Tok Pisin Explained

Tok Pisin
States:Papua New Guinea
Speakers:5-6 million; approx. 1 million native speakers
Fam1:Creole language
Fam2:English Creole
Nation:Papua New Guinea

Tok Pisin (; tok is derived from English "talk" but like many such words has a wider application, also meaning "word" or "speech" and even "language" - pisin is derived from English "pidgin" and for its speakers is simply the name of the language) is a creole spoken throughout Papua New Guinea; in parts of Western, Gulf, Central, Oro and Milne Bay Provinces the use of Tok Pisin has a shorter history, and is less universal, especially among older people. It is an official language of Papua New Guinea and the most widely used language in that country.

Between 5 and 6 million people use Tok Pisin to some degree, although by no means all of these speak it well. Between 1 and 2 million are exposed to it as a first language, in particular the children of parents or grandparents originally speaking different vernaculars (say, a mother from Madang and a father from Rabaul). Urban families in particular, and those of police and defence force members, often communicate between themselves in Tok Pisin, either never gaining fluency in a vernacular ("tok ples"), or learning it as a second (or third) language, after Tok Pisin (and possibly English). Perhaps 1 million people now use Tok Pisin as a primary language.

Tok Pisin is also - perhaps more commonly in English - called New Guinea Pidgin and, largely in academic contexts, Melanesian Pidgin English or Neo-Melanesian. Given that Papua New Guinean anglophones almost invariably refer to Tok Pisin as Pidgin when speaking English (and note that the published court reports of Papua New Guinea refer to it as "Pidgin": see for example Schubert v The State [1979] PNGLR 66) it may be considered something of an affectation to call it Tok Pisin, much like referring to German and French as Deutsch and français in English. However, Tok Pisin is favoured by many professional linguists to avoid spreading the misconception that Tok Pisin is still a pidgin language; although it was originally a pidgin, Tok Pisin is now considered a distinct language in its own right because it is a first language for some people and not merely a lingua franca to facilitate communication with speakers of other languages.


The Tok Pisin language is a result of Pacific Islanders intermixing, when people speaking numerous different languages were sent to work on plantations in Queensland and various islands (see South Sea Islander and Blackbirding). The labourers began to develop a pidgin, drawing vocabulary primarily from English, but also from German, Malay, Portuguese and their own Austronesian languages (perhaps especially Kuanua, that of the Tolai people of East New Britain). This English-based pidgin evolved into Tok Pisin in German New Guinea (where the German-based creole Unserdeutsch was also spoken). It became a widely used lingua franca - and language of interaction between rulers and ruled, and among the ruled themselves who did not share a common vernacular; the closely-related Bislama in Vanuatu and Pijin in the Solomon Islands developed in parallel. The flourishing of the mainly English-based Tok Pisin in German New Guinea (despite the language of the metropolitan power being German) is to be contrasted with Hiri Motu, the lingua franca of Papua, which was derived not from English but from Motu, the vernacular of the indigenous people of the Port Moresby area.

Official status

Along with English and Hiri Motu, Tok Pisin is one of the three official languages of Papua New Guinea. It is frequently the language of debate in the national parliament. Most government documents are in English, but public information campaigns are often partially or entirely in Tok Pisin. While English is the main language in the education system, some schools use Tok Pisin in the first three years of elementary education to promote early literacy.

Regional variations

There are considerable variations in vocabulary and grammar in various parts of Papua New Guinea, with distinct dialects in the New Guinea Highlands, the north coast of Papua New Guinea (Pidgin speakers from Finschafen speak rather quickly and often have difficulty making themselves understood elsewhere) and the New Guinea Islands. The variant spoken on Bougainville and Buka is moderately distinct from that of New Ireland and East New Britain but is much closer to that than it is to the Pijin spoken in the rest of the Solomon Islands.


Tok Pisin, like many pidgins and creoles, has a far simpler phonology than the superstrate language. It has 16 consonants and 5 vowels. However, this varies with the local substrate languages and the level of education of the speaker. The following is the "core" phonemic inventory, common to virtually all varieties of Tok Pisin. More educated speakers, and/or those where the substrate language(s) have larger phoneme inventories, may have as many as 10 distinct vowels.
Nasal plus plosive offsets lose the plosive element in Tok Pisin e.g. English hand becomes Tok Pisin han. Furthermore, voiced plosives become voiceless at the ends of words, so that English pig is rendered as pik in Tok Pisin.



Tok Pisin has five vowels, similar to the vowels of Spanish, Japanese, and many other five-vowel languages:


The verb has one suffix, -im (from "him") to indicate transitivity (luk, look; lukim, see). But some verbs, such as kaikai "eat", can be transitive without it. Tense is indicated by the separate words bai (future) (from "by and by") and bin (past) (from "been"). The present progressive tense is indicated by the word stap - e.g. "eating" is kaikai stap (or this can be seen as having a "food stop").

The noun does not indicate number, though pronouns do.

Adjectives usually take the suffix -pela (from "fellow") when modifying nouns; an exception is liklik "little". Liklik can also be used as an adverb meaning "slightly", as in dispela bikpela liklik ston, "this slightly big stone". The suffix -pela in some places, such as Port Moresby, is sometimes pronounced -pla. Numbers often take the suffix also, e.g. wanpela or tupela for one and two.

Pronouns show person, number, and clusivity. The paradigm varies depending on the local languages; dual number is common, while the trial is less so. The largest Tok Pisin pronoun inventory is,

1st exclusivemi
(he/she and I)
(both of them, and I)
(all of them, and I)
1st inclusive-yumitupela
(thou and I)
(both of you, and I)
yumipela or yumi
(all of you, and I)
(you two)
(you three)
(you four or more)
(they two)
(they three)
(they four or more)

Reduplication is very common in Tok Pisin. Sometimes it is used as a method of derivation; sometimes words just have it. Some words are distinguished only by reduplication: sip "ship", sipsip "sheep".

