Narokobi: The man who knew what might have been
Covid mixes it with other threats in PNG

Tok Pisin: A language on history's march


ADELAIDE - The article by Baka Bina, ‘The Taxing Art of Translation, has recently stimulated much comment and discussion in PNG Attitude.

Accomplished writers like Michael Dom, Daniel Kumbon, Phil Fitzpatrick and others have offered their own insights and perspectives on the problems inherent in translating Tok Pisin into English.

Thinking about this issue, my mind immediately pondered the way in which modern English has evolved over many centuries into the enormous and pervasive force it is today.

And I believe that the history of English offers a few clues about what may happen to Tok Pisin.

CaptureI must preface these remarks by stressing that I am an historian, not an etymologist or linguist.

I am a native speaker of one English dialect (being Australian English) who happens to have a limited understanding of Tok Pisin.

The origins of English lie in the very distant past. It is fairly certain that the ancient inhabitants of what is now England, the Britons, spoke Celtic languages.

This is unsurprising given England’s physical proximity to what is now France, which was inhabited by various Celtic peoples.

The invasion and settlement of Britain by the Romans introduced Latin to the Britons and, over 400 years of Roman occupation, many Latin words found their way into common usage.

When the Romans departed, it was not very long before England was invaded and settled by people from mainland Europe, notably those of Norse or Germanic origin.

Despite their colourful warrior garb (reminds me of somewhere), Celtic-speaking Britons proved no match for invaders from northern Europe, although elements of their culture and language remain in the UK

They brought with them their own languages which over time merged into what became Anglo-Saxon or Old English.

The Celtic speaking Britons were pushed out of England into Wales, Cornwall and Scotland, where versions of the Celtic language persisted and, indeed, survive to this day.

As an aside, ancient Cornish, the language of my ancestors, is very similar to ancient Breton, a language which still has a few modern speakers living mostly in Brittany, a region of France.

Both Cornish and Breton were quite widely spoken until around 1700, when English and French respectively became dominant.

Old English was very similar to Old Norse. My own surname (Overland) was essentially the same in pronunciation and meaning in both languages. It means ‘high ground’.

The name is perhaps most prominent in the counties of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire in England and around Telemark in Norway, suggesting its origins lie in these two parts of the world.

The next major change to English was initiated in 1066 after the invasion and subjugation of England by the Normans. They spoke a French dialect and regarded Old English as a rather crude and rustic language.

The new Norman aristocracy initially held themselves apart from their new English subjects by, amongst other things, speaking almost exclusively in French.

French was the official language of England for about 300 years  from 1066 till 1362

However, a combination of inter-marriage between Norman and English people and the necessity to be able to communicate with the majority English population led to the gradual adoption of Old English as at least a second language.

As French words began to appear, they had an impact on both Old English, and English terms also began to appear in what was quite rapidly becoming Anglo-French.

Over time, the Norman rulers of England began to identify themselves more as English than French. While French was still the language of the Royal Court, the emerging dialect we now call Middle English was well established as a means of communicating outside of the Court.

In the case of the church and related legal and education systems, Latin was still used, even though it was nominally a ‘dead’ language.

Many Latin terms are still used in the British legal system and in medicine, and no doubt Papua New Guinea’s lawyers, doctors and nurses are still taught this same terminology.

In this way a linguistic legacy of the Roman Empire, which came to an end 1,500 years ago, has found its way even into the most remote corners of the world.

Eventually and inevitably, the English Royal Court began to use English as its preferred language.

In 1362 the Statute of Pleading made English the official language of parliament and the legal system.

Henry IV (1367-1413) was the first English king whose first language was English and his son the first king to communicate almost exclusively in the language.

Robert Cawdry's Table Alphabeticall of 1604 was the first attempt to list English words and their meanings

In this way English finally overcame the linguistic legacy of the Norman invasion although not without many French and Latin terms having found their way into the language.

The emergence of Modern English began in the late 15th century and is associated with what is called The Great Vowel Shift, whereby the way the language was pronounced changed radically over the 300 years from 1400 to 1700.

During this period virtually all vowels changed their pronunciation and a number of consonants, notably k and w, became silent.

This process explains why some combinations of vowels and letters came to be pronounced in several different ways.

Thus the letter combination ‘ough’ is pronounced differently in five different ways in the words thorough, bought, through, trough and rough.

Similarly, the vowel combination ‘ea’ is pronounced differently in break, beak and breakfast.

Oddly, and for no known reason, the hitherto silent ‘w’ in words like known and shown is making a comeback, with many people now pronouncing these words as ‘no-when’ and ‘sho-wen’. It is one of those linguistic mysteries for which English is infamous.

Pisin - Helton
ECN Helton's booklet was developed in New Guinea in 1942 to assist soldiers to understand Tok Pisin

No-one knows why the Great Vowel Shift took place but it clearly helped trigger the transition of Middle English into Early Modern English, in which William Shakespeare is regarded as the pre-eminent exponent.

