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Whither Tok Pisin?

Paul Oates 1
Paul Oates


NOOSA – Author and ex-kiap Paul Oates is a good friend – but not an uncritical one – of Papua New Guinea.

The respect he developed for the people of PNG during his service in the country from 1969 to 1975 has stuck with him, as has his knowledge of Tok Pisin, which he exercises to this day in his loyal readership of the Pidgin English news service of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Every language changes over time but what particularly worries Paul is how Tok Pisin is showing a tendency to simply absorb an English word, put –im on the end, render it phonetically and call it Tok Pisin.

Stopim, helpim, iputim, isoim…..

Or even more lazily, render a word phonetically in a pretence of Tok Pisin.

Raits (rights), rejun (region), trening (training), awaness (awareness)….

“Is PNG Tok Pisin progressing along a lateral direction in development and evolution or a vertical direction towards English?” Paul asked rhetorically in a recent email.

Husat i save? Who knows?

Another ex-kiap, PNG Attitude contributor Chris Overland responded contemplatively:

I think that we lapuns [elders] learned a form of Pidgin that was only ever intended to be used as a basic form of communication, dealing with everyday things rather than anything complex.

Fifty years later, we live in a different world and the language has changed into something used for much more complex purposes.

Unsurprisingly, Papua New Guineans, as is their wont, have cheerfully adopted and adapted English and other words to suit the changed circumstances.

This happens in English too: words and expressions come into and go out of fashion or are reinterpreted to mean something different to their original meaning.

Sometimes, as is the case with the previously silent "w" in words like known, shown and grown, the letter suddenly and inexplicably reasserts itself, hence "showun", "knowun" and "growun".

In my home state, South Australia, the former transport minister, Stephan Knoll, insisted on pronouncing his surname "Ka-noll". I am now waiting for words like "ka-night" or "ka-nowledge" or "ka-nackered" to appear in the lexicon!

I understand that the world’s less widely spoken indigenous languages are disappearing at a rapid rate.

They are being replaced by what might be called the dominant languages of the world such as English, French, Spanish and, of course, Mandarin.

I suppose that Neo-Melanesian Pidgin (Tok Pisin) could reasonably be described as one of the many different versions of English that exist around the world today, so it is unsurprising that modern English words are being incorporated into it.

Whether all these different versions of English are diverging or converging is a bit unclear. I guess time will tell.

In the meantime, we speakers of ‘Strine’ will carry on regardless.


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Chips Mackellar

I would have thought that "posh pisin" was a natural development of the language.

The "posh" version already exists in other languages as in Oxford English and Strine, and also in our regional languages.

For example Indonesian has a "posh" version spoken by the elite and TVRI announcers. It is referred to as "Bahasa halus" in Indonesian, and in English it is called "Standard Indonesian" which differs from the language of the streets which is referred to "Bahasa kasar".

And in neighbouring Malaysia, there is a similar distinction known as "High Malay" used by the elites, and "Bazaar Malay" used in the streets.

Not to be confused with the brand of Malay used by our troops when in bed with a local girl. Their language was referred to as "Mosquito Net Malay."

Ed Brumby

Posh Pisin … now there’s a thought, Phil. And not entirely beyond the realms of possibility in the evolution of Tok Pisin.

After all, the ‘received pronunciation’/Queens/Oxford English' cited by Chris Overland is, in linguistic development terms, a relatively recent phenomenon.

‘Received pronunciation’ (RP), as the appellation implies, is/was the accent/mode of speech required in order to be received by/introduced to the English monarch.

Introduced and codified during Queen Victoria’s reign, it was designed and intended keep those upstart, nouveau riche northern industrialists and their allegedly coarse manner of speaking out of her court.

It thus fulfilled one of the purposes of language cited in my previous comment: to identify/include and exclude

RP was de rigueur for the likes of ABC news readers and Qantas pilots until shortly after Gough Whitlam’s election – when, apparently, it became acceptable to speak some form of Strine.

