TUMBY BAY - Tok Pisin is an evolving language of such dynamism that it sometimes appears to be in a constant state of flux.
While there is still a core of basic words that underpins the language many of them have undergone multiple modifications so that their original source has become obscured.
Perhaps the word that epitomises this process best is ‘bilong’. Based on the English ‘belong’ it eventually dropped the ‘i’ to become ‘blong’ and then dropped the ‘ng’ to become ‘blo’, which is the most common form used today.
In hearing the word today it would be difficult to relate it back to the original English word.
Working out the original source of Tok Pisin words can be quite interesting. In most cases the words are derived from English and German with a fair smattering of local languages.
Some words, however, have a more interesting and sometimes puzzling origin.
I was recently reading Alexander McCall Smith’s latest book in the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, ‘How to Raise an Elephant’. These novels are based in Botswana, an African nation just north of South Africa.
One of the characters is what is known there as a ‘sangoma’. This is a Zulu word and it means ‘shaman’ or ‘healer’.
Sangoma have a range of roles including counteracting witchcraft. In a society where illness is thought to be caused by witchcraft, contact with impure objects and the actions of ancestors they are in great demand.
Many sangoma are women but they all emphasise that for a trouble free life people must show respect for their ancestors lest they create mischief or worse.
Practitioners of sangoma can also have a darker side. With their knowledge of the spiritual world and the use of potions and other devices they are sometimes called upon to inflict pain and trouble upon individuals on behalf of people with evil intent.
In Papua New Guinea there is a very similar Tok Pisin word with the same connotations that is spelt only slightly differently.
Sanguma has different meanings depending upon where in the country it is used. These include witchcraft and sorcery but also shamanism and healing.
Unfortunately, the concept of sanguma is becoming more generic and is now frequently applied to women who are accused of being witches.
It has been claimed that this sort of interpretation originated in Simbu, spread into other parts of the highlands and then into coastal and island areas.
Whether that is the case or not it is interesting to note the similarities of practice and meaning between the Tok Pisin word and the Zulu word.
A reasonable conclusion would be that the Tok Pisin word ‘sanguma’ is derived from the South African word ‘sangoma’.
That derivation seems altogether strange until one realises that many Australians took part in the Second Boer War between 1899 and 1902. It is estimated that about 16,000 Australians fought in that war.
When the war ended many of these soldiers travelled to Papua to try their luck on the goldfields in places like the Mambare River and the Yodda field which was officially proclaimed in 1901.
In all likelihood they encountered sorcery among the local people and searching for a word to describe it fell back upon their previous experience in South Africa.
Thus a Zulu word from South Africa became embedded in what would evolve into one of Papua New Guinea’s lingua franca.
Or is that really true?
Captain John Murphy, in his 1943 vocabulary of Pidgin English, says the word originated in the Madang region where it was used to describe a “species of malign sorcery and also the person gifted with the power of performing it”.
Elsewhere he says the Pidgin English word for ‘sorcery’ is ‘poison’, now rendered as ‘posin’.
That may be where the word ‘puripuri’ originated but then again maybe it came from somewhere else.
Curiously, it isn’t a word that appears in Murphy’s vocabulary and only as a secondary option in the modern vocabularies available on the internet. Perhaps a reader might be able to enlighten us.
In any event, I rather like the South African explanation because it has a nice historical narrative attached to it.
But I guess it’s up to everyone to make up their own mind.