Throughout this entire period, there were no rules of grammar and spelling for the use of English.

This resulted in the emergence of peculiar spelling and pronunciation, so much so that the English spoken in York was almost incomprehensible to someone in Cornwall 600 km away.

Indeed, the regional accents of that period persist until today. The very distinctive accent of someone from, say, Glasgow or Newcastle can be very difficult for other English speakers to understand.

The first effort to formalise the rules of English was made by Robert Cawdrey who, in 1604, published his ‘Table Alphabeticall’ in which he listed 3,000 English words and their meanings.

It is generally agreed, however, that it was the dictionary produced by Samuel Johnson in 1775 that was the first really comprehensive and systematic effort to formalise the spelling, pronunciation and meaning of Modern English words.

Later, in 1857, the great work that became known as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was begun.

This took far longer to compile than was originally foreseen because English turned out to be a vastly larger and more complex language than almost anyone had imagined.

In fact, the first definitive version of the OED was not published until 1928 and the 3rd revision has been under way since 2000 and is expected to be completed by 2034.

This brief history of the English language is relevant to Tok Pisin because it seems to be following a somewhat similar developmental path.

JJ Murphy's Book of Pidgin English
JJ Murphy's Book of Pidgin English was published in 1943 and guided many of us expatriate officers for the next 30 years

In a similar way to the Romans and Normans, the colonial rulers of pre-independence PNG and other Pacific nations, who brought with them their own languages, found that to communicate effectively with the indigenous people it was necessary to invent a pidgin language that was simple to learn but which enabled conversation on practical matters.

In PNG, initially at least, what is now Tok Pisin was very much an artefact of colonial power.

Initially it was based on German because the Germans had colonised New Guinea and later transitioning to become more Anglicised as Australians spoke their own dialect of English.

It has been calculated by the Leibniz Institute for the German Language that Tok Pisin is now derived 75% from English, 11% Kuanua (Tolai), 6% other New Guinean languages, 4% German, 3% Latin and 1% Malay.

Tok Pisin also stripped down the more complex grammar of its contributing languages and rapidly took on a life of its own.

So far as I know, the first attempt to produce a dictionary of Tok Pisin grammar and vocabulary was made by Captain John Joseph Murphy, who published his ‘The Book of Melanesian Pidgin English’ in 1943, apparently for use as a resource by both military and civilian officials in PNG during World War II.

As did most of my colleagues at the time, I used Murphy’s dictionary as a primary reference when I first went to PNG in 1969.

Murphy’s Tok Pisin vocabulary consisted of around 1,300 words. This is not a lot of words for a language but was sufficient for most conversational purposes.

Pisin - Mihalic
Francis Mihalic's dictionary and grammar was a worthy successor to Murphy's earlier work

No-one was trying to discuss or express difficult concepts in Tok Pisin, which was not regarded as a language capable of subtlety of expression.

Of course, since Murphy published his book Tok Pisin has evolved into a genuine Creole and is the first language of a large number of Papua New Guineans.

It is full of new words and expressions, many of which defy ready translation into English because, unless the cultural context is understood, a literal translation can be highly misleading.

A good example of this is the expression ‘baim meri’ or ‘peim meri’ which literally translates as to buy or pay a woman.

As Baka Bina and others have rightly pointed out, this Tok Pisin expression relates to the payment of bride price not to an act of prostitution.

To the best of my knowledge there is no recognised equivalent for the OED that relates to Tok Pisin.

It is probably time for the PNG government to commission the creation of an OED equivalent as an official reference for both Papua New Guineans and those who wish to learn Tok Pisin.

The translation of Tok Pidgin into English or other languages will remain somewhat problematic until such a resource is available.

Translation will continue to rely heavily upon the translator’s understanding of the cultural context, and that understanding may or may not be comprehensive.

Tok Pisin, like English before it, is in a process of rapid transition from a relatively simple language incapable of expressing complex or subtle ideas into a language that, of necessity, has to be capable of doing so.

Pisin - Volker
Volker's dictionary is still the best available but in need of a comprehensive update as Tok Pisin continues to mature as a fully-fledged language

The history of English suggests this process will take many years and require a great deal of intellectual flexibility.

I feel sure that Tok Pisin is perfectly capable of making this transition because its native speakers are just as intelligent, inventive and adaptable as were those who created modern English.

I also believe that the development of Tok Pisin will be greatly facilitated if and when the PNG government begins to take more seriously their country’s own special and wonderful language.

This means, of course, also taking PNG Indigenous literature seriously.


Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin Resources

The Book of Pidgin English, JJ Murphy, Department of District Services and Native Affairs, Port Moresby, 1943, 126 pages. Available from Abe Books (used) Recommended for historic value

The Jacaranda Dictionary and Grammar of Melanesian Pidgin, Rev F Mihalic SVD, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1971, 375 pages. Available from Blacks Fine Books (used) Recommended for educational value

Tok Pisin, R Litteral & RJ Franklin, Summer Institute of Linguistics, Ukarumpa, 1990, 181 pages. Listed on Amazon (out of print)

LitteralTokpisin, English, Bahasa Indonesia: Trilingual Dictionary, D Thomas, TR Andi Lolo & N Jakarimilena, Masalai Press, Oakland, 1997, 209 pages. Available from Abe Books (used)

Neo-Melanesian-English Concise Dictionary, Friedrich Steinbauer, Hippocrene Books, New York, 1998, 124 pages. Available from Amazon (used)

Bosavi-English-Tok Pisin Dictionary, BB Schieffelin & S Feld, Australian National University, Canberra, 1998, 209 pages. Available from Amazon (used)

Tok Pisin English Dictionary, CA Volker et al, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2008, 400 pages. Available from Booktopia (new)   Highly recommended

Tok Pisin English Dictionary, Author Unknown, Online Only, c 2016   Recommended


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Lindsay F Bond

This following indicative is offered as question.

As if in quantum of introspection, so does the observed becomes altered?

An example of particle science "...wave to collapse (or, more accurately, "decohere")..."


So perhaps to ask of each speaker why the choice of any individual word may evidence journey of language?

Michael Dom

Thank you for this interesting and informative article, Chris Overland.

Two personal websites I have come across which have Tok Pisin information are by Robert Eklund and Thomas Slone:,

The latter provides an extensive bibliography on Melanesian Pidgin English.

Also, two publications based on the Wantok Niuspepa include a 2010 PhD dissertation by Janna Lisa Zimmermann, 'The Increasing Anglicisation of Tok Pisin: An Analysis of the Wantok Corpus' and a 2011 book by Marcin Walczynski, 'A Living Language - Selected aspects of Tok Pisin in the Press', also based on the Wantok newspaper.

Both texts are available as downloadable PDFs.

Arthur Williams

Enjoyed your article, Chris, and the accompanying list of informative books.

I was recently viewing a BBC 'Digging For Britain' episode and one archaeologist expressed a view that Irish and Gaelic may have predated the arrival of Celtic.

I have been interested in bilingualism since it was part of my College syllabus.

K, Q, V, X and Z are missing from the Welsh alphabet and I became confused with its mutations that perhaps were an ancient anti-Roman plan by the Celts to confuse our first conquerors.

Even the Wales' name, Cymru, can change to Gymru in some sentences. Not many countries do that so I gave up trying to learn it.

I had found some support for the BBC archaeologist's theory especially among Eire and Scots nationalist academia.

One described the more ancient language as Ogham – an ancient Irish written language and claimed as the oldest known form of written Irish being at least 1,700 years old (

It mentions 500 stones still in existence, with most in Ireland but some in other parts of UK and in the Isle of Man tax haven.

In the mid 20th century my maternal grandfather could make himself understood by the so-called ('Sioni Wynwns') Breton speaking 'Johnny Onions' on their annual bicycle tour selling onions from Brittany.

England's King Billy (aka William III) who killed his wife's Catholic father James II to gain the throne, had his reign's coins printed with his name Guliemus which I guess is possibly Low German. His successor William IV did the same.

I once had two of the latter's two shilling coins (used for slingshot by grandkids) and wondered why my namesake's name was spelt so. Chris's explanation of the period of the disappearing 'w' could be the reason.

One other new fact I learned during the current era of 'Kant Trust Lidas' in Britain is that when he died William IV had no surviving legitimate child as heir but had managed ten illegitimate ones, although eight predeceased him. Illegitimates were not acceptable so Princess Victoria got crowned at 18 only to marry her Albert from yet another of Germany's 22 major states. He may have been back home in Germany on a visit where he caught the typhoid that killed him.

The French using Guillaume for William at least that sounds nicer than the Italian Guglielmo.

Prof Craig Volker has an interesting linguistic articles non-academic regularly in The Weekender section of The National newspaper. He has been living for quite a long time in beautiful Kavieng.

Baa Baa Black Sheep in Esperanto
'Ba, ba, safo! Cu vi havas lanon?' 
'Jes, tri sakojn: prenu en la manon! 
Unu por la mastro, unu por mastrin', 
Kaj unu por la eta knabo ce la strata fin'

[Translated into the 'artificial' language Esperanto by MC Butler. It is supposed to be an easy language to learn]

Ed Brumby

Excellent work, Chris - and I agree, absolutely that a formal/authorised codification of Tok Pisin is long overdue. Fr Mihalic's excellent dictionary served that purpose for quite a while. That task need not be as difficult as some would suggest.

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