Is that English or Tok Pisin?

In these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at English and Tok Pisin to see where the boundary is between these two languages and how we can keep them separate (or why we even should).

THE relationship between English and Tok Pisin is close. In many ways Tok Pisin is a daughter of English, since the overwhelming majority of words (although very little of the grammar) come from English. We even call Tok Pisin “Pidgin English” sometimes. Most — but not all — Papua New Guinean English speakers also speak Tok Pisin and many — but not all — Tok Pisin speakers also speak at least some English. In many areas of the northern half of the country, Tok Pisin and English were introduced more or less at the same time, being used for different purposes and by different groups of people.
When Tok Pisin was first developed by Melanesian plantation workers in the 1800s, they were trying to speak English, adapting the words they heard from English speakers to the pronunciation and grammatical patterns of their own Austronesian languages. When Europeans began to write Tok Pisin words down, they wrote them as if they were English words. It took some time before people realised that Tok Pisin was a new language, with its own grammatical rules, pronunciation, and vocabulary.
Over the years, as Tok Pisin spread to be used by more and more people, the society in which it is used has changed drastically. Whereas once the “gavman” was represented by a “kiap”, today the people choose their own “memba”. Twenty-first century technology is vastly different from that of the nineteenth century. New ideas and religions have been introduced, and Papua New Guineans are much more aware of the world beyond their own islands.
All of these changes have needed new words to describe the new world we live in. Most of these new words have come from English, the language of education in PNG and the language of the colonial power until 1975.
At the same time that Tok Pisin has grown and changed, English has established itself as a language of Papua New Guinea. Since Independence, a class of educated people has arisen that communicates regularly in English and sometimes even uses it as a home language. Many people may not be fluent English speakers, but they have had exposure to English through education and the media. In this process a distinctive form of Papua New Guinea English has developed, with a distinctive pronunciation and vocabulary. Much of that vocabulary comes from Tok Pisin and is used to describe objects and phenomena unique to PNG, like “wantok”, “mumu”, and “haus krai”.
The boundary between languages that do not share a common history, vocabulary, or structure is clear. For example, when Chinese and English or Tok Pisin and Japanese are spoken in the same environment, there is no confusion about which language is which. But with Tok Pisin and English, the fact that the two languages are so closely related and used by the same people means that it is often hard to distinguish clearly between the two languages.
I noticed this for the first time when I was coaching PNG university students who needed to pass the IELTS English examination so they could take up scholarships in Australia. Part of the examination is an oral examination in which the students needed to talk about themselves and their communities using internationally comprehensible forms of English. I found that many of the students could not do this without using wording influenced by Tok Pisin, such as “my cousin brother made a mumu when our teacher went finish” or “because of our wantok system, too many people vote rascals into Parliament”.
Some of these students were surprised when I told them that the Australian examiner probably wouldn’t understand them if they used sentences like this. They were unaware that the words they were using were not actually English words or were English words used with a particular PNG meaning.

Is this sign in English or Tok Pisin?

At the same time a colleague teaching public health courses said he had the same problem in reverse. His students could talk about good health practices and ways of preventing diseases class in English, but when he asked them to give a talk in Tok Pisin as if they were talking in a village meeting, few were able to do so in a way that ordinary people who do not speak English could understand them. They used sentences like “Sapos yu kaikai tumas ol processed foods, nogut hai blut pressure o ol narapela laip stail disease i bagarapim yu”. Villagers speaking only local languages and Tok Pisin could certainly understand the concepts of “processed food”, high blood pressure”, and “modern life style diseases”, but only if explained with genuine Tok Pisin words, not these hybrid expressions.
These are examples of code-switching, where people go between languages, starting off in one language and then switching to another language, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. This is a common way for bilinguals to communicate when everyone in the conversation speaks both languages, but where one person does not speak one of the languages, communication breaks down.
The problem is that some people are in the habit of code-switching so much that they do it unconsciously. I notice this when I have visitors from overseas who don’t speak Tok Pisin and they are talking with my neighbours, who are often quite fluent in both English and Tok Pisin. The conversation is in English, of course, but my neighbours will often throw in a Tok Pisin phrase for emphasis or to show emotion, which confuses the overseas English-speaking guest who has no knowledge of Tok Pisin.
While code-switching is often very creative, as we can see in PNG popular music or the way that urban youth often joke with each other, we need to be aware of what it is, and when it is or is not appropriate. When speaking with overseas visitors or in an international environment, for example, it is important to stick to international English and to avoid PNG English expressions. Similarly, when speaking with people who have not had higher education and do not speak English, it is important to analyse and explain ideas, not just use English words in a Tok Pisin sentence.
Teachers at schools can help this by showing students the differences between PNG English and international forms of English. They can also ask students to retell in Tok Pisin or another local language what they have learned at school in English. Often the teacher will be surprised that the students who can repeat beautifully what was said in English cannot do this easily in another language.
This is because they haven’t really understood the underlying concepts and therefore cannot analyse and break down the complex ideas into their component parts to explain them in clear Tok Pisin.
Tok Pisin and English are languages intertwined, both in vocabulary and their place in society. Understanding what the boundaries are between Tok Pisin and English is important if we want to communicate clearly. Without being able to separate our languages, we cannot speak clearly to those who speak only one of the languages we use.
Tok Pisin and English are not the same language and we need to remember the boundary between them.

  • Prof 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]

Family reunion brings peace

From left: Loi Keina and Walaka Keina (89-years old and the last of nine siblings and Makerupu council member Kulu Kema.

THE 46th Independence anniversary marked a remarkable and historical reunion of the Keina Rupa Togolo tribe in Rigo, Central.
The reunion programme was electrifying with uncontrollable emotions and overwhelming joy, peace, love and tears from all families who congregated for the celebrations.
The successful celebrations over three consecutive days and nights were the result of weeks of preparations in song and dance rehearsals.
When the actual event came around, all the families were already into full celebration mode with great excitement and jubilation. The theme of the reunion was ‘Veripa veveni’ – meaning get to know one and other.
The three-days and nights of celebration were around the the 46th independence weekend in Makerupu village of Rigo District.
The reunion programme was to reunite the lost tribe of nine siblings of Keina Rupa Togolo (KRT) stretching from Fishermen Island in Kairuku-Hiri District and all the way to Mailu in Abau District. The gathering of the KRT families was estimated to be up to 1,000 heads.
All families arrived on Thursday, Sept 16 and were welcomed by the Mekerupu families with rao (green coconut) and pariva (mixture of sago and banana). The visiting families in turn exchanged with sandwiches and cordials.
That led to briefings on the official programme in the evening.
The first day saw young and old taking part in activities. It started with morning exercise and warm up as early as 5am on Sept 17 before the official opening of the KRT reunion celebrations 2021 at 8am.
The main celebration was centered around praise and worship and devotion to God almighty, the Creator. This was followed by singing and dancing by amilies of nine siblings of the tribe.
Singing and dancing continued into in the night. Each family was given given time to perform three items in song and dance with 10-minute intervals between each performance.
One of the highlights of the three-days of the un-filled family reunion was the combined lunch on the second the day. It was very special indeed and families were mingling around and enjoyed the taste of different recipes. That in itself defined the KRT reunion programme of the families.
The most remarkable event of the KRT reunion was a bonfire. A specially invited guest speaker, Rev Julian Kivori shared the Word of God on restoration of broken relationships, breaking generational curses and deliverance.

Family members of Kema Keina with their celebrations banner.

Rev Kivori invited individuals and families to speak to their God personally. He then asked them to write whatever curses/burdens they were under for ages onto pieces of paper and burn them into the bonfire.
The bonfire has truly uplifted the spirit and heavy burdens of the individuals and families from the bondage of the generational curses and broken relationships with God and families. This has set the individuals and families on new adimension and high lighted family reunion. Everybody thanked God for the gracious moment.
The last day of reunion celebrations on Sunday, Sept 19 got all families together for acombined fellowship. All the youths from the nine siblings took part in singing.
Representative of the nine siblings were given time to making acknowledgements and closing remarks at the end of the reunion event that was remarkable and an inspiring news to the Rigo coastline. In the history of Rigo coastline as well as the district, the magnitude of celebrations and the number of families who attended made it a success.
Surrounding communities from Hula, Kamali, Kalo, Alewai, Irupara, Babaka and the Makerupu who witnessed the reunion celebrations programme spoke highly of the KRT families and working committees for very the successful reunion.
They said the KRT families have set the new benchmark for Rigo Central and Coastlines communities. They were blessed to witness the whole celebrations unfold. They even mentioned that other families held family reunion programmes for only a day.
The oldest participant of the reunion, father, grandfather, great grandfather and remnant of the nine KRT siblings, 89-year-old Walaka Keina, celebrated with overwhelming joy and excitement. He was singing with his wife and beating his drum.
On Saturday, Sept 19, after the morning celebration Walaka was briefly interviewed by Councillor Kulu Kema of Makerupu Ward on how he felt about the KRT reunion.
“ I am very privileged and fortunate to live this long to see the generations of our nine siblings come together and celebrate the reunion. I felt great excitement and joy in me,” Keina said but then broke down in tears.
Kema responded saying, “Papa, we are so blessed to have you around.”
Kema also wished him a peaceful life with his beautiful partner and Loi Keina.