Learning Tok Pisin: it’s harder than it looks by Dorian (Dusty) Nicol
At first as I began to learn Pidgin, I thought, ‘This is easy. It’s a form of baby talk and there’s nothing to it’. I could not have been more mistaken
Unravel | Issue 13 | Edited
I arrived in Papua New Guinea from California in September 1980, a young geologist on the adventure of his life.
Esso Eastern, a subsidiary of Exxon Minerals, had hired me to open their copper and gold exploration office and I was living my dream, setting off on a major career step toward the life of physical and intellectual adventure I wanted.
I was just turning 24 when I arrived in PNG and I was inordinately proud of myself for having been given this responsibility at such a young age.
It was only later that I found out my pride may have been a little unfounded. Esso Eastern had been trying to recruit someone for months and had nearly a dozen resignations in the process.
At the meeting with me, the head of human resources said something like, “This young fool actually wants to go to PNG. Somebody hire him and put him on a plane before he changes his mind.”
I love languages. All my life, I have enjoyed studying and learning new languages.
Everywhere I worked, I managed to learn at least some of the local language.
I knew from my reading that PNG had four official languages, including English, English Pidgin (officially designated Neo-Melanesian Pidgin), Hiri Motu, a simplified trading language and sign language.
In fact, as I learned, Pidgin (Tok Pisin) is the most widely spoken lingua franca of PNG and without a working knowledge of it one will not get very far.
Proper, formal Pidgin is a highly structured language. It evolved and was eventually formalised and codified in order to solve the problem arising from there being so many distinct languages in PNG –839 in all, about 12% of the world’s languages.
As a result of the isolation in which most tribes had spent their histories, mutually intelligible conversation was largely impossible.
Over time, as is often seen in regions that have seen an influx of arrivals from outside, various forms of language evolved of which Pidgin was one.
But it has continued to evolve and is today formalised into a codified language in its own right.
At first as I began to learn Pidgin, I thought, this is easy. It is a form of baby talk and there is nothing to it.
I could not have been more mistaken. Tok Pisin has a precise, albeit occasionally cumbersome, vocabulary and, to my surprise, a precise grammar and syntax. If one does not use the correct vocabulary, grammar and syntax, one is simply not understood.
Most of the words are based on English words, but there is a good sprinkling of German, Malay, Portuguese and local plestok (vernacular) words as well.
For example, the verb ‘to get rid of’ is rausim, derived from the German raus (out). To get rid of something is to rausim em.
Tok Pisin is spelled phonetically, exactly as it is pronounced, but this can be a little confusing for Americans because, given Papua New Guinea’s colonial heritage, words are pronounced as they would be pronounced by an Australian.
For example, the word ‘here’ is hia, ‘mister’ is masta, ‘morning’ is moning, and ‘beer’ is bia.
In addition, the consonant ‘f’ usually is realised as a “p” sound: ‘afternoon’ is apinun, and ‘finish’ is pinis.
Tok Pisin has a limited vocabulary so, as in German, complex words are typically formed by compounding simpler words.
Usually, these are quite logical. For example, a bank is haus mani (‘house money’); an office is haus pipia (‘house paper’) and a geologist is man bilong lukim ston (‘man who looks at stones’. ‘I am hungry’ becomes bel bilong mi karai aut.
Regrettably, by the time I left PNG, a helicopter had become helikopta, but when I first arrived it was still a mixmasta bilong Jesus (‘Mixmaster belonging to Jesus’). There is poetry in these constructions.
Another wonderful and expressive phrase in Tok Pisin is maus wara, literally ‘mouth water’. Because the word wara (‘water’) in a different context is used to mean diarrhoea, maus wara means verbal diarrhoea or meaningless talk.
This can be expanded into the phrase maus wara man to mean ‘someone who is all talk’. A frequently used insult in Tok Pisin is the phrase, Yu maus wara man tasol (you’re just all talk).
Another logical word in Pidgin is the word for friend – wantok. The origin is ‘one talk’ or one who speaks the same language, therefore a friend or fellow kin.
My favourite word, and to my knowledge the longest single word in Tok Pisin, is the word for ‘piano’.
My word processor’s spell check comes close to exploding when I try to write this as a single word in Tok Pisin: ‘bigpela-bokis-i-gat-waitpela-tis-na-bilakpela-tis-nau-sapos-yu-paitim-i-kraiaut-no-gut-tru.’