I still recall the shock of delight I felt, on my QF flight back to Australia after a year of postgraduate linguistics studies at Edinburgh, to hear the Captain making announcements, not in RP, but with a common Australian accent.

And are there those amongst us who remember that infamous work of the 1960s, 'Let Stalk Strine' by the incognito Afferbeck Lauder. So, for you newcomers to Strine, what might 'Let Stalk Strine' and 'Afferbeck Lauder' become if rendered in the Queen's English? - KJ

Philip Fitzpatrick

I can't say that I've ever encountered accented Posh Pisin Chris but it wouldn't surprise me if it happens.

Keeping up with Port Moresby street Pisin is nigh on impossible for the occasional visitor but the comedic value of those who insert long English words into their speech is always a source of great amusement.

When listening to politicians and business people talking to crowds in the villages in such terms it's always interesting to watch the faces in the crowd. In most cases it just seems to wash over them. Whether they understand the words or just don't want to put their ignorance on display is hard to tell.

Then again, describing something like an air core drilling rig in Pisin can be a challenge - skru bilong win doesn't quite cut it..

Lindsay F Bond

Broadly, Michael, but so easily said.

If maybe 10% percent of any population is aurally less able, more could be put to entice visually.

Hence, in tok-singsing, but writ.

Expediency curtails efforts of most but 'thems' more mentally agile.

Chris Overland

The following comment by Michael Dom provides a fascinating insight into the development of Tok Pisin:

"Tok Pisin emi toktok bilong mipela ol liklik man meri bilong giraun.

"Ol siti lain iken traim long 'stailim' ol iet long kainkain toktok, o bai mi tromoi tok stret olsem ol siti lain iken traim long bilasim toktok bilong ol iet."

I interpret Michael's comment to mean that the urban elite seek to both demonstrate and burnish their own status and prestige by using a form of Tok Pisin that presents them as more educated and having a superior vocabulary to their rural and remote brethren.

I can remember a time when this was the way in which a certain class of Australians used to speak with an accent reminiscent of what was variously called "received pronunciation" or "Queen's English" or "Oxford English".

This accent was typically found amongst members of the British aristocracy and others of high social standing, as well as BBC and ABC announcers.

It was strongly associated with Britain's great public schools and universities. In Australia, the best private schools strove to inculcate this accent into their students via elocution lessons and constant exposure to it.

Prominent Australian politicians who had this accent include Sir Robert Menzies and Malcolm Fraser. It was widely used in the professions, notably the law and medicine.

A person who spoke with this accent was sending an unmistakable message that they were not part of the "common people" or, as Michael has described them, "ol liklik man meri bilong giraun".

These days the accent is very uncommon, with what is now called the standard or general Australian accent being widely spoken throughout society, although the broad Australian accent, which features very strong nasal tones and that was once the hallmark of what was called the "working class", still survives.

So it seems that Tok Pisin may be going down the path once trodden by Australians where the elite sought to differentiate themselves from the common folk by means of a distinctive accent.

This seems to be a characteristic of elites across the world.

The Roman patricians spoke Latin with a distinct accent that was different to that of the great mass mass of plebeian citizenry and there still is an identifiable class of mainly highly educated and wealthy Americans who speak with a distinctive and cultivated "mid Atlantic" accent, which blends received pronunciation into their speech patterns.

It will be fascinating to see if Tok Pisin follows the well trodden path of differential accents and vocabularies according to social class or a much more generic or standard version finally becomes predominant.

Michael Dom

Tok Pisin will continue to thrive. Jan Wohlgemuth expressed this well in 1997;

"We saw that Tok Pisin is far more as a strongly corrupted English implemented with some Papua words, which is used as contact language between colonial gentlemen and natives of Papua New Guinea.

It is the native language of a not inconsiderable number of speakers, it is one of the state languages of Papua New Guinea, and it possesses a differentiated grammar, which fairly suits all requests to a functioning everyday life language.

And this grammar has developed itself in the last about 120 years in accordance with the demands, which were made against Tok Pisin.

