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TOK PISIN [From English Talk Pidgin. Pronounced ‘tock pizzin’] Also Tok Boi, Pidgin; technically, Papua New Guinea Pidgin, and, especially formally, Neo-Melanesian, Neomelanesian, Melanesian pidgin. Names for the English-based LINGUA FRANCA of PAPUA NEW GUINEA (PNG), officially named Tok Pisin in 1981. It descends from varieties of pacific jargon English spoken over much of the Pacific during the 19c and used as a lingua franca between English-speaking Europeans and Pacific Islanders. It was learned by Papua New Guineans on plantations in Queensland, Samoa, Fiji, and in PNG itself. Typically, male workers learned the PIDGIN and took it back to the villages, where it was passed on to younger boys. Tok Pisin crystallized in the New Guinea islands and spread to the mainland c.1880. Although a by-product of and sustained by colonialism, it quickly became more than a means of communication between the local people and their European colonizers. It has become the most important lingua franca for PNG and is now being acquired by children as a first language. In sociolinguistic terms, Tok Pisin is an expanded pidgin currently undergoing creolization. It now has more than 20,000 native speakers and some 44% of the population of 3.5 m claim to speak it. There has been considerable discussion as to whether it should become the national language of PNG. Currently, it has official status with English and another pidgin, Hiri Motu, which is largely restricted to the Papua area, and only about 9% of the population speak it.


Many structural traits have been transferred from indigenous languages. Even where items derived from English are used to express grammatical categories, their patterns and meanings often follow structures in the substrate languages. For example, in most if not all of the Melanesian languages and in Tok Pisin, but not in English, there is a distinction between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns. The speaker of Tok Pisin distinguishes between we (speaker and person or persons addressed), and we (speaker and another or others, excluding anyone addressed). Where English has only we, Tok Pisin has inclusive yumi (from you and me) and exclusive mipela (from me and fellow). Although the lexical material used to make the distinction is from English, the meanings derive from categories in Melanesian languages. The element -pela (fellow) serves additional grammatical ends as a suffix marking attributives: gutpela man a good man; naispela haus a nice house; wanpela meri a woman. In the pronoun system, it appears as a formative in the first- and second-person plural, mipela (we exclusive) and yupela (you plural).


There are five sources of words: (1) English, which makes up most of the approximately 2,500 basic words: mi I, yu you (singular), askim a question, to ask, lukautim to take care of. (2) German, because of the German administration of the northern part of New Guinea (1884–1914): rausim to get rid of, beten to pray. (3) Spanish and Portuguese words are widely found in European-based pidgin and creole languages and also occur in Tok Pisin: save to know (from sabir/saber), pikinini a small child (from pequeño, small). (4) Polynesian languages: kaikai food, tambu taboo (from tabu). (5) Indigenous PNG languages: kiau an egg (from Kuanua, a language of East New Britain, which played an important part as a substrate language). In some cases, Tok Pisin expressions have been borrowed into the varieties of English used by expatriates in PNG: going finish (from go pinis), as in going finish sale a sale of household goods held when people leave for good.

Traditionally, Europeans have regarded Tok Pisin as a bastardized form of English. In it, some everyday vulgar words have taken on different and socially neutral meanings: baksait (from backside) the back rather than the buttocks; as (from arse) the buttocks, but extended to refer to the base or foundation of anything, as in as bilong diwai (the base or foot of a tree) and as bilong lo (the reason or cause of a law); bagarap (from bugger up) used as noun and verb, as in Em kisim bagarap (He had an accident) and Pik i bagarapim gaden (The pig ruined the garden); sit (from shit), as in sit bilong paia (shit belonging to fire: ashes); bulsitim (from bullshit) to deceive. The Tok Pisin word for excrement is locally derived: pekpek. Tok Pisin has other terms of abuse often quite different from or completely unrelated to English: puslama (sea slug) for a lazy person; tu kina meri (where kina is a unit of currency and meri means ‘woman’) for a prostitute.

Status and functions

Tok Pisin has undergone structural and functional expansion. Although English is the official medium of education, Tok Pisin is used in a variety of public domains, not only in political debates in the House of Assembly (where it is the preferred medium), but also in broadcasting and journalism, and for all its new functions it has drawn heavily on English. So much English has been borrowed into the language, particularly by educated urban speakers, that there are now two main varieties: urban pidgin and rural or bush pidgin. Most of the printed material in Tok Pisin until recently has been religious, centred on a translation of the Bible. Since 1970, there has been a weekly newspaper in Tok Pisin called Wantok (one talk: one language), a word used to refer to members of one's own clan group. The use of Tok Pisin for literary purposes is becoming more common. See ENGLISH.

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