The literal breakdown in English is: a piano is a ‘big box with white teeth and black teeth which, if you strike it, cries out loudly’.
I don’t think anyone could dispute that this is an accurate description of a piano.
I have read recently that there is some controversy now over whether this word was really used to describe a piano or was just a joke. I can attest that I heard it used with my own ears more than once.
Pronouns are very simple: mi, yu, and em are respectively I, you, and he/she/it/them.
Yupela (‘you fellow’) is the plural form of ‘you’ (or, ‘you all’).
There are two words for ‘we’, and this removes an ambiguity that can occur in English. The word yumi (‘you me’) means we, including the person being addressed. The word mipela means we, excluding the person who is being addressed.
So, for example, if I were to say to you, yumi drinkim bia, that means, ‘We, including you, are drinking beer.’ However, the phrase mipela drinkim bia means, ‘We are drinking beer but we don’t have any for you.’
The past and future are indicated simply using the words pinis (‘finish’) for past and bai for future.
Mi wokim pinis means ‘I have completed the job’ or ‘I worked’. Bai mi wokim means ‘I will work’. To go pinis is ‘to leave’.
There is an interesting construction that combines the past and perfect constructions to convey a certain meaning. The phrase bai mi go pinis literally means ‘I will have gone’, but is used to mean ‘I will leave’ with an implication of permanency.
When expats leave PNG for the last time, they are said to have gon pinis or ‘gone finish’.
Despite the somewhat cumbersome vocabulary, it is possible to convey subtleties of meaning in Tok Pisin.
The word for ‘break’ or ‘broken’ is bagarap, derived from the common Australian expression ‘bugger up’. My favourite example of this was the safety information card aboard a Talair flight.
The Tok Pisin word for ‘aircraft’ is balus, which can also mean bird. The origin of this word is unclear, but I remember being told that it was derived from one of the tribal languages of southern New Ireland.
Anyway, a propeller plane is a balus, while a jet is a simok balus. The first time I boarded a Talair flight from Lae to Rabaul, I was handed a card captioned, Sapos balus i bagarap: ‘Suppose the airplane buggers up (crashes)’.
The word masta, obviously a relic of colonial days, referred to a ‘white man’. It was not necessarily a token of respect or indication of subservience, and in fact could be delivered in a sneering tone indicating disparagement.
I never became comfortable being addressed as masta. It just felt wrong.
The word misis meant ‘white woman’. The word man refers to an indigenous Melanesian man and the word meri refers to an indigenous Melanesian woman.
These words can also be applied to indicate the gender of other creatures as well. For example, a bull is a bulmakau man and a cow is a bulmakau meri.
I was back in PNG for the first time in 35 years last September and the words masta and misis seemed to have fallen out of favour, but I wasn’t there very long and I may be mistaken
The word pikinini does not evoke a connotation of slavery, as it does in the United States, but refers to ‘a child’ of any race. This led to the truly wonderful reference to Prince Charles in the Port Moresby press as nambawan pikanini bilong Misis Kwin: ‘number one child of the Queen’.
There is a wonderful and versatile phrase in Tok Pisin: em nau. The closest literal translation would be ‘well now’, but em nau packs considerably more meaning and occasionally, a fatalistic philosophy of life.
If a man complains that his head hurts because he drank too much beer last night, his friend may say in sympathy, ‘em nau’. Another man’s wife left him for a rich trader, ‘em nau’ – that sort of behaviour is regrettable but to be expected.
The Chinese trade store raised its prices for tinned mackerel and kerosene just when there was a food and fuel shortage developing. ‘Em nau.’
The helicopter was supposed to pick us up yesterday, but the weather closed in and we may be waiting on this hillside for several days. ‘Em nau.’
Those two short words can convey a great deal of meaning in a wide variety of situations: empathy; compassion; or fatalistic acceptance of circumstances which we cannot control.
There is an aspect of Tok Pisin that can cause a great deal of confusion for beginners learning the language.
This is related to how questions phrased in the negative should be answered.
Say you are a native speaker of English and you’re standing in front of me and you not wearing a hat.
If I were to ask you, “Aren’t you wearing a hat?”, you would likely reply to me, “No”. By replying this way, your meaning would be, “No, I am not wearing a hat.”
In Tok Pisin, however, in the same situation, you would reply, “Yes”, to mean, “Yes, you are correct, I am not wearing a hat.”