It was first shaped from striving to understandability and maximal communicative economy, became however in its further development, particularly after the independence of Papua New Guinea (1975) ever more the general traffic language: it became a Creole.

Despite a structure of different categories and styles it can still be seen from Tok Pisin that it was and is subject to language economics. A redundant multiple marking does not exist, or only as stylistic device. Circumstances, which can be concluded from the context, are not repeatedly marked likewise.

Briefly said: Tok Pisin is - despite all first glance "poverty of forms" - an independent, fully functioning language. "

Modern day speakers, the city slickers, may come out to the sticks with their fancy talk and be given a hard face slap by the great unwashed.

It's not their fault but.

We have our own languages, with idioms, expressions and perspectives which will find local translations into Tok Pisin - what we call 'paitim tokpisin bilong yu gut'.

Tok Pisin emi toktok bilong mipela ol liklik man meri bilong giraun.

Ol siti lain iken traim long 'stailim' ol iet long kainkain toktok, o bai mi tromoi tok stret olsem ol siti lain iken traim long bilasim toktok bilong ol iet.

And there you have the heart of Tok Pisin: 'stailim' is the bastardization of 'style', the unstated expression being that something is being styled, self-styled or dressed up (bilas) to be another thing which it is not, or is dressed up simply for show.

Em nau, laka?

Chips Mackellar

At least Tok Pisin is still flourishing in whatever form it changes into.

This is not the case of Police Motu which is fading into history along with all the old kiaps who spoke it.

Dr Momia Teariki-Tautea | Gold Coast, Australia

Em tru, Tok Pisin em senis olgeta. Taim mi liklik manki skul long Hutjena long Buka long taem blong Indipendens, Tok Pisin ino bin gat planti Tok Inglis olsem nao.

Na tu, taem mi go long ol narapela peles long PNG mi bin lukim olsem Tok Pisin blong ol i no seim olsem blong mipela ol Bogenvil.

Yu ken lukim long Tok Pisin blong mi olsem mi holim iet tru Tok Pisin blong taem mi bin kamap (1960's).

Em nau, laga?

Chris Overland

I enjoyed Ed Brumby's comments but wish to clarify what I meant when I said that Pidgin is one of many different versions of English.

While I think that what I said is true, it is not intended to mean that Tok Pidgin is therefore not a distinct language in its own right.

I think that Tok Pidgin is an example of where a foreign language introduced by a colonial power has morphed into an entirely new and distinctive lingua franca whilst still retaining many of the structural elements of the original colonial language, in this case English.

For example, Tok Pidgin does not allocate gender to objects (unlike French or Spanish) and indicates tense by the use of very similar terms as English, e.g. bipoa, todei, bihain taim. The basic rules of its grammar are strikingly similar to English even if many of the words and expressions used are peculiar to Pidgin.

This makes it comparatively easy for an English speaker to learn, where someone whose first language was not English is presented with a much harder task.

English is a language in perpetual transition from one form to another. It readily adopts words from other languages where these are useful and appropriate. It has done this over many centuries and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.

Also, English as it is spoken in, say, Northern Ireland or Scotland, while understandable to many other English speakers can be quite impenetrable to an English speaker living in the southern USA or Scandinavia.

Pidgin apparently is heading down the same path, with words from English and other languages finding their way into the lexicon. This is, in some respects at least, making it look more like English to those of us who can remember the version spoken in pre-independence times.

My vague recollection is that the version of Pidgin promulgated by JJ Murphy in "The Book of Pidgin English" published in 1943 had a vocabulary of around 1200 words. Today, I would imagine that the number of words in use is much higher and most of them will be derived from English.

On this basis, I stand by my assertion that Tok Pidgin, while undoubtedly a separate and distinct language in its own right, is one of many versions of English that now appear in the former colonial possession of Britain and its dominions.

Just like "Strine" really, only much easier on the ear.

Paul Oates

I'm puzzled at your puzzlement Ed. Rather than see Neo Melanesian suffer the indignity of being atrophied down to a simple broken English, I have always favoured English being logically amended to being written phonetically.

