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You’re 'katim lewa' & I’m 'ai gumi'

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NOOSA – One of the great pleasures of entering Melanesia’s linguistic gateway is to discover the realm of Tok Pisin, with its animated rhythms, vibrant style, and idioms as creative and colourful as a political promise.

Melanesian Pidgin emerged in the south-west Pacific during the late second half of the 19th century on copra and sugarcane plantations to which labour was imported from Melanesia, Malaysia and China.

The need for a lingua franca to provide common communication gave rise to a language of simple grammatical structure for use as a basic mutually understood tongue which drew its vocabulary from whatever contributing languages it encountered – English, Malay, German, Melanesian vernaculars and many more.

It seems that as missionaries, traders and fortune seekers travelled to Papua New Guinea from the Pacific and Queensland they used the ‘plantation Pidgin’ that had developed in those places.

Having taken root in New Guinea as a subsidiary language, Pidgin spread steadily through this well populated and rich island, gaining great momentum as it opened itself fully to the outside world and to its need to straddle the major differences between its own 850 vernaculars.

Eventually, Tok Pisin emerged as a primary language that grew in popularity and complexity at – to those of us who first learned it in the 1950s and 1960s – breakneck speed.

As it matured, it developed a flamboyant rhetorical style and that ingenious and vast trove of idioms that provide continuing delight and often great hilarity.

Modern day Tok Pisin is not as its name suggests a Pidgin language. It was once, but moved beyond this to become a fully-fledged Creole – a language into which a substantial population is born.

In the case of Tok Pisin, this transition may have occurred around the 1980s, although I invite readers’ views on this matter.

You can link here to read some origin theories about Pidgin and Creole languages.

But I want to have some fun and canvas a few of those idiomatic expressions that I find bring such amusement and joy to Tok Pisin. These are drawn from the Tok Pisin English Dictionary and focus on body parts.

References to body parts play large in constructing Tok Pisin idioms.

Here, the literal meaning of bun is ‘bone’ and the idioms that arise from bun refer mostly to physical appearance:

bun nating (bone nothing) a very thin person

bun baik (bone bicycle) a very thin person

longpela bun man (long bone man) a very tall person

bun kakaruk (bone chicken) a very thin or malnourished person

In Tok Pisin ai literally refers to an ‘eye’ or ‘eyes’:

ai gumi (eye rubber) ‘big eyes’

ai pas (eye fastened) ‘imperceptive’, or literally, one who is blind

tromoi ai (throw away eye) ‘accomplishing nothing’

The word lewa refers primarily to the ‘liver’, in parts of Melanesia considered to be the seat of emotions and associated with various degrees of affection:

katim lewa (cut the liver) ‘very attractive’

brukim lewa (break the liver) ‘very sorry’

kaikaim lewa bilong yu (eat liver of yours) ‘extreme attraction or devotion’

lewa bilong mi (liver of mine) ‘my true love’

lewa pen (liver pains) ‘brokenhearted’

And to finish, a few other body parts as idioms:

tit i gat windua bilong em (teeth have a window of him/her) ‘missing tooth’

bel i olsem elekopta (stomach is like a helicopter) ‘pot-bellied’

meri i karamap saksak (the woman covering sago) ‘pregnant’

popo i mau (pawpaw is soft) ‘woman’s breast’

kunai i paia (sword grass has been burned) ‘bald-headed’

kru i paul (brain is tainted) ‘drunk’ or ‘crazy’

skin i dai (skin is dead) ‘lazy’ ‘weak’

man i gat namba (man who has a number) ‘very important person’

Hope you enjoyed that. I’ll do it again some time.


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Bernard Corden

Maybe the following link can help:

Bernard's reference is to The Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Language Structures, an excellent resource providing information on 76 pidgin and creole languages - KJ

Chips Mackellar

Thank you, Keith and Paul, but if you translate your translations back into English again, you get something like this: "to care for him who was in the war," which suggests care for a past affliction from the war.

But the future perfect tense of "shall have borne" indicates that the affliction, whatever it is, has not yet occurred, as in the exposure to agent orange which afflicted our diggers long after the Vietnam war ended, or more recently the traumas which have not yet occurred to our diggers who have recently returned from Afghanistan.