Arguably, the Tok Pisin reply is more logical, as it avoids the implied double negative of the English response.
However, linguistic constructions are not always driven by logic, they become driven by custom and usage and this is simply the way it is.
With practice and fluency in a language, correct usage becomes habitual.
This quirk of Tok Pisin, however, can be quite confusing to newcomers to PNG and can, and often does, lead to absurd conversations.
My first evening in PNG, after a somewhat nerve-wracking arrival involving snakes in my hotel room, crocodiles on the beach where I wanted to go for a swim, an all-day power outage due to an inter-tribal war that prevented delivery of fuel, were the clearest reminders that I had arrived back in PNG.
I went downstairs to the bar for what I felt would be a well-deserved drink.
Due to this quirk of Tok Pisin, I had a conversation with the bartender that could have come straight out of an old Abbott and Costello movie.
Not thinking that, without electrical power all day, it was unlikely that there was any ice, I asked for a Scotch with ice. The barman smiled, nodded his head, and came back a minute later with a glass of warm Scotch.
I said, “Don’t you have any ice?”
He smiled and said, “Yes.”
“Okay, then, please may I have some ice for my whisky?”
He smiled broadly, said “No got ice” and walked away.
I wasn’t sure what to do, so I drank my warm Scotch, and asked for another one. With ice. The conversation was repeated, more or less verbatim.
“Don’t you have any ice?”
“Then please bring me some ice.”
“No got ice.”
An Australian gentleman sitting at the bar listening to the conversation with a bemused smile, explained my confusion to me.
Once I realised that mastering Tok Pisin would require study, I hired a tutor and spent several hours each day studying.
My favourite lessons were children’s fairy tales translated into Tok Pisin.
The best of these was Tripela Liklik Pik – The Three Little Pigs. I can still recite most of this story in Tok Pisin.
There being no wolves in PNG, the wolf becomes a ‘big fellow, bad fellow, wild fellow dog’.
There are also wonderful recordings of an Australian kiap (patrol officer), Superintendent Mike Thomas reciting Tripela Liklik Pik and Liklik Redpela Hat (Little Red Riding Hood).
These were a fun way to study Tok Pisin grammar and vocabulary.
My Tok Pisin lessons went well and in a short time I was relatively fluent and ready to go into the bush and practice my new linguistic skills.
Although I have never been a particularly religious person, nor spent very much time reading the Bible, I found that reading Tok Pisin translations were good ways to practise my Tok Pisin.
One version I read contained a verse that still sticks in my mind, though I never found that particular translation again.
This was the rendering of “Oh Father, why have you forsaken me?” into Tok Pisin as O, Bigpela Papa bilong mi. Bilong wannem yu bagarrapim life bilong mi?
To me, that always sounded like, “Hey Big Daddy, why did you mess up my life?”
Thank you, Dorian, for this enjoyable piece on Tok Pisin.
Those of us familiar with the language rejoice in its quirks and marvellous expressions. What started as a simple language is evolving into something much more complex yet has managed to retain its considerable charms and virtues.
I expect that as time goes by it will progressively enlarge its vocabulary in ways that reflect its tradition of taking modern words and concepts and giving them its own very distinctive meaning, expression and sound.
That is something to look forward to.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 03 October 2022 at 12:11 PM
I can distinctly remember going into the bar at the Port Moresby Travelodge back in January 1988. I was suffering with a terrible cold and ordered a hot toddy.
The bar tender was bemused by the request but after some Tokpisin instructions he eventually put some whisky into a glass, boiled a kettle and poured in some boiling water and then added ice cubes.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 03 October 2022 at 10:32 AM
Dorian (Dusty) Nicol is an exploration geologist who lives in northern California when he is not traveling. A highlight of my 43 plus year career as a minerals exploration geologist was the three years that I lived in Papua New Guinea in the early 1980’s. I was a young geologist, living my dream of setting off on a life of physical and intellectual adventure. Papua New Guinea was an enchanting country at that time. It had just recently attained its independence from Australia and I had the undeniable adventure of watching a country go from the Stone Age to the 20th century in front of my eyes. An integral part of experiencing this to the full was learning the native lingua franca, Tok Pisin. Of the several languages I have learned during a lifetime of working around the world, Tok Pisin remains a favorite, both because of the language and its structure per se and because of the warm memories that it evokes for me.