In fact, I had to re-educate myself somewhat on return to Australia as the illogicality of written English clashed with my wholehearted support for Tok Pisin and how that language was expressed and written in PNG.

I find the subtleties of Tok Pisin are part of its appeal and enjoy the wonderful artfulness of expression when a fluent user can convey a whole kaleidoscope of double or triple meanings that might seem very dull when expressed in the more technically appropriate English.

The issue is one of constancy. I suggest upon reflection, you may perhaps accept it's a simple matter of experience and education.

Either a language is written correctly, in either PNG phonetics or the current historical mishmash of say English vocab and grammar or there is a real possibility of the reader misunderstanding what is actually being expressed in writing and the ideas and thoughts intended to be conveyed.

Tasol nogut mi mauswara planti lo displa liklik hevi blo mi. Em samting nating tasol.

Ed Brumby

I’m puzzled as to why Paul is worried at ‘… Tok Pisin is showing a tendency to simply absorb an English word, put –im on the end, render it phonetically and call it Tok Pisin.’

What worries him most: the borrowing/absorption of English words, or the modification (the addition of the verb marker –im) – or what some might term ‘bastardisation’ of English lexical items?

Given his understanding and command of Tok Pisin, Paul’s concern surely cannot be with the former. After all, he would know that borrowings from, and modifications of English words constitute the greater bulk of the Tok Pisin lexicon.

He would also know that the addition of the ‘–im’ to English verbs has also been a longstanding Tok Pisin practice.

I suspect, therefore, that he is annoyed that Tok Pisin speakers and writers don’t simply use the standard English forms.

Or, to go further perhaps, why don’t Papua New Guineans just speak English?

Among many purposes, language serves as a means of identification and of inclusion and exclusion.

Tok Pisin serves this purpose for many Papua New Guineans and is emphatically not, as Chris Overland suggests, ‘one of the many different versions of English that exist around the world’.

Although born from a number of languages - German, English, Kuanua etc, (just as English is derived from several different languages), it is a recognized, stand-alone, independent language in its own right.

To be annoyed by, and rail against Tok Pisin borrowings from and modifications of English and/or to claim that it is merely another version of English is, in my humble view, a reflection of linguistic (and cultural) imperialism.

And, let’s face it, English has such widespread currency internationally largely because of British imperialism.

Robert Forster

Back in 1968 Tok-Pisin was a maligned language – most criticised by Europeans who thought they had cracked it but had not.

At that time I worked with labour lines in the bush and found it indispensable because it helped me converse freely, even delicately, with many of the Papua New Guineans I worked with.

Maski was not just a critical word but a subtle one. Its straight translation was (and no doubt still is) “it doesn’t matter” which might have been accompanied by a wrinkling of the nose or a shrug.

But “maski’s” real meaning rested entirely on context and inflexion. Everything depended on oral emphasis because at one extreme it could be interpreted as a gentle “I forgive you” and on the other as an expletively delivered “bugger off”.

For example while engaged in deep conversation with a confidante they might say “maski” in the softest of tones. Literally “it doesn’t matter” but in this instance “Don’t worry” or “It’s nothing”.

Then contrast this with a “maski” either forced through clenched teeth or delivered emphatically with the volume turned up.

In that situation “it doesn’t matter” has to be interpreted as “That’s it – I’ve had enough” or if it covers outright dismissal of the suggestion that has been made, at the very least “Get lost” or “Go away”.

Then there was a quite different inflexion if maski was used to suggest “let’s change this tiresome subject” or even more subtly, “that was fun – but let’s move on”.

In 1975, when I left PNG, the Tok-Pisin spoken in deep bush was a rich, essentially oral, language and I am interested in knowing if that is still the case.

However I too am baffled by the Tok-Pisin that appears on Twitter and Facebook. As Paul says it carries much more slang and crudely adapted English words than it used to.

Perhaps these have been introduced by educated Papua New Guineans as a means of excluding outsiders (especially perhaps English speakers) from private conversations by conversing in a code that is understood only by themselves.

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