The Language "Tok Pisin" in Papua New Guinea. English in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

25 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. General Background Information
2.1 Name and Area
2.2 Development of Tok Pisin
2.3 Current Situation

3. External History of Tok Pisin

4. Linguistic Features of Tok Pisin
4.1 Phonology
4.2 Morphology
4.3 Syntax
4.4 The Lexicon of Tok Pisin

5. Analysis of a Sample Text

6. Education

7. Media
7.1 Papua New Guinea’s Press
7.2 Electronic Media
7.3 Radio and Television

8. Conclusion

List of References

1. Introduction

For many years the study of Pidgin and Creole languages was widely regarded as marginal or frivolous, but recently, there has been growing interest in the study of these languages all over the world. They have not merely been studied for their own sake, but for the relevance to such concerns as language contact and change, historical linguistics, language learning, first and second language acquisition or language universals (cf. Smith 2002: 3). With this, the area of the Pacific and Indian Ocean has become increasingly significant for linguists. There are many reasons why the position of Tok Pisin, one of the two national languages of the independent nation of Papua New Guinea (with Hiri Motu as the other and alongside English as the official language), stands in the continued focus of scholarly attention. In a variety of ways, the position of Tok Pisin is like that of many other pidgin and creole languages elsewhere and it has a number of advantages as a source of data, as it is one of the best documented contact languages, however, “Tok Pisin is somewhat unusual among the Pidgins of the world in its gradual development over several generations as a second language before any extensive creolization took place.” (Smith 2002: 6). In spite of the work already carried out, there are still a few gaps in the current knowledge of some aspects of Tok Pisin and much of the literature is concerned only with the historical development of the language and the description of its linguistic properties, but it is not always clear how representative the features described are (cf. Smith 2002: 22).

The purpose of this paper is to closer examine the language concerning its history, linguistic features and current situation. We will start with some general background information about Tok Pisin and the region where it is spoken, the development of Tok Pisin into a creole language, the current situation and the external history. Then continue with the linguistic features of Tok Pisin with regard to the specific phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon, and illustrate them on a text sample. And finally we will take a closer look at the educational system of Papua New Guinea, as well as its media, concerning the use of Tok Pisin. In particular, the relationship between Tok Pisin and its main lexifier language English is of primary importance and is explored in further detail in almost every section.

2. General Background Information

2.1 Name and Area

Tok Pisin is an English-based pidgin and it is widely spoken in the South Pacific Ocean in Papua New Guinea in the region of Melanesia. New Guinea is the second largest island in the world and is located 100 miles north of Australia. The Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua occupy the western part of the island, while the independent nation Papua New Guinea is located in the eastern part of the island. 64 percent of the Pacific Island population live in Papua New Guinea and thus it has the highest population of the Pacific Island nations (cf. Romaine 1992: 1).

Tok Pisin is the official name of the language since 1981. Some academics refer to this variety as “Melanesian Pidgin English”, “New Guinea Pidgin” or “Neo-Melanesian” but it is generally known under the term “Tok Pisin” or simply “Pidgin”. There exist three different types of Tok Pisin which are spoken in the region of Melanesia, more precisely in Vanatu, Papua New Guinea, and on the Solomon Islands. All these pidgins are closely related and have by now gained the status of a Creole.

Tok Pisin is predominately spoken in those provinces of Papua New Guinea which once belonged to German New Guinea. In many cases the language has by now replaced the native Pidgin Hiri Motu which used to be spoken in the former Australian sector of the country. There exist different types of classification of Tok Pisin. Thus, referring to geographical aspects one distinguishes between Tok Pisin of the costal region, of the Bismarck Archipelago, and of the highlands. This classification is due to the three phases of the colonization of the country. A further subdivision of Tok Pisin is based on a distinction between the four existing main sociolects of the language. Thus, one differentiates between Bush Pidgin, which is the bush pidgin of the remote regions, Rural Pidgin, Urban Pidgin and Tok Masta which constitutes the language of the white colonizers. This kind of subdivision reflects the differences in contact with the Western culture and the English language. All these classifications mentioned above, constitute pidgin languages. However, one needs to take into consideration that there also exist varieties of Tok Pisin which have been creolized over the years mainly in large settlements, for example in mission stations. In the case of Malabang for example, a village on the island of Manus, creolization took place. Plantation workers who derived from different parts of New Guinea married women from Manus, belonging to different linguistic groups, and founded a new community, thus resulting in a new generation of native speakers of Tok Pisin (cf. Mühlhäusler et al. 2003: 4).

