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.