What is Tok Pisin?

"I'm not exposed, I have a shield" AIDS prevention poster (photo by Ian@ThePaperboy.com - CC-BY)

Tok Pisin is one of the official languages of Papua New Guinea. In the past it has been variously known as Pidgin English, Melanesian Pidgin English, New Guinea Pidgin English, neo-Melanesian, and Niugini Pisin.

In the mountainous highlands of Papua New Guinea, neighboring tribes had little contact. Not surprisingly, each tribe developed its own language, and there are over 700 tribal languages spoken in Papua New Guinea.

As trade increased with the outside world, a pidgin developed to meet the needs of the traders, and it was reinforced by workers who returned from plantations in Queensland. The pidgin incorporated words from German, Portugese and Malay, but mostly from English.

The language is easy to write, with an alphabet just 22 letters. It’s easy to read, with simple and consistent spelling rules. It’s very easy to learn, because it has a small vocabulary, yet it’s quite expressive because words can be extended and/or juxtaposed in consistent ways to create new meanings.

Tok Pisin is a great language for the traveller to Papua New Guinea. It’s everyone’s second language, and no-one’s first language, so it puts the traveller on an equal footing with the natives. Actually, it is now becoming some people’s first language—for example, for a child whose parents each have a different tokples (tribal language). This has transformed Pisin from a pidgin to a creole, and the language is used in parliament, in newspapers, and on television, along with English and Hiri Motu (which is more common around Port Moresby).

The use of English is increasing, and in the long term Pisin will probably be reduced to an artifact of cultural interest, but for now it’s a useful language for travel, trade and literature.

The language has some interesting characteristics:

  • Transitive verbs are indicated by the suffix -im (from the English “him”). Mi kik is “I kick”, but Mi kikim em is “I kick him”.
  • There are only two prepositions. Bilong suggests some kind of belonging (“of”, “from” or “for”), and long is used for every other preposition (“at”, “by”, “from”, “in”, “to”, “on”, “under”, “with”, etc). You might think this will be very confusing, but the context usually makes the meaning clear. If it’s unclear, you add an extra word or two (antap long maunten for “on the mountain”).
  • Adjectives end in -pela (from the english “fellow”), so redpela means “red”, and it also means “brown” or “purple”, which are near enough to red for many purposes. Numbers also end in -pela (tripela for “three”).
  • If you’re indicating numbers with your fingers, it’s how many figures you have down that counts. So if you raise your thumb and index finger, that means “three” (because three fingers are curled up).
  • You might assume that sisa is “sister” and brata is “brother”, and you would almost be correct. Your brata is your same-sex sibling and your sisa is your opposite-sex sibling, so a woman’s sisa is her brother.
  • The word ol turns a singular noun into a plural. So man means “man”, meri is “woman”, manmeri is “person”, ol man is “men”, ol meri is “women” and ol manmeri is “people”.
  • The word bin makes the past tense. So tok is “speak”, and bin tok is “spoke”. To emphasize that the action is complete, use pinis. So tok pinis is “has spoken”. The word bai makes the future tense. So bai tok is “will speak”. To emphasize that something is happening right now, add i stap. So tok is stap means “is speaking right now”.
  • Mi is “me” and yu is “you”, but there are more personal pronouns in Pisin than in English. For example, yumi means “you and me”, and there is a distinction between mipela (the “exclusive we”, meaning basically “me, and those with me”) and yumipela (the “inclusive we”, meaning “you, me, and those with us”)

Because the vocabulary is limited, phrases are used to refine basic words. The word gras means anything furry, such as “grass”. So it’s natural that “hair” is also gras, or gras bilong het (“grass of the head”) if you need to be specific. Gras bilong maus, on the other hand, is “grass of the mouth”, or moustache. You might assume that gras bilong lek (“grass of the leg”) is “leg hair”, but it’s an idiom for an unspecified huge number, much as we might say “millions of ’em” in English.

The vocabulary is a total delight, with each new word or phrase evoking some colorful word-association. Here are just a few examples:

  • Haus, as you might expect, is a house. So haus pepa is a “house paper”, i.e. an office. Haus sel is a “house sail”, i.e. a tent. Similarly, haus ais is a freezer, haus dring is a hotel, haus moni is a bank, and haus motaka is a garage.
  • A snek is a snake, so a liklik snek (“little snake”) is a worm.
  • Your pinga is your finger, so your pinga bilong lek (“finger of leg”) is your toe.
  • Namba wan can refer to the Chief, but more often it simply means “excellent”.
  • Binatang is an insect. I love the sound of this word, whose ending evokes the finality of the insect stinging you (or perhaps the sound of the insect being slapped)

Here’s the opening of Anthony’s speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

Ol pren, ol man bilong Rom, wantok, harim nau!

Wantok are those who speak one’s tribal language (“one talk”), so literally this means “Friends, men of Rome, people of my tribe, hear now!”. Harim nau certainly makes more sense than Shakespeare’s “lend me your ears”!

As with any language, misunderstandings are possible. The Lonely Planet Guide reported that some westerners had been asked for a huge amount of money to cross a bamboo-and-reed bridge across a river. I had passed the same way without problems, and I suspect what happened was a Tok Pisin mixup. The westerners were probably using the verb peim to discuss payment, but peim doesn’t literally mean “pay”, its meaning is more like “buy”. And if you want to buy a bridge instead of pay a toll to cross it, that’s going to cost quite a lot of money!

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