Want to try "shall have borne" again?

Nup, I'll leave that to you - KJ

Gideon Endo

"Na yupla olgeta ting olsem wanem long tok pisin blong nau, em orait o nogat."

Em nambawan gutpela moa, Gideon - KJ

Bernard Corden

Dear Chips, Here is a verse from 'Grandpa was a Carpenter' by the late John Prine:

Grandpa was a carpenter
He built houses stores and banks
Chain smoked Camel cigarettes
And hammered nails in planks
He was level on the level
And shaved even every door
And voted for Eisenhower
'Cause Lincoln won the war.

Lindsay F Bond

In earlier Tok Pisin, heightened delight and lasting fascination are evident. See You’re 'katim lewa' & I’m 'ai gumi'.

That mental challenge and engagement grew in the soil and toil of human need and administrative impost. Perhaps not dissimilar is the confrontation of (some) poems, though if need is not paramount, discard is one choice on a trajectory to distaste.

So what delight persists? The words or the context or the uniqueness of privilege?

Can there be any doubt that poetry in tok pisin will swell up, where, ranging from poverty to privilege, there grows availability of time.

As an aside, about sipsip pipl…

Mor’son has a little plan,
his pleas are quite on show,
ev’ry care ambitions vent
us folk heed ‘wont’, you know,
so followed him on rules he say
which are against ill turn
yet made quick journalists to quest
his seize on plan some spurn
why does vote to him on lead
where that is generally slim
scary scarce our vax supply
his plan no fault by him.

Paul Oates

"To care for him who shall have born the battle."

Halivim olgeta husat ibin stap wantaim lo bikpla birua.

Chips Mackellar

A struggle with the past tense Bernard? How about the future perfect tense as in this quote from Abraham Lincoln in 1865, now on a plaque outside the HQ of the US Department of Veterans Affairs:

"To care for him who shall have born the battle." Translation anyone?

'Baimbai yumi lukautim gut ol man husait i paitim woa' - KJ

Philip Fitzpatrick

Jim, I went back to PNG in 1997 to work in oil and gas exploration and later in social mapping until about 2015. In that capacity I got to visit many remote areas and villages.

The Tok Pisin I spoke and the words I used in 1997 was laughingly acknowledged by local people as archaic - yu man bilong bipo laka!

It took me a while to get up to speed but I reckon if I went back there now I'd find the same problem.

Jim Moore

Chris, you're right, the Pisin I heard in places like public service offices and supermarkets during my time there in 1998, 1999 and 2005 was quite unrelated to the Pisin we knew back in the day.

Two points are relevant, I think. If one was to get back to the far bush and talk to local people who are of our generation, it would be interesting to see how similar the Pisin they talk now is to what was spoken then.

Secondly, the sheer speed at which the language has evolved has to have few counterparts anywhere in the world, I would have thought.

I have a copy of 'The Book of Pidgin English' by John J Murphy, a pre-war kiap, who became an ANGAU officer during the war.

It was first published in 1943 and my copy is from the eighth edition published by WR Smith and Paterson, Brisbane in 1966. It must have had a fairly wide distribution during the years 1943-66.

A very useful book, probably even now, as it goes into grammar and the practical application of phases and terms, as well as being just a dictionary of words.

The foreword is by Maj-Gen Basil Morris, General Officer Commanding ANGAU, so it must have been used by military personnel as a textbook.

Wasn't there a dictionary published by Fr Mihalic of the Catholic mission, Madang?

Also I remember a RPNGC Inspector (from memory, Mike Thomas), who used to have a program on the ABC in the late 1960's-early 70's, trying to educate expats on how to speak and use Pisin.

Maybe the ABC still has copies of that in the archives.

Fr Mihalic's Dictionary and Grammar of Melanesian Pidgin was published by Jacaranda Press in 1971. And you're right, the ABC also produced a small handbook to accompany Mike Thomas's attempts to educate expats in the language. I seem to have misplaced my copy. Then there is the online Tok Pisin - English Bilingual Dictionary - much more up to date. Link to it below - KJ

Bernard Corden

I find the PNG Tokpisin version of the Lord's Prayer far more descriptive:

Papa bilong mipela, yu stap long heven. Mekim nem bilong yu i kamap bikpela. Mekim kingdom bilong yu i kam. Strongim mipela long bihainim laik bilong yu long graun, olsem ol i bihainim long heven. Givem mipela kaikai inap long tude. Pogivim rong bilong mipela olsem mipela i pogivim ol arapela i mekim rong long mipela. Sambai long mipela long taim bilong traim. Na rausim olgeta samting nogut long mipela.