2.2 Development of Tok Pisin into a Creole Language

In order to understand the changes which are taking place in Papua New Guinea and thus lead to the fact that the language develops more and more into a native language of the younger generation of Papua New Guinea firstly an overview of the connection between Pidgins and Creoles will be given.

A Pidgin can be defined as a language which is developed in order to meet communication needs between groups of people which have no language in common. Usually, it is not the native language of its speakers but it is rather used in a restricted range of situations and contexts, for example in terms of trading contacts. At that moment when the Pidgin becomes the first or native language for a new generation of speakers, one refers to it as a Creole. The difference between a Pidgin and a Creole becomes apparent in the fact that a Creole is not restricted to a specific use and has therefore a large range of informational functions. Above that, Creoles are much more complex in terms of linguistic features such as phonology, morphology or syntax. By now, Creoles are predominantly well established in various areas, especially in the Pacific, Caribbean as well as in parts of West Africa (cf. Smith 2002: 3).

In the case of Tok Pisin it needs to be taken into consideration that this kind of Pidgin has developed and stabilized over several generations. Although, we frequently refer to Tok Pisin as a Pidgin we need to keep in mind that the language is more and more spoken by an increasing number of young people as a first language, thus as a Creole. However, the distinction between Tok Pisin as a Pidgin or as a Creole is somewhat confusing and controversial. Studies have shown that during the process of creolization the new generation of Tok Pisin speakers simply accelerated certain tendencies which already became apparent and developed in the expanded Pidgin (cf. Smith 2002: 714).

2.3 Current Situation

Today, Tok Pisin, as the most important language of Melanesia, is used in a wide range of private and public functions in Papua New Guinea. It is spoken by up to 3-4 million people as a second language and by about 120,000 people as a native language in a highly multilingual society. Tok Pisin has not always been regarded as a respectable and highly valued language. Academics used to refer to it as a “strange universal language” or as a language “incredibly primitive with amazing simplicity”. However, the opinion on Tok Pisin has taken a positive turn and the enhanced status of the language becomes obvious in terms of how politicians of Papua New Guinea as well as modern linguists view the language. Important politicians of the country have finally started to value the advantages of Tok Pisin as a universal lingua franca spoken in a multilingual country where up to 860 different languages are in use for about 4-5 million inhabitants. Above that, also accepted modern linguists have finally recognized the language. Therefore, a general acceptance is demonstrated by the fact that more and more serious literature about Tok Pisin is by now available. Some examples are the Handbook of Tok Pisin by Wurm & Mühlhäusler as well as Verhaar’s 1990 collection (cf. Mühlhäusler et al. 2003: 1). Above that, the importance and general acceptance of Tok Pisin also became apparent in Prince Charles’ speech to the new parliament in Tok Pisin, which constituted a significant milestone in the development of Tok Pisin (cf. Smith 2002: 713). Today, Tok Pisin is the national language which is expanding more and more and is used in a wide range of domains. English is used in terms of education as well as in governmental and administrative cases.