There are only two proper prepositions: bilong (from "belong"), which means "of" or "for", and long, which means everything else. (Note that longlong (i.e. long reduplicated) means 'crazy'). Some phrases are used as prepositions, such as long namel (bilong), "in the middle of".

Several of these features derive from the common grammatical norms of Austronesian languages - although usually in a simplified form. Other features, such as word order, are however closer to English.

Sentences which have a 3rd person subject often put the word i just before the verb. This may or may not be written separate from the verb, occasionally written as a prefix. It was once thought to be an abbreviation for "he", but now is thought to be a grammatical construction instead. E.g. "Kar i tambu long hia" is "car forbidden here", i.e. "no parking".

Development of Tok Pisin

Tok Pisin is a language that developed out of regional dialects of the languages of the local inhabitants and English, brought into the country when English speakers arrived. There were four phases in the development of Tok Pisin that were laid out by Loreto Todd.

  1. Casual contact between English speakers and local people developed a marginal pisin
  2. Pisin English was used between the local people. The language expanded from the users' mother tongue
  3. As the interracial contact increased the vocabulary expanded according to the dominant language.
  4. In areas where English was the official language a depidginization occurred (Todd, 1990)

Tok Pisin is also known as a "mixed" language. This means that it consists of characteristics of different languages. Tok Pisin obtained most of its vocabulary from the English language: i.e. English is its lexifier. The origin of the syntax is a matter of debate. Hymes (Hymes 1971b: 5) claims that the syntax is from the substratum languages: i.e. the languages of the local peoples. (Hymes 1971b: 5). Derek Bickerton's analysis of creoles, on the other hand, claims that the syntax of creoles is imposed on the grammarless pidgin by its first native speakers: the children who grow up exposed to only a pidgin rather than a more developed language such as one of the local languages or English. In this analysis, the original syntax of creoles is in some sense the default grammar humans are born with.

Pidgins are less elaborated than non-Pidgin languages. Their typical characteristics found in Tok Pisin are:

  1. A smaller vocabulary which leads to metaphors to supply lexical units:
    • Smaller vocabulary:

Tok Pisin: "vot"; English: "election" (n) and "vote" (v)

Tok Pisin: "hevi"; English: "heavy" (adj) and "weight" (n)

Tok Pisin: "skru bilong han" (screw of the arm); English: "elbow" (This is almost always just "skru" - hardly ever distinguished as "skru bilong han").

Tok Pisin: "gras bilong het" (grass of the head); English: "hair" (Hall, 1966: 90f)(Most commonly just "gras" -- see note on "skru bilong han" above).

  1. A reduced grammar: lack of copula, prepositions, determiners and conjunctions
  2. Less differentiated phonology: and are not distinguished in Tok Pisin (they are in free variation). The sibilants,,,,, and are also not distinguished.

"pis" in Tok Pisin could mean in English: "beads", "beach", "fish", "peach", "piss", "feast" or "peace".

"sip" in Tok Pisin could mean in English: "ship", "jib", "jeep", "sieve" or "chief"

Tenses of Tok Pisin

Past Tense: Marked by "bin":Tok Pisin: "Na praim minista i bin tok olsem".English: "And the prime minister spoke thus". (Romaine 1991: 629)

Continuative Same Tense is expressed through: Verb + i stap.Tok Pisin: "Em i slip i stap".English: "He/ She is sleeping". (ibid.: 631)

Completive or perfective aspect expressed through the word "pinis" (from English: finish):Tok Pisin: "Em i lusim bot pinis".English: "He had got out of the boat". (Mühlhäusler 1984: 462).

Transitive words are expressed through "-im" (from English: him):Tok Pisin: "Yu pinisim stori nau."English: "Finish your story now!". (ibid.: 640).

Future is expressed through the word "bai" (from English: by and by):Tok Pisin: "Em bai ol i go long rum"English: "They will go to their rooms now. (Mühlhäusler 1991: 642).

The ending -pela is used as a plural marker and for adjectives and determiners.Tok Pisin: "Dispela boi" --> English: "This bloke".Tok Pisin: "Mipela" --> English: "We".Tok Pisin: "Yupela" --> English: "You all". (ibid. 640f).

The Preposition "long" in Tok Pisin stands for "at, in, on, to, with, until" in English and "bilong" in Tok Pisin stands for "of, from, for" in English:

Tok Pisin: "Mipela i go long blekmaket". --> English: "We went to the black market".

Tok Pisin: "Ki bilong yu" --> English: "your key"

Tok Pisin: "Ol bilong Godons". --> English: "They are from Gordon's". (ibid. 640f).


Tok Pisin can sound very colourful in its use of words, which are derived from English (with Australian influences), indigenous Melanesian languages and German (part of the country was under German rule until 1914).

Example of Tok Pisin

The Lord's Prayer in Tok Pisin:

Papa bilong mipela

Yu stap long heven.

Nem bilong yu i mas i stap holi.

Kingdom bilong yu i mas i kam.

Strongim mipela long bihainim laik bilong yu long graun,

olsem ol i bihainim long heven.

Givim mipela kaikai inap long tude.

Pogivim rong bilong mipela,

olsem mipela i pogivim ol arapela i mekim rong long mipela.

Sambai long mipela long taim bilong traim.

Na rausim olgeta samting nogut long mipela.

Kingdom na strong na glori, em i bilong yu tasol oltaim oltaim.


The Lord's Prayer in English:

Our father,

who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come,

thy will be done

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our trespasses

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil,

for the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.


See also


External links