The language is often derided as baby talk but I find it most colourful although I often struggle with its past tense.

When I get stuck I just throw in a few grace words or fillers such as long or blong, which are the Tokpisin equivalent of "Kind of" or "Sort of" "You Know" "So on and so forth" and "Basically"

At least with PNG Tokpisin you don't see or hear any of the purple prose that always annoyed George Orwell:

Chris Overland

Thanks for this amusing and enlightening article Keith.

The pidgin I learnt in PNG is clearly very much out of date but the language has lost nothing in its capacity to invent wonderfully descriptive words and phrases.

One descriptive phrase that always amused me was hearing someone described as 'long long long dring' (literally mad from alcohol or otherwise seriously drunk).

I also admired the sheer descriptive eloquence of a pidgin description of influenza symptoms, being 'bun na het i pein, skin i tait na win ino inap'. Any doctor ought to be able to understand the clinical significance of such a description.

My grand children have learnt to recite the first verse of 'Mary had a Little Lamb' in pidgin:

Meri i gat liklik sipsip
Girass bilong en i waitpella tru
Sapos Meri i go wokabaut
Bai sipsip igo wantaim tu

Apologies if my spelling is off but that is how it goes phonetically speaking.

Surely Papua New Guinea's very own William Shakespeare will one day exploit the full potential of pidgin to create the country's first bona fide indigenous literary masterpiece?

Philip Fitzpatrick

There were a couple of 45rpm records floating around in the 1960s including one that had Tok Pisin monologues on it. From memory one involved playing a piano and the other was about a "mixmasta bilong Jesus" i.e. a helicopter.

I heard the term used in Vanuatu so maybe that's where it came from. (If you can speak PNG Tok Pisin you can get by in Vanuatu).

I've got a secondhand copy of Hank Curth's 1968 book 'Papua New Guinea: A Picture Sound Book' that comes with a 33.5rpm record but I tossed out my record player several years ago and don't know what's on it. It was publshed by Jacaranda Press.

The inscription on the flyleaf is "To my wonderful husband Grame. All my love. Marlene. Wewak, December 1969".

Ed Brumby

Two of my all-time favourites - with apologies for any mis-spelling:

Back in the '60s, Radio Wewak presenters of the nightly music request program always introduced the then universally popular Slim Dusty thus:

'Em nau, kerosin meresin' (the medicine to fire you up).

On meeting a friend walking around the Wewak compound:

'Yu raun we' (where are you going?)

'Mi raun lo painim' (I'm looking [for a woman])

'Yu painim?' (Did you find one?)

'Nogat. Mi siutim koronas' (No, I didn't. It was like planting seeds in crushed coral)

Jim Moore

'Bel i olsem elekopta'. It says something about technological changes in regard to helicopter design and construction, but in the old days helicopters consisted of a perspex bubble in front of the engine and rotor, to carry at most three people. And the airframe consisted entirely of exposed tubing with no 'skin' to cover it.

I remember the old term for a helicopter was 'balus i bun nating'.

Nowadays, I think the pisin term is 'choppa'.

Keith, you may have a photo of a 1960's era Bell helicopter.

'Balus i bun nating' - perfect. Unfortunately I can't run photos in the Comments section, Jim, but a search for 'Bell helicopter' gets them straight away - KJ

Bernard Corden

My favourite PNG common nouns are:

Rok Rok - Frog
Meme - Goat

I still cannot fathom how a crocodile is called a Puk Puk but suspect it is also onomatopoeia.

Bernard Corden

I am frequently told the following: "Kru blong yu olsem kulau" - 'Your brain is like a green coconut' or more simply, 'You haven't got a clue'.

It leaves me pondering about that wonderful adversarial saying from Michel de Montaigne regarding the best marriages are between a blind wife and deaf husband.

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