3. External History of Tok Pisin

The late 18th and early 19th century marked the first extended contacts between traders and native islanders. After the first discovering passages of for example James Cook beachcombers, traders companies of missionaries and colonial administrators started to explore the region. From the second half of the 18th century on, new trading routes from Britain to the South Pacific were established and trade intensified. At that time, a total of 1556 sailors, mostly British, was aboard these ships. These sailors established the so called foreigner talk, a simplified language to communicate with the native inhabitants of the islands, which today is referred to as “Pacific Nautical Pidgin English” or “South Sea Jargon”. These early varieties of contact language forms can rather be described as jargons than as pidgins as they were highly instable and variable. These jargons which were brought to the eastern Bismarck Archipelago by traders and whaler hunters contributed to the emergence and the development of Tok Pisin. In the 1860s, a German company established plantations in Samoa and consequently German influence in the Pacific started to grow. Their first plantations and trading centres were located in the Bismarck Archipelago. Despite the fact that the German population on the plantation did not like to speak the pidgin, it extremely helped them in order to communicate with the inhabitants of the Bismarck Archipelago. In the case of Tok Pisin it is important to take into consideration that English did not exist as a model as the plantation owners of the Bismarck Archipelago were Germans. As a consequence, Tok Pisin started to develop its own mechanism in terms of expanding its vocabulary at an early stage.

In 1878, the recruitment of Bismarck Islanders to the German plantations of Samoa began. However, the majority of the population of this plantation consisted of workers from Kiribati. The pidgin, used by them as a medium of communication was thus expanded and modified by people descending from New Guinea. These people from New Guinea took the language back to their home country after three to five years of working on the plantation. Pidgin English served now as the communication form between native inhabitants, returning workers, and German colonialists who learned it as a foreign language (cf. Holm 2002: 96-97).

In 1914, after the end of the German rule the spread of Tok Pisin over large parts of Papua New Guinea went on under Australian administration. For the first time, Tok Pisin was also in use for communication across the plantations. Thus, it was also spoken at work or at governmental stations. However, the invasion of Japanese troops during the Second World War resulted in a setback for the language. Above that, the war caused the destruction of nearly all plantations and therefore deleted the social context for developing and learning the language. Despite that, it needs to be taken into consideration that Tok Pisin was however the language of the Allies. Over the years, the status of Tok Pisin changed to a more valued language. Hence, Tok Pisin started to become the language of the newspapers as well as the language of the local government. In 1953, the United Nations unsuccessfully tried to abolish the language considering it as a language of colonial repression.

After World War II, Papua New Guinea faced a large movement of people from rural regions to the urban areas as the employment situation was better in those areas. As now speakers of all these different languages clashed the need for a common language was greater than ever. Therefore, the Pidgin was used for international communication in order to pass the ethnolinguistic boundaries. Additionally, it enabled people from different backgrounds, both social and linguistic, to communicate.

Nowadays, the use of Tok Pisin implies certain sociolinguistic advantages. Thus, it enables speakers to discuss items which possibly do not exist in their local language. It is used in the media as well as in governmental administration although English is also in use in these fields. Various newspapers, magazines, official websites as well as radio broadcasts are in Tok Pisin. Even elementary schools teach Tok Pisin in the first three years of education.

Nevertheless, one can say that the future of Tok Pisin is quite uncertain as the development of the language is largely dependent on the political events, taking place in Papua New Guinea. By now, we are facing two situations. On the one hand, Tok Pisin as a second language is in decline, on the other hand we can notice an increase of native speakers. However, in some urban areas it becomes apparent that Tok Pisin is already starting to disappear as English gets the upper hand and becomes more and more pronounced. In addition, the government of Papua New Guinea has made less contribution to the institutionalization and stabilization of the language Tok Pisin. Thus, no standard policy towards the language has so far been accomplished and the status of the language remains ambiguous (cf. Mühlhäusler et al. 2003: 5).


Excerpt out of 25 pages


The Language "Tok Pisin" in Papua New Guinea. English in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen  (Justus-Liebig Universität Gießen)
English in the Pacific and Indian Ocean
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ISBN (eBook)
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Pisin, English, Pacific, Indian, Ocean
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Nina Schulte-Schmale (Author)Maike Naujoks (Author), 2008, The Language "Tok Pisin" in Papua New Guinea. English in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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