“Is Tok Pisin a real language?”


Expatriates need to study hard to learn Tok Pisin properly.

In these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at Tok Pisin and asking ourselves whether it is a real language.
Some time ago I received a letter from a person who referred to his own language as a “real language”, but who said Tok Pisin wasn’t “a real language”. Let us examine what he meant by that and why he might have said it.
Pidgin and creole languages everywhere derive much of their vocabulary from a dominant language, usually the language of the people who forcibly invaded and colonised the ancestors of the speakers of the pidgin or creole language. Because of this, people from the dominant group often laughed at the way people spoke the pidgin or creole language. To those Europeans it sounded like a “broken” or “baby” way to speak. Interestingly enough, few of the Europeans who said such things ever bothered to actually learn the language they were laughing at.
This colonial attitude to language has been inherited by many educated people who try to distance themselves from grassroots people. Because Tok Pisin does not have much printed literature, certainly not as much as English, and because they were educated in English and did not learn how to express themselves intellectually in Tok Pisin, they look down on Tok Pisin. But does this mean Tok Pisin is not a “real language”?
A language has three main components — a sound system, a grammatical system, and a vocabulary. Some languages also have a writing system. Tok Pisin certainly has all of these.
The sound system of Tok Pisin varies from region to region, but the differences between people in different regions are small enough that Tok Pisin speakers can communicate with each other throughout PNG and even with people in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. The sound system was developed by Melanesians in the late 1800s and is based on the coastal Austronesian languages they spoke, not English. In fact, if you listen to expatriates who have learned Tok Pisin as adults, it is easy to hear that they just don’t sound right. They will often pronounce words as if they are English words or use the neutral schwa sound found at the beginning of “machine” that does not normally exist in Tok Pisin, which has only five vowels and not this neutral schwa vowel.
Tok Pisin also has its own grammar, with rules about what is correct and incorrect usage. The grammar of Tok Pisin is based on elements that are common to the Austronesian languages the first Tok Pisin speakers spoke. Like those languages, Tok Pisin makes a difference between “yumi” and “mipela”, where English has only “we”, and uses a plural marker (“ol”) before a noun instead of an “-s” at the end of a word like English does. The grammatical structure of Tok Pisin is certainly very different from that of English, but so are the grammatical structures of Motu, Chinese, and Hawaiian. No one would say that those languages are “broken”.
It is with the vocabulary of Tok Pisin that people find the most to criticise. This is because most of the words in Tok Pisin come from English and are often used in ways that seems strange or funny to English speakers. For example, Austronesian languages repeat words and syllables a lot, so the early Tok Pisin speakers did the same with many of the English words they incorporated into Tok Pisin, such as “singsing” and “toktok”. English speakers often do the same thing when they are talking with babies and young children, so for some of them, this makes Tok Pisin sound like baby talk and not a real language. They do not realise that this is a very common construction in Pacific languages.

Only a real language can have a dictionary.

Some people say that Tok Pisin is not a real language because the vocabulary is so small, and people do not know how to talk about technical or academic subjects in Tok Pisin. The same was said about English several hundred years ago when Europeans were beginning to switch from writing in Latin to writing in their own languages. At that time, English writers had to import many Latin and Greek words into English to talk about academic subjects, just as Papua New Guineans drop English words into their Tok Pisin conversations because Tok Pisin has not yet been expanded to talk about technological or academic topics. But in spite of this, English has always been a “real language”—a real language with many borrowed words from Latin and Greek.
It is important to note that just because most words in Tok Pisin come from English, this does not mean that the words have the same meaning as in English. Sometimes the differences are just a matter of a word taking on a new meaning, such as Tok Pisin “raskal” for English “criminal”, “rascal” in English being just a naughty boy. Other differences are due to the different ways Melanesians and Europeans divide the world, such as the different ways that kinship words such as “brother”, “sister”, and “uncle” are used in English and Tok Pisin. An English speaker would be confused at a Facebook posting of a man with a group of teenage girls with the caption “Mi wantaim ol ankol bilong mi”, when there is only one man in the picture! An English speaker would not know that in Tok Pisin, kinship relationships are reciprocal, so that while an English speaker uses “uncle” and “niece”, both are “ankol” (“uncle”) in Tok Pisin.
One of the problems with vocabulary and style in Tok Pisin is that because Papua New Guineans have their education in English, they do not develop skills in using Tok Pisin for academic purposes. They use Tok Pisin for everyday purposes, but have to switch to English for more complicated matters. This not mean that it is not possible to express many higher level subjects in Tok Pisin. I met a Catholic priest from the Highlands who told me that when he was training to be a priest, one of his classes was Tok Pisin rhetoric, so that he learned to give sermons and describe religious doctrine in Tok Pisin. Just as native speakers of English need such classes if they want to become eloquent speakers and writers in English, native speakers of Tok Pisin need such instruction, either in a formal class or informally with their mentors, if they want to be able to speak eloquently in Tok Pisin and describe complex concepts. Schools in PNG don’t have such classes, so people are educated without being able to discuss complicated ideas in Tok Pisin.
Tok Pisin has its own sound system, its own grammar system, and its own vocabulary. The sound and grammar systems have their roots in Austronesian languages, and while much of the vocabulary might come from English, many words were reinterpreted as they became absorbed into Tok Pisin. Tok Pisin might be a comparatively young language, but it is definitely a “real language” just as much as English or Papua New Guinean local languages.

  • (Professor Volker is an Adjunct Professor in linguistics at James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at http://[email protected] Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.)