I am woman
Consultations begin for Bougainville mine re-opening

Tok Pisin is well equipped for PNG's literature


BACK IN MARCH, Phil Fitzpatrick excited a lively discussion when he raised the issue of whether Tok Pisin (TP) should be used as a medium for literature in Papua New Guinea.

What follows is a belated contribution to that discussion and an attempt to respond to Michael Dom’s hope that ‘there are interested and/or knowledgeable writers out there who can expound in essay form on the many views from our discussion’.

That original discussion featured, among many and varied sub-topics, two broad themes: (1) the legitimacy, status, functionality and adequacy of TP and (2) the TP versus English and local versus international paradigms for PNG literature

Legitimacy, status and adequacy

The great body of scholarly research into TP (and it is among the most widely and deeply researched lingua franca in the world) has determined, beyond any doubt, that it satisfies all of the phonemic (sounds), morphemic (word structure) and syntactic (sentence structure and grammar) requirements to be classified as a stand-alone, legitimate language.

TP is a bona fide language in its own right - not just the bastard child of English, German, Kuanua and other Papua New Guinean languages.

This aside, the mere fact that TP (a) is one of the official languages of PNG, and (b) has been creolized for upwards of four generations would be sufficient to confirm TP’s linguistic legitimacy.

The abundance of research has ensured, also, that all linguistic features of TP have been codified and, to some extent at least, standardized.

Much credit is due to Father Frank Mihalic SVD who pioneered the study of TP, founded and edited the TP newspaper Wantok, and whose TP dictionary (published in 1975) continues, I understand, to be the most commonly-used model for spelling.

Others such as Tom Dutton, Peter Muhlhausler, Suzanne Romaine and a host of other linguists have also explored various aspects of the syntax and the societal and geographic variations of the language.

Even back in the 1950s, Father Frank was a forthright advocate for the standardization of TP grammar, lexicon and spelling and for its adoption as a national and official language – at a time when such sentiments were regarded by many of the then colonial administrators with barely-disguised contempt.

The continuing lack of an officially-sanctioned standard for TP reflects the political difficulty in deciding which of the many dialects of TP should become the ‘standard’.

While the Madang-Sepik dialect is generally regarded as the ‘root’ or proto-form of TP – and the strongest candidate to be the standard, the speakers of island, highland and other coastal dialects would argue, legitimately, that theirs warranted the same consideration.

That said, it could also be argued that the TP dialect used most commonly in parliamentary proceedings and the reporting thereof has become the de facto standard. Another ’standard’ can be found in the Buk Baibel and other TP publications.

Despite its official status and the fact that it is the most widespread and widely used medium of oral communication throughout most of Papua New Guinea, there are many, mostly (and ironically) among the educated classes (who should know better), who continue to regard TP as somehow inferior and inadequate when compared to other world languages, especially, English.

This attitude has a number of progenitors.

Taking primacy is the view is that TP is inferior and inadequate because it has relatively simple word structure and grammatical systems and a limited core lexicon (around 1,500-2,000 words) which relies on borrowings from English to expand the lexicon and to ‘develop’ generally.

More insidious is the view that TP is, largely, the language of the ‘uneducated’ masses and therefore less adequate and less worthy than the English spoken by the educated ‘elite’.

Recent research also suggests that (educated) speakers of urban dialects of TP regard the rural TP dialects of their countrymen as inferior and inadequate, thus reflecting and reinforcing the inextricable links between language, identity and caste and the universality of ignorance and social prejudice in matters of language use.

These views aside, the technical adequacy of TP has been well and truly established – as respondents such as writers Leonard Roka and Michael Dom also acknowledged. And the widespread use of TP as a day-to-day means of communication attests to its functional adequacy.

The question of TP’s literary adequacy - the heart of Phil Fitzpatrick’s original question (and the purpose of this essay) remains.

Literary adequacy

There are no hard and fast definitions of ‘literature’ although there is general agreement that literature is the written expression of our culture, makes us think about ourselves and our society, allows us to enjoy language and beauty, and to reflect on and record our thoughts on “the human condition” – emotionally, socially, ideologically and politically. 

There can be no doubt that TP, in written form, can satisfy all of these criteria.

Some would argue, however, that literature requires the use of more sophisticated language forms and several contributors to the discussion, notably Michael Dom and Jerilee Diaram noted that English, with its larger lexicon, was able to convey greater precision and degrees of comparisons than TP.

