Where do Tok Pisin words come from?


IN these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at the origins of words in Tok Pisin.
The historical connection between English and Tok Pisin is obvious. This is why we often call Tok Pisin “Pidgin English”. But where do all the non-English words come from and why are even many English words used differently in Tok Pisin than in English?
The vast majority of Tok Pisin words come from English, although often their meaning has changed. Sometimes the change is the softening of an English swear word. The first English speakers Pacific Islanders encountered were sailors, who were not hesitant to use swear words. The Pacific Islanders who met them could not tell a swear word from a harmless word, so they ended up using expressions such as “mi bagarap” (from English “buggered” or “buggery”, an old rude word for “sodomy”) and “sit bilong paia” (literally, the “shit of the fire”) for “ashes”.
Some English expressions were drastically shortened Perhaps the best example of this is “olsem” (“like”, “similar”), which is how early Pacific Islanders heard “all the same”. The English language has changed since the 1800s, so some English words used then which made their way into Tok Pisin are no longer used in modern English. We no longer use “gammon”, for example, which became Tok Pisin “giaman”, or “by and by”, which first became the marker of future action “baimbai”,later shortened to “bai” and today even “ba”.
Other English words were used by Melanesians with meanings from their own languages. In many languages, the word for “brother” means “a sibling of the same sex” and the word for “sister” means “a sibling of the opposite sex”. Early Tok Pisin speakers used the same meanings, so that a woman would speak of “brata bilong mi, Maria” and “susa bilong mi, Adam”. Similarly, in many areas we speak of “ai bilong haus” (literally “eye of the house”) for “the front door” or “front yard”, a literal translation from Austronesian languages. Very Pacific wordings such as this show that Tok Pisin was a creation by Pacific Islanders and not, as some people still believe, something consciously taught or introduced by Germans or other Europeans.
Even though the Portuguese never colonised Melanesia, Tok Pisin has several words from Portuguese, such as “save” (Portuguese “saber” / “know”), “pikinini” (Portuguese “pequeno” / “small”). These are common to pidgin and creole languages around the world and reflect the early pidgin Portuguese varieties that developed wherever the Portuguese settled in Asia.
Later English-speaking sailors came in contact with these varieties and tried to use these words whenever they came across people with whom they could not communicate. The first Melanesians they encountered could not, of course, tell the difference between the Portuguese and English words they heard from the sailors’ mouths and so took up save and pikinini along with English words.
The first speakers of Tok Pisin were Austronesian speakers who found that they could use words that were common in Austronesian languages when speaking to speakers of other Austronesian speakers in Tok Pisin. This is how words common across many Austronesian languages, including Malay, such as “susu” (“milk”, “breast”) entered the language. When Malay-speaking workers were brought to the Gazelle Peninsula and plantations in Madang, they also brought the word “binatang”, which means “animal” in Malay, but “insect” in Tok Pisin. Perhaps this was because they thought New Guinea insects were as fierce as the tigers and elephants back home?
New Guinea was colonised by Germany, with the colonial capital in Kokopo. It is therefore not surprising that early Tok Pisin has many German and Kuanua (Tolai) words. At one time most of the words for tools and household items came from German. Later as generations of Papua New Guineans have had education in English, most words adapted from German, such as “srang” (closet, cupboard) and “hebel” (lever) have been replaced by English words. Nevertheless, there are still a number of German-derived words in Tok Pisin, such as “tabak” (tobacco) and, in some areas, beten (pray).
As the centre of Tok Pisin has moved away from the Gazelle Peninsula, many words of Tolai origin, such as “limlimbur” have been replaced by words from English (“wokabaut”). Many words from Kuanua and New Ireland languages related to it do remain, however, especially those such as masalai (“spirit”) and “kulau” (young coconut” that describe things that are particularly Melanesian and not European.
Christianity was introduced to Melanesia around the same time that Melanesians were developing Tok Pisin to speak to each other. The languages of the early missionaries brought a number of words still used in church circles today. German beten has already been mentioned. Other words include “bogen” (“arch”) from German, “pater” (“priest”) from Latin, and “lotu” and “talatala” (“preacher”) from Polynesian languages.
The origins of two common words, “maski” (“never mind”) and “sanguma” (“sorcerer”, “sorcery”) have long been difficult to ascertain. Dr Karl Franklin of SIL has found evidence that “maski” comes from an expression in a southern Chinese language that made its way into the pidgin Portuguese of Macau and later the pidgin English of Hong Kong. Sailors stopping at those ports picked up the expression and used it on the first ships that came to Melanesia.
“Sanguma” is still a mystery. An almost identical word with the same meaning, “sangoma”, is commonly used in southern Africa today. It is quite possible that German colonial workers travelling between German Southwest Africa (today Namibia) and German New Guinea carried the word from one of their colonies to the other, but there is no evidence to back up this hypothesis.
As we have seen, while English has been the basis for Tok Pisin vocabulary, Tok Pisin speakers have adapted these words to fit their way of speaking and thinking, while at the same time also adopting words from other languages that they spoke or encountered. Tok Pisin is very much a Melanesian creation, but it can trace the roots of its vocabulary to languages from around the world.

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.

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