Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Tok Pisin from The Macquarie Dictionary

the English-based lingua franca of Papua New Guinea; originally a Melanesian pidgin, now undergoing creolisation.

Etymology: Tok Pisin : literally, talk pidgin

Summary Article: TOK PISIN
from Dictionary of Languages

Papua New Guinea

Tok Pisin is a pidgin language, or more correctly a creole, based on english. It is the principal lingua franca of Papua New Guinea and one of the three official languages of the country, alongside English and HIRI MOTU.

Tok Pisin is the native form of the English words ‘Pidgin Talk’: in context this distinguishes it from the local languages, collectively referred to as Tok Ples ‘language of the place’. It has also been called Neo-Melanesian, Melanesian Pidgin, New Guinea Pidgin or simply Pidgin.

Tok Pisin originated in the late 19th century as a form of the widespread English pidgin of the South Sea Islands, best known as Beach-la-Mar (see also bislama). Once it had been introduced to eastern New Guinea — territories then under German and British influence — the pidgin spread rapidly. It served better as a lingua franca even than Motu, and was certainly more promising than English or German, because the clear structure of a pidgin aids rapid learning by speakers of differing linguistic backgrounds. This was all the more necessary, since, in the newly annexed colonies, people speaking numerous local languages had suddenly to learn to work together as servants, government employees, farm workers and seamen.

It may well be that the pidgin prospered better under German rule, in the north-east, than under the English in the south-east, since Germans, though they disliked using an English-based lingua franca, could not avoid taking the trouble to learn it properly. Australians, who ruled both the former British and the former German territories during most of the 20th century, tended to disapprove of the pidgin equally strongly. The Japanese occupation during the Second World War forced a revision of this view: pidgin, already used by missionaries, now became the principal language of Australian as well as Japanese propaganda.

In independent Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin is the principal language of the media and of town life. It is the mother tongue of well over 100,000 young people, a number that is growing rapidly. Meanwhile, standard English is widely taught and is infiltrating Tok Pisin ever more strongly. Other, older influences can still be traced: it has been suggested that the absence of voiced final stops (so rot ‘road’; dok ‘dog’) shows the phonetic influence of German. Like Austronesian languages, Tok Pisin has a rich series of personal pronouns: for the first person these are mi ‘I’, yumitupela ‘we, including person addressed, total two’, yumitripela ‘ditto, total three’, yumi ‘ditto, indefinite total’, mitupela ‘we two, excluding person addressed’, mitripela ‘we three, ditto’, mipela ‘we all, ditto’.

Examples from John Holm, Pidgins and creoles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) pp. 529–34

‘Rude words’ in Tok Pisin

Standard Tok Pisin includes several important words whose English originals are ‘improper’. In the 19th-century canefields, plantations and mines, language was used forcefully. The formerly ‘rude words’ are perfectly polite and proper in Tok Pisin. As lo bilong gavman (‘arse law’, basic law of the Government) means ‘constitution’; mi bagarap means ‘I’m tired'.

Dictionary of Languages © 1998 + 2004

Related Articles

Full text Article Tok Pisin
The Penguin English Dictionary

/tok pisin/ noun = Neo-Melanesian [ alteration of talk pidgin ]. ...

Full text Article Sankoff, Gillian (1943-)
Concise Encyclopedia of Sociolinguistics

Gillian Sankoff's contribution to sociolinguistics focuses on languages in contact using a multidisciplinary approach drawing from Linguistics,...

Full text Article lingua franca
A Dictionary of Sociolinguistics

Refers to any form of language serving as a means of communication between speakers of different languages. Lingua francas (or lingue franche)...

See more from Credo