This may be so. But these features are distinctively less important than other literary elements such as metaphor, ambiguity and nuance in conveying our sense of the world and our response to it.

There would be few, presumably, who would disagree that TP is entirely capable of being used metaphorically, ambiguously and with nuance. Indeed, metaphor is a device much-used in day-to-day TP to address those perceived ‘shortcomings’ in precision and comparison, and a reflection of the creative power and possibilities of the language.

 (This scribe’s favourite TP metaphors are ‘kerosen medesin’ for Slim Dusty – the singer whose songs are like a medicine to fire up the belly, used frequently on Radio Wewak’s Singsing Long Laik Bilo(ng) Yupela in the mid-1960s, and ‘mi shootim koronas’ to explain the speaker’s failed attempt to attract a young woman.)

In sum, then, there are no defensible technical or functional reasons why TP should not be used as a literary medium.

On the other hand, several contributors to the debate argued, and rightly so, that literary works in TP would be incomprehensible to the outside/international world. This raises the obvious question: for whom are PNG writers writing (apart from themselves)?

English may well be the obvious medium for those PNG writers who wish to write for an international audience. That said, Murakami Haruki, one of the most popular and biggest selling authors in the world, and others like him, write in their mother tongues for, primarily, their domestic audiences.

It is Murakami’s quirky ideas and interesting characters and stories, not the language he uses, that has led to his widespread international success.

Isn’t it also the case that PNG writers have some responsibility to foster an indigenous literary tradition and to create bodies of work which encompass and reflect PNG’s changing society and culture and which are accessible to their fellow countrymen?

I would assert that TP will serve this purpose better than English.

Standing in the way of this ideal, as Michael Dom pointed out, is that ‘we do not have a healthy reading culture’ - a state of affairs borne not just from widespread illiteracy, but, also, from the lack of a strong, active indigenous publishing enterprise.

A reading culture can only develop if there are accessible books to read……

The flowering of PNG literature in the early 1970s came about not just because of the influence of Ulli Beier and his fostering of that first group of PNG writers and playwrights, it blossomed because the works of those scribes were published, publicised and made accessible to the larger community. It was a mix, if you like, of artistic endeavour and entrepreneurship.

As the response to the Crocodile Prize and the formation of the PNG Society of Writers, Editors and Publishers (SWEP) attests, there is no shortage of artistic endeavor available in PNG, just the lack of the aforementioned publishing enterprise and entrepreneurship – and a willingness to acknowledge the role that using TP can play in fostering both a reading culture and a strong literary tradition.

After words

My own long-abiding interest in TP harks back to my arrival as a naïve 20 year-old novice teacher at Angoram in late 1965 to be confronted by the imperative to master TP if I was to be able to function effectively within the PNG community.

I’d received no instruction in TP during my teacher training at ASOPA – a glaring omission in an otherwise excellent preparatory program: it was presumed that I and my trainee colleagues would simply ‘pick it up’ post-arrival in PNG. And there were no dictionaries or instructional manuals available.

But there were numerous willing informants, teachers and mentors among the local PNG and expatriate community and they and the nightly exposure to Radio Wewak (at a time when Michael Somare was on staff) enabled me to gain some mastery of the Sepik dialect of TP – a mastery which lingers today.

This was, I suspect, the experience of most if not all of my expatriate contemporaries, and an excellent example of the efficacy of the total immersion approach to language learning, albeit borne of necessity, not design.

My understanding of, and ongoing intellectual interest in, TP was enhanced when I completed a BA in linguistics and literature at UPNG where I was inspired by the likes of resident teachers John Lynch, Elton Brash, Uli Beier et al and visiting scholars (and pidgin and creole language specialists) like Tom Dutton, Derek Bickerton and Peter Muhlhausler.

It was to be reinforced, later, when I undertook postgraduate studies in applied linguistics at the University of Edinburgh – where my major thesis argued for Tok Pisin and Motu to be PNG’s national and official languages.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Paul Oates

I regret to say I was overseas when this article appeared but Ed has raised a subject near and dear to my heart.

There is also a very good point raised by Michael Dom and others about there being very little Tok Pisin books around for PNG people to read.

I have some old trainers that are now dated and of course the Nupela Testaman but what is needed is some modern fiction and factual books as well.

Perhaps the Crocodile Prize or something similar might offer a segment for new titles in TP or perhaps Phil, you could translate some of your Detective Metau books into TP?

Here is a new and fertile field to plant.

Valdas Banaitis

I am looking in vain for some children book in Tok Pisin, e.g. a translation of classical European fairy tales, for comparative study.

I wonder also whether anybody has tried to compare Tok Pisin with Esperanto.

There is no relationship, Valdas - KJ

Michael Dom

Regarding conversion of scientific and legal text into Tok Pisin; we need to be realistic about what can or cannot be done and what is or is not important, urgent and useful.

English lends itself readily to technical writing. Mostly because it's the language that technical writings have converged towards and then emerged from.

In the sphere of literature - and poetry, which is my craft - Tok Pisin is relevant. Some things are simply better written/said in Tok Pisin than in English.

Verbal explanations are workable. Text translations not always easily done - for example, from my work with animals, 'digestibility of proximate nutrients' is a challnege to explain in Tok Pisin.

This is because English has definitions for these words, created within a specific environment. Hence, a translation must attempt to 're-create the word' using the context of Tok Pisin reference points.

Usually, to do this I take short-cuts which are longer; e.g. (from previous statement) "hamas kaikai insait long bel isave wok long givim strong long bodi".

It's an idea I've conveyed and not the actual definitions, i.e. digestibility (%) = [(amount of nutrient in - amount of nutrient out) / amount of nutrient in] x 100%. And Proximate is another thing altogether to explain.

Similarly, I shudder to think of the problems with legal text. It is apparent we already have enough trouble reading the current English language version of law.

So perhaps, some writings are best left as they have arrived. (Perhaps for now. So I'm not writing this off!)

But give us a story, a poem or a song any day!

Corney Korokan Alone

Let’s have people like Michael Dom write their research findings in Tok Pisin and circulate those findings among the many farmers who need new ideas as a starting point.

People like David Gonol and other lawyers may also like to make law cases available in Tok Pisin too or even have a crack at our Constitutional law books and make them available in Tok Pisin.

The good doctors, engineers, political scientists, accountants and businessmen/women can do the same. It’s no easy task.

Now do these writers and professionals (and their employers) see the need or market for it and support that? Can they create a Pidgin translation section within their organisations to make it possible? Maybe some already do.

How can those be scaled? Maybe the job of translating can be outsourced thus creating a market and job opportunities for employment for others.

Then let’s assess the findings in another essay in 2023. Would be nice if Ed Brumby is around for that.

I have a Bible written in English – an Amplified Bible (1987 Edition) by Zondervan Publishing, Michigan, USA. I don’t have it because I want to feel “elitish”in some way but primarily because it gives me a better understanding, with its rich nuances and the shades of meanings that it gives in the context of the original bible languages.

Then I can be able to translate it into Tok Pisin where the audience dictates.

Thank God for King James of England who saw the need and value for it and commissioned the translation work into English in the year 1611 from the original Hebrew and Greek languages - celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2011.

Thank God for Oxford professors (and theologians) like John Wycliffe who came up with the first hand-written English language Bible manuscript in the 1380’s.

These works are now around in billions of translations in English as well as in our own Tok Ples because they got wide circulation to sustain themselves.

Secondly, they are around because there were some proactive personalities who did something on their own with or without waiting for "endorsement" from authoritative sources.

No wonder one Pope got so infuriated by the teachings and translation work of John Wycliffe that 44 years after Wycliffe had died, the Pope ordered the bones to be dug-up, crushed, and scattered in the river!

It’s action that lasts and gets recorded in history books anywhere in the world in any facet of life.

I find value in the importance of Tok Pisin and what it is doing now and am content with it as it is.

For the fans of Tok Pisin, toktok tasol em on gat kaikai blo em.

Larem sampla history iken kamap so ol tumbuna bilong yumi iken luk save lo 400 yia bihain taim ol readim wok blo ol bikpla skul man olsem loia, dokta, sientist na kaim olsem. Nogat trupla interest? Olsem maski,lus tingting.

Mipla ken focusim energi bilong mipla lo ol narapla samthing.

Cygil Glasper

Several thoughts:

One does not need to make the case that Tok Pisin is a real language among linguists. Unfortunately, among ordinary people the same old tired stereotypes (it's the language in which "helicopter" is "mixmaster bilong jesus") still exist.

Pisin has some marvellous songs and poetry (eg the music of O-shen and other PNG artists) and there's no reason it can't be used for literature other than residual prejudice.

The idea that Pidgin is not a "real" language is insidious. I even think it's a barrier to literacy, since I think literacy would be much higher in PNG if students were first taught to read in Pisin.

It is almost completely phonetic, unlike the confusing and highly irregular English orthography, and given the most disadvantaged students have little knowledge of English but are usually fluent in Pisin.

Tok Pisin is definitely a minority language. But it has about as many speakers as Modern Hebrew, which has a rich literature and is celebrated as a statement of Jewish identity.

Certainly PNG writers should write in English when they wish to reach the huge English speaking market. But currently there's no literature at all in Pisin other than the recent "Opisa Pokep" (which I haven't seen), and it seems to me that PNG can't be said to be a literate nation until it has its own widely read literature in its own lingua franca.

If nothing else, there seems to be potential in this untapped and undeveloped market.

Tok Pisin may be well studied academically but it's very poorly documented and hard to learn. I'm currently enrolled in what I believe is the only university-level Melanesian Pidgin course in the world (apparently the ADF school of langauges also runs a crash course for those deployed to Melanesian pidgin speaking areas, but this is not accessible to civilians).

The two dictionaries I have (Mihalic's from the 70s, out of date, and Wantok's (more like a pamphlet)) are hopelessly inadequate and finding any Tok Pisin in libraries is extremely difficult.

Furthermore, although I used to believe Pisin was easy, I can now say that it is easy to get to a basic level in, but it is extremely hard to master because its Melanesian structure is so radically unlike English in nearly every respect.

The complexities of serial verbs are slowly driving me insane, the tense/aspect system is utterly unlike European languages, and I think I could write an entire book (a huge book no less) on the polysemy of that one sometimes infuriating preposition, "long."

Most Tok Pisin words are "faux amis" to their English cognates with subtle or even extreme differences in meanings. More instructional material is definitely needed.

This of course settles the question about whether Tok Pisin is a real language. Every time I run into some incomprehensible subtlety of grammar, it reminds me how different to English Pisin actually is, proving that it is a language in its own right.

I do think that Pisin is a little more "concrete" than English, with metaphors being a huge source of abstract words in Pisin where English uses opaque (often latinate) words - eg tinghevi "concentrate", belhevi "despair, depressed", sutim tok "accuse, verbally attack", pait tok "debate, argue."

(If a native speaker thinks these glosses are wrong, I apologise, I don't have any decent dictionaries!)

But for me that's part of the appeal of the language. It doesn't make it primitive, it just means it has a different style.

I'm a little selfish in that I studied the language to get closer to Melanesian culture, and I would be disappointed if there is never any literature in it after all that effort!

But more than that, it has such a unique structure. Look how evocative Shakespeare is in Tok Pisin!

"Mi noken poret long ol toktok bilong yu, Cassius, blong wanem mi gat wanpela banis, em olsem strongpasin na stretpasin blong mi, na ol sutim tok blong yu i popaia, olsem wanpela win em i nostrong, na mi no luksave long ol."

I'm currently trying to obtain the text of Ken Campbell's "Macbeth" in Bislama. I don't care how bad the translation is, I have to read it.

Although it's not my place to make any recommendations, I think the language could benefit from an institute like the Académie Française, with the mission of developing dictionaries and encouraging literature and quality translations in Pisin.

The French don't sit around waiting for their language to be absorbed by English, they actively promote the natural development and unique character of their own language and, through the Alliance francaise, work hard to teach it to outsiders.

An "Academi blong ol Tok Melanesia" seems a long way away, but I think it could happen in time.

Of course English continues to be very important and I believe promoting Tok Pisin literature would do nothing to discourage improvements in English competency in PNG -- in fact, I believe it would improve it.

Michael Dom

Thank you for your essay, Ed Brumby.

I am very glad that someone of your experience and firsthand knowledge of Tok Pisin as a language has provided us with such a clear and concise exposition on its use in PNG literature.

I recall reading an article once that had mentioned Tok Pisin as having all the attributes of a language. Your essay makes this very clear to me.

I hope this now seals the legitimacy of Tok Pisin as another 'mainstream' language of literature in which our culture and identity as Pngians can be explored.

At least we have the power to do this in our own Crocodile Prize Literary contest.

I look forward to reading more Crocodile Prize entries submitted in Tok Pisin or dual languages

This is no small step towards taking the power back.

There are so many more Pngians out there with a story in their mind, an argument to make and a poem in their hearts. Welcome them.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)