wife has been strangled alive and they're throwing you to the sharks. Me and Altaf don't have to go to RE. Mamma doesn't want me to hear about the false gods, she says it's a waste of time, and Altaf's mamma thinks the same thing.

Related Characters: Harrison Opoku (Harri) (speaker), Mamma, Altaf
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

Some rules I have learned from my new school:

No running on the stairs.

No singing in class.

Always put your hand up before you ask a question.

Don't swallow the gum or it will get stuck in your guts and you'll die.

Jumping in the puddle means you're a retard (I don't even agree with this one).

Going around the puddle means you're a girl.

The last one in close the door.

The first one to answer the question loves the teacher.

If a girl looks at you three times in a row it means she loves you.

If you look at her back you love her.

He who smelt it dealt it.

He who denied it supplied it.

He who sensed it dispensed it.

He who knew it blew it.

He who noted it floated it.

He who declared it aired it.

He who spoke it broke it.

He who exposed it composed it.

He who blamed it flamed it.

(All these are just for farts.)

If you look at the back of a mirror you'll see the devil.

Don't eat the soup. The dinner ladies pissed in it.

Don't lend Ross Kelly your pen. He picks his arse klinkers with it.

Keep to the left (everywhere). The right is out of bounds.

The library stairs are safe.

If he wears a pinky ring he's a gay (a pinky ring is a ring on your little finger).

If she wears a bracelet on her ankle she's a lesbian (shags it up with other ladies).

Related Characters: Harrison Opoku (Harri) (speaker)
Page Number: 63-64
Explanation and Analysis:

In football nobody used to pass to me. I thought it meant they hated me. Then I found out it's because I used the wrong command. Instead of saying pass to me you have to say man on. Apart from that the rules are the same as where I used to live. Vilis still doesn't pass to me but I don't care. Where he comes from (Latvia) they burn black people into tar and make roads out of them. Everybody agrees.

Related Characters: Harrison Opoku (Harri) (speaker), Vilis
Page Number: 73-74
Explanation and Analysis:

Auntie Sonia burned her fingers to get the fingerprints off. Now she has no fingerprints at all. It's so if the police catch her they can't send her away. Your fingerprints tell them who you are. If you have no fingerprints, you can't be

anybody. Then they don't know where you belong so they can't send you back. Then they have to let you stay.

Related Characters: Harrison Opoku (Harri) (speaker), Auntie Sonia
Related Symbols: Fingerprints
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

Auntie Sonia hasn't even done anything bad. She's never killed anybody or stolen anything. She just likes to go to different places. She likes to see the different things there. Some of the countries won't let you in if you're black. You have to sneak in. When you're in you just act like everybody else. Auntie Sonia only does the same things as them. She goes to work and shopping. She eats her dinner and goes to the park.

Related Characters: Harrison Opoku (Harri) (speaker), Auntie Sonia
Related Symbols: Fingerprints
Page Number: 93-94
Explanation and Analysis:
May Quotes

In England nobody helps you if you fall over. They can't tell if you're serious or if it's just a trick. It's too hard to know what's real.

Related Characters: Harrison Opoku (Harri) (speaker), Mr. Frimpong
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:


Kids vs Teachers

Northwell Manor High vs Leabridge High

Dell Farm Crew vs Lewsey Hill Crew

Emos vs Sunshine

Turkey vs Russia

Arsenal vs Chelsea

Black vs White

Police vs Kids

God vs Allah

Chicken Joe's vs KFC

Cats vs Dogs

Aliens vs Predators

Related Characters: Harrison Opoku (Harri) (speaker)
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:
June Quotes

I wonder what Heaven is really like. Is it different for kids than for grown-ups. Like would there still be somebody there telling him to come in

from playing football when it got too dark. The dead boy could do the most tricks, he could flick the ball up with his heel and keep it up for donkey hours with both feet. He always aimed his shots for the corners like you're supposed

to and he was even good at heading. He was good at everything. I wonder if there's dogs like Asbo who steal your ball. That would be funny. I hope in Heaven the animals can all talk, then they can tell you when they're happy so

you don't have to guess. You can usually tell from the eyes but it only works on bigger animals, not pigeons or flies. Their eyes only look sad.

Related Characters: Harrison Opoku (Harri) (speaker), The Dead Boy
Related Symbols: Pigeons, Heaven
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:
July Quotes

I ran fast. I ran down the hill and through the tunnel. I shouted:

Me: 'Poppy I love you!'

It made a mighty echo. Nobody else heard it.

I ran past the real church. I ran past the cross.

I ran past the Jubilee.

I ran past the CCTV camera. I let it snap me for luck.

I ran past the other pigeons. I pretended they called hello to me.

Me: 'Pigeons I love you!'

It didn't even feel stupid, it felt brilliant. I ran past the playground and the dead climbing frame. I was running superfast. I was going faster than I've ever gone, my feet were just a blur. Nobody could ever catch me, I was going

to break the world record.

Related Characters: Harrison Opoku (Harri) (speaker), Poppy Morgan
Related Symbols: Pigeons
Page Number: 261
Explanation and Analysis: