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Tok Pisin

written by Jeff Siegel


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Melanesia is one of the most linguistically diverse areas of the world, with over 900 separate languages spoken. Melanesians first had regular contact with Europeans (including Australians and Americans) in the early 1800s, when whaling began in the area, followed by trading in sandalwood and bêche-de-mer (the sea slug, which is supposedly an aphrodisiac). In other areas of the Pacific, Europeans learned the local language to carry on trading, but they couldn't do so in Melanesia because of the large number of languages. So they tried to use simplified English and a lot of mime. As a result, many Melanesians picked up a bit of English -- but because of their limited exposure,they learned mainly vocabulary and not grammatical rules. Their versions of English were highly influenced by their own first languages and simpler in comparison: a small vocabulary, few grammatical rules and inflections, and regularity in what rules there were.

When the recruiting (and in some cases kidnapping) of islands labourers for plantations in Queensland began in 1863, many Melanesians found themselves literally in the same boat. The only common language they had was the simplified English they had learned, so they used that to communicate with each other on the ships and later on the plantations. With continued use, norms began to emerge and a stable pidgin language started to develop -- early Melanesian Pidgin.

The earliest Queensland labourers were mainly from the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and the Solomon Islands. Labourers from German-controlled New Guinea only went to Queensland in 1883-84. Many more went to plantations in Samoa, from 1879-1912. Labourers from the other countries had also started going to Samoa in 1878, and many of these had already worked in Queensland. So early Melanesian Pidgin was transported to Samoa. However, after 1885, no more labourers from the New Hebrides or Solomons went to Samoa, and early Melanesian pidgin began to diverge into two slightly different varieties -- one spoken in Queensland and one in Samoa.

When their contracts ended and labourers returned to their home islands, they brought the developing pidgin with them. Previously, these islands had no lingua franca (common language), but the pidgin served this function well and spread like wildfire. It was also used by the large-scale internal labour force which worked on the plantations of German New Guinea, the New Hebrides and Solomon Islands after the external labour trade had ended. In each of these countries, early Melanesian Pidgin stabilized and changed under the influence of the local indigenous languages. So today, Melanesian Pidgin is spoken in different forms in each of these countries. It is known as Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea, Bislama in Vanuatu, and Pijin in Solomon Islands.

Tok Pisin differs from the other dialects because most of the returned labourers worked in Samoa rather than Queensland. Also, nearly all of the New Guinea labourers were from New Britain and New Ireland and the neighbouring small islands, where the internal German-owned plantations were also located. So Tok Pisin has many words from the languages of these islands, as well as from Samoan and German (see vocabulary below).

After Tok Pisin stabilized, it began to be used for new functions, such as religion, newspapers and radio broadcasting. As its use was extended into these new areas, it changed linguistically to become more complex -- e.g., acquiring more vocabulary and more grammatical rules and inflections. The same thing occurred with Bislama and Pijin. So today Tok Pisin (and Melanesian Pidgin as a whole) is an expanded pidgin. When Papua New Guinea (PNG) was born in 1975, Tok Pisin was recognized in the constitution as an important language of the new country.

In recent years, especially in urban areas of PNG like Port Moresby and Lae, people have been marrying outside their traditional language groups. So often the common language of the parents is Tok Pisin and this is what their children acquire as their first language. The process of a pidgin becoming spoken as a mother tongue or native language is called nativization. Along with nativization comes even greater functional and grammatical expansion, so that the language becomes just like any other. A pidgin that becomes the native language of a community is called a creole.

It is debatable, however, whether Tok Pisin (and Melanesian Pidgin as a whole) can be called a creole. Those who call it a creole emphasize the fact that it has thousands of native speakers and has the functions and grammatical features found in typical creoles. Those who say it is still a pidgin point out that more than 90%of its speakers have a different native language.)

Current use and attitudes

Today Tok Pisin is the lingua franca of the entire country of Papua New Guinea, known by an estimated three quarters of the country's four million inhabitants. It is, in fact, the most widely used language of urban areas.

Tok Pisin is used to some extent in radio and television broadcasting, especially in interviews and news reports. (It is also used in Radio Australia's Tok Pisin broadcasts.) The weekly Tok Pisin newspaper Wantok has a readership of over 10,000, and many government publications are also in Tok Pisin. The language is widely used in religion, and there is a Tok Pisin translation of the New Testament of the Bible.

The constitution recognizes Tok Pisin as one of the national languages of the country. Although English is more widely used for government business, much of the debate in Parliament is in Tok Pisin.

Until recently, English was the official language of education in PNG, and used in all government schools (although Tok Pisin was widely used in community and church-run pre-schools and vocational schools). However, with the recent education reform, communities can choose the language to be used in the first three years of elementary education, and many have chosen Tok Pisin.

Although many people still feel that Tok Pisin is inferior to English, most accept it as a separate language, and an important language of Papua New Guinean identity.


BACK TO TOP           SOUNDS          GRAMMAR 




Since English is the lexifier language of Tok Pisin, most of the words come from English. But they are often pronounced in a different way (see Sounds), and some may have different meanings. For example: spak (from "spark") means 'drunk' and baksait (from "backside") refers to someone's back, not to their butt.

Many Tok Pisin words have a meaning much wider than that of the English word they came from. For example, kilim (from "kill him") can mean 'hit' or 'beat' as well as 'kill'; pisin (from "pigeon") means 'bird' in general'; and gras (from "grass") means not only 'grass' but also 'hair', 'fur' and 'feathers'.

Also, some combinations of words have different meanings: e.g. bel hevi (from 'belly heavy') means 'sad'.

Tok Pisin also includes words from other languages. Here are some examples:



     from Tolai (a PNG language):




'bird of paradise'




'lizard, gecko'



     from Malay:






'leafy vegetable'

     from German:


'rubber, tube'




'get out!'



     from Portuguese:



(pronounced sah-vay)



BACK TO TOP           BACKGROUND               GRAMMAR 



Like other pidgins and creoles, Tok Pisin has its own individual system of sounds. Also Tok Pisin has its own special writing system.

There aren't as many sounds in Tok Pisin as there are in English. The consonants that most speakers of Tok Pisin use are: b, d, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, w and y.

In Tok Pisin, the "s" sound is used for the "sh" sound, so the English word "shell" has become sel in Tok Pisin. Also the "p" sound is used for the "f" sound, so the English word "fish" has become pis.

Like many dialects of English, Tok Pisin does not have the r sound following a vowel, so for example, the English word "work" has become wok in Tok Pisin.

Also, Tok Pisin has a rule that at the end of a word or a syllable, g becomes k and d becomes t. So the word for 'pig' is pik and the word for 'road' is rot.

The Tok Pisin vowels are a, e, i, o and u.

In English, the letter for a vowel might have many different pronunciations -- for example, compare the sound of the "u" in "rule", "put", "but", and "fuse". But in Tok Pisin, each vowel has only one pronunciation, much like the "pure vowels" in languages such as Spanish.

a is pronounced similar to the "a" in the English word "father"
e is pronounced similar to the "e" in "vein"
i is pronounced similar to the "i" in "machine"
o is pronounced similar to the "o" in "boat"
u is pronounced similar to the "u" in "rule"

Because Tok Pisin doesn't have some of the sounds that English has, and because of the rules just mentioned, what are different words in English may be the same word in Tok Pisin. For example, hat means 'hat', 'hot', 'heart', and 'hard'.

BACK TO TOP            BACKGROUND               VOCABULARY



Is Tok Pisin just simplified English?

At first glance, Tok Pisin grammar seems to be just simplified English. For example, you don't have to add an "s" to show plural:

wanpela pik  'one pig'
tripela pik  'three pigs'

You don't have to add "ing" or "ed" to show tense:

Mi wok nau.  'I'm working now.'
Mi wok asde.  'I worked yesterday.'

The same word em can mean 'he', 'him' 'she', 'her' and 'it'. For example, the following sentence can have three different meanings, depending on the context:

Em i stap long haus. 'He's in the house' or 'She's in the house' or 'It's in the house.
Em i lukim mi.  'He/she/it saw me.'
Mi lukim em.  'I saw him/her/it.'

But Tok Pisin has its own grammatical rules.

First of all, look at the following sentences:

Mi wok. 'I worked.'
Yu wok.  'You worked.'
Em i wok.  'He/she worked.'
Tom i wok.  'Tom worked.'

Note that the last two sentences have the little word i before the verb. (Remember that in Tok Pisin, i is pronounced something like "ee".) This little word is called a "predicate marker", and it must occur in a sentence when subject is em or a noun (like "Tom" or "the bicycle"). This rule is certainly different from anything found in English.

To show plural, you put the word ol before the word instead of "s" at the end of the word:

Mi lukim dok.  'I saw the dog.'
Mi lukim ol dok.  'I saw the dogs.'

To be specific about tense or aspect, or about other things like ability, you can use different short words. Some occur before the verb and some occur after the verb. Here are some examples:

Ben i bin wok asde.  'Ben worked yesterday.'
Ben bai i wok tumora.  'Ben will work tomorrow.'
Ben i wok i stap nau.  'Ben is working now.'
Ben i wok pinis.  'Ben is finished working.'
Ben i save wok long Sarere.  'Ben works on Saturday.'
Ben i ken wok.  'Ben can work (he is allowed to).'
Ben inap wok. 'Ben can work (he has the ability).'

Although we saw that it seems Tok Pisin has a pronoun system which is "simpler" than that of English, this is not the full story. The pronoun system of Tok Pisin makes some other distinctions that are not made in English. For example, while standard English has only one pronoun, "you" for referring to either singular or plural, Tok Pisin has four different pronouns: yu (singular - 'you'), yutupela (dual -'you two'), yutripela (trial - 'you three') and yupela (plural - 'you all'). So Tok Pisin pronouns make a four-way distinction in number -- singular, dual, trial and plural -- while English pronouns sometimes make no distinction, as with "you", or at the most only a two way singular-plural distinction, as with "I" versus "we".

Tok Pisin pronouns also make another distinction not found in English. It has two sets of non-singular pronouns, "inclusive" versus "exclusive", all corresponding to English "we". To understand this distinction, let's look at the following English sentence:

The girls said to Miriam, "Fred invited us to the party!"

It would not be clear to Miriam from the statement "Fred invited us to the party" whether she was included in the invitation or not. In other words, it could have two possible meanings:

1. Fred invited us (including you) to the party.
2. Fred invited us (but not you) to the party.

In Tok Pisin there would be no such confusion. There is an inclusive plural pronoun yumi ('we or us, including you') and an exclusive plural pronoun mipela ('we or us, not including you'). So the two meanings would be expressed in Tok Pisin in different ways: 

1. Fred i bin singautim yumi long pati.
2. Fred i bin singautim mipela long pati.

You have seen that in Tok Pisin the suffix -pela is attached to pronouns to show plural -- e.g. yu vs yupela. This suffix also has another function. It is attached to some adjectives and numbers:

bikpela haus  'big house'
strongpela man  'strong man'
blakpela pik  'black pig'
tripela dok  'three dogs'

Tok Pisin has another suffix (or word ending) with a function unlike anything in English. This is the suffix -im which is attached to some verbs. To see how it works, look at the following sentences:

Em i rit.  'He is reading.'
Em i ritim buk.  'He's reading a book.'

Wara i boil pinis.  'The water has boiled.'
Meri i boilim wara pinis.  'The woman has boiled the water.

Bai mi rait.  'I'll write.'
Bai mi raitim pas.  'I'll write a letter.'

Kanu i kapsait.  'The canoe capsized.'
Ol i kapsaitim kanu. 'They capsized the canoe.'

You can see that the suffix -im is attached to the verb when it is followed by an object. So, for example, if you say he's reading, there's no need for -im on the verb rit 'read'. But if you say he's reading something, then you do need to add the -im suffix.

So you can see that Tok Pisin has its own grammatical rules which are very different from the rules of English. Therefore, the answer to the question "Is Tok Pisin just simplified English?" is clearly NO!