Learning Tok Pisin

by on July 27, 2018

I arrived in Papua New Guinea in September 1980, a young geologist on the adventure of his young lifetime. Esso Eastern, a subsidiary of Exxon Minerals, had hired me to open their copper and gold exploration office there 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 years old when I arrived in Papua New Guinea 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. They had been trying to get someone to go there for months and had nearly had a dozen resignations in the process. When they met me, the head of HR said something like, “This young fool actually wants to go to Papua New Guinea. Somebody hire him and put him on a plane before he changes his mind.”

I love languages. All of 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 Papua New Guinea had two official languages, English and Pidgin (officially Neo-Melanesian Pidgin). In fact, as I learned, Pidgin (which is called “Tok Pisin” in Pidgin) is the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea and without a working knowledge of Pidgin, one will not get very far.

Tok Pisin structure and compound words

“Proper”, formal pidgin is a highly structured language. It evolved and was eventually formalized and codified in order to solve the problem arising from there being so many distinct languages in Papua New Guinea as a result of the isolation in which most tribes had spent their histories. At one time, it was estimated that over 40% of the world’s languages occurred on the island of New Guinea. Mutually intelligible conversation between tribes was impossible. As in any country or region that has seen an influx of foreign arrivals, various forms of patois naturally evolved in the trading regions around the islands of Melanesia, but the Pidgin of Papua New Guinea has gone one step further and been formalized into a codified language, a creole.

At first, 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, Portuguese, and local “place talk” (Plestok) words as well. For example, the verb ‘to get rid of’ is rausim, derived, of course, from the German word 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.

So, for example, the word ‘here’ is hia, ‘master’ is masta, ‘morning’ is moning, and ‘beer’ is bia. In addition, the consonant “f” usually becomes 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 a haus mani (‘house money’); an office is a haus papia (‘house paper’); a geologist is a man bilong lukim ston (‘man belong look at stones’); and so on. “I am hungry” becomes belly bilong me cry out. Regrettably, by the time I left Papua New Guinea, a helicopter had become a helicopta, 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 mous warra, literally ‘mouth water’. Because the word warra (‘water’) in a different context is used to mean diarrhea, mous warra really means verbal diarrhoea or meaningless talk. This can be expanded into the phrase mous warra man to mean someone who is all talk. A frequently used insult in Tok Pisin is the phrase Yu mous warra man tasol. “You are all talk, that’s all.”

Another very 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 favorite 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: ‘bigpelabokishegotwhitepelateethhegotblackpelateethsapposyouhittimhimhecryout.’ The literal breakdown into English is: a piano is a ‘big fellow box, he has white teeth, he has black teeth, suppose you hit him, he cries out’. 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 it 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 drinkem bia, that means, ‘We, including you, are drinking beer.’ However, the phrase Mipela drinkem 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 worked’ 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 would leave Papua New Guinea for the last time, they were 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 bagarrap, derived from the common Australian expression “bugger up”. My favorite example of this was the safety information card aboard a Talair flight. The Tok Pisin word for ‘airplane’ is balus. Balus can also mean bird, specifically a pigeon. 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 “smoke balus”. The first time I boarded a Talair flight from Lae to Rabaul, I was handed a card captioned Sapos balus i bagarrap: ‘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 missus 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 bullmakau man and a cow is a bullmakau meri. I was back in Papua New Guinea for the first time in 35 years last September and the words masta and missus seemed to have finally fallen out of favor, but I wasn’t there very long and I may be mistaken

The word pikaninny does not evoke a connotation of slavery, as it does in the United States, but simply refers to ‘a child’, of any race. This led to the truly wonderful reference to Prince Charles in the Port Moresby press as Numbawan pikaninny bilong Missus Queen: ‘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 behavior 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 come 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 a fatalistic acceptance of circumstances which we may not like but cannot control.

Confusion with negatives

There is an aspect of Tok Pisin that can cause a great deal of confusion for beginners to the language or newcomers to Papua New Guinea. That has to do with how questions phrased in the negative are answered. Let us say that you are a native speaker of English and you are standing in front of me and you are 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 Papua New Guinea and can, and often does, lead to absurd conversations.

My first evening in Papua New Guinea, after a somewhat nerve-wracking arrival involving snakes in my hotel room, crocodiles on the beach where I wanted to go for a swim, a power outage all day due to an ongoing inter-tribal war that prevented delivery of fuel oil to the power plant, and other reminders that I had in fact arrived in Papua New Guinea, I went downstairs to my hotel’s 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 of course, 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.”

This verbal exchange was repeated several more times, to my increasing befuddlement, until an Australian gentleman, who had been sitting at the bar listening to the conversation with a bemused smile on his face, explained to me what my confusion was.

Classic stories in Tok Pisin

Once I realized that mastering Tok Pisin would require study, I hired a tutor and spent several hours each day studying. My favorite lessons were reading children’s fairy tales translated into Tok Pisin. The best of these was the story of Tripela Liklik Pik: The Three Little Pigs. I can still recite most of this story in Tok Pisin. Of course, there are no wolves in Papua New Guinea, so for purposes of the story a wolf becomes a “big fellow, bad fellow, wild fellow dog”. There are wonderful recordings of an Australian “Kiap” (Bush Patrol Officer) named Superintendent “Mike” Thomas reciting Tripela Liklik Pik in Tok Pisin. He also recorded the story of Liklik Redpela Hat (Little Red Riding Hood). These were a fun way to study Tok Pisin grammar and vocabulary.

Although I have never been a particularly religious person, nor spent very much time reading the Bible, I found that reading Tok Pisin translations of the Oldpela Testamen and Niupela Testamen were also 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 and other versions I saw were somewhat more prosaic. 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?”

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.

One Response to “Learning Tok Pisin”

  1. jim Houghton

    You’re lucky to have encountered pidgin when it was still forced to describe modernity in terms easily understood by speakers, rather than by introducing new, less colorful terms. Mixmasta bilong Jesus is infinitely preferable to helicopta — at least to those who, from the outside, enjoy the exotic flavor and inherent humor in original pidgin.

    Side note: the French have a similarly interesting way to deal with negative questions Where “sí” is the proper response to “You don’t own a car, do you?” So interesting how different languages find different solutions to the same challenges of clear communication.


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