In these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at how English words have changed as they became Tok Pisin words.
THE first time I encountered a variety of Melanesian Pidgin was when I met a ni-Vanuatu at a conference in 1975 in Brisbane, who told me in French that he spoke a “transformed English”.
I still find that description of Tok Pisin appropriate – as words move from English to Tok Pisin, they have been transformed in a number of ways. In modern PNG English, the opposite also happens, as words are transformed as they make the leap back into English from Tok Pisin.
Tok Pisin has taken words from many languages, so it is not only English words that have been transformed. “Binatang” is a Malay word meaning “animal” or “beast”, but it has come to mean “insect” or “bug” in Tok Pisin. Evidently, the Malay-speakers who came to PNG in the German colonial period must have been so impressed with how fierce PNG insects were that they called them “beasts”, not “insects” (which is “serangga” in Malay)! We still call PNG insects “beasts” (“binatang”) today.
But of course, most words in Tok Pisin come from English, so it is with English words that transformations are most noticeable. In many cases, a word that has a very specific meaning in English has taken on a more general meaning in Tok Pisin.
A colourful example is English “arse”, which is used only for a human body part in English. In Tok Pisin the meaning as broadened to mean the foundation of anything physical, such as “as bilong diwai” “tree stump”, or even non-physical foundations, such as “as tingting” “fundamental principle”, and then by extension to mean the most important part of something or someone, such as “as ples” “homeland”.
The opposite can also happen, as a general English word has taken on a very specific meaning in Tok Pisin. One example of this is “fortnight”, which means “two weeks” in English, but “payday” in Tok Pisin, presumably because of the custom of paying salaries on a fortnightly basis in PNG.
In some cases, the meaning of a word has become stronger. “Rascal” is a good example of this.
In English, a “rascal” is a mischievous little boy, someone who plays little tricks such as nicking a biscuit or hiding when he is called to clean his room. In Tok Pisin the word has a much darker meaning, as a “raskol” is a dangerous criminal, someone might steal, murder, or rape.
Another example is “kanaka”, which has acquired a very insulting meaning in Tok Pisin. This word comes from Hawaiian, where it means “man”, and in that language has a positive connotation. It is with this positive connotation that it has entered the forms of English spoken in much of the world.
In Canada it is even the name of an indigenous local government, the Kanaka Bar First Nation in British Columbia, one of the self-rule governments of the indigenous Naka’pamux people, with whom many Hawaiian gold miners mixed in the 1800s. Similarly, Kanaka is the name many descendants of blackbirded Melanesians in Australia use to call themselves and Kanak is the name indigenous Melanesians in New Caledonia use to call themselves.
Many even want to rename their nation “Kanaky”. For all of these people, it is a positive word and a symbol of pride in their indigenous Pacific heritage. But in PNG, once Germans and Australians learned it was an indigenous word for “man” or “as ples”, it was used by them as an insult to yell and swear with at their PNG workers. Understandably, it quickly developed a very negative and insulting meaning here, quite the opposite of its original meaning elsewhere.
In both of these cases, the transformed meanings can make a full circle to be used in PNG English as well as in Tok Pisin. Today it is common to see stories in English-language newspapers talking about “rascals” committing horrible crimes. And if you are foolish and rude enough to call a Papua New Guinean a “kanaka” in either Tok Pisin or English, you should be prepared to confront a very angry person!
Not all transformations are strengthening. Many times, the meaning of a word has been weakened as it moves from English to Tok Pisin. This is especially true with words that were swear words in English.
Many of the first English speakers that Melanesians encountered were rough sailors or traders who did not hesitate to swear a lot. Of course, the Melanesians who did not yet speak English did not recognise these words as rude. This is how English “bullshit” became Tok Pisin “bulsitim” (“deceive”) or English “buggered up”, which originally meant “a man who has been sodomised”, was weakened to Tok Pisin “bagarap” (“having problems, not feeling well”). No one will take offence if we use bulsitim or bagarap in a Tok Pisin conversation, whereas when we speak English, their English equivalents are more suitable to conversations between men in a bar than they are to conversations with their grandmothers!
Some word transformations changed the grammar as well as the meaning of a word. One of my favourites is the English preposition “after”, which in many areas has become the Tok Pisin verb “afterim”, meaning “to pursue romantically” (“Baga i afterim meri longpela taim na nau tupela i marit pinis”). Another is the English adjective “smart”, which has become the Tok Pisin noun “sumatin”, “student”, literally “someone who is becoming smart”, something we hope all students do.
All of these transformations are evidence of just how much Tok Pisin has become an independent language in less than two centuries. They are also evidence of the linguistic creativity of its early speakers, who used the fragments of English that they heard and reworked them to form a language that has become a bridge linking speakers of hundreds of languages of Papua New Guinea.
- Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, and an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at [email protected] Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.