Tok Pisin

Tok Pisin
Tok Pisin
Spoken in  Papua New Guinea
Native speakers 122,000  (2004)
4 million L2 speakers
Language family
English Creole
  • Pacific
    • Tok Pisin
Official status
Regulated by No official regulation
Language codes
ISO 639-2 tpi
ISO 639-3 tpi
Linguasphere 52-ABB-cc

Tok Pisin (play /ˌtɔːk ˈpɪsɪn/; locally [ˌtokpiˈsin]) is a creole spoken throughout Papua New Guinea. It is an official language of Papua New Guinea and the most widely used language in that country. In parts of Western, Gulf, Central, Oro Province and Milne Bay Provinces, however, the use of Tok Pisin has a shorter history, and is less universal, especially among older people.

Between five and six million people use Tok Pisin to some degree, although by no means do all of these speak it well. Between one and two million are exposed to it as a first language,[citation needed] in particular the children of parents or grandparents originally speaking different vernaculars (for example, a mother from Madang and a father from Rabaul). Urban families in particular, and those of police and defence force members, often communicate between themselves in Tok Pisin, either never gaining fluency in a vernacular ("tok ples"), or learning a vernacular as a second (or third) language, after Tok Pisin (and possibly English). Perhaps one million people now use Tok Pisin as a primary language.



Tok is derived from English "talk", but has a wider application, also meaning "word", "speech", or "language". Pisin derives from the English word pidgin; the latter, in turn, may originate in the word business, which is descriptive of the typical use of pidgins as inter-ethnic trade languages.

While Tok Pisin is usually referred to under this name, it is also sometimes—though rarely—called New Guinea Pidgin or, in academic contexts, Melanesian Pidgin English or Neo-Melanesian. Given that Papua New Guinean anglophones almost invariably refer to Tok Pisin as Pidgin when speaking English,[1] it may be considered something of an affectation to call it Tok Pisin, much like referring to German and French as Deutsch and français in English. However, Tok Pisin is favoured by many professional linguists to avoid spreading the misconception that Tok Pisin is still a pidgin language. Although it was originally a pidgin, Tok Pisin is now considered a distinct language in its own right, because it is a first language for some people and not merely a lingua franca to facilitate communication with speakers of other languages.


The Tok Pisin language is a result of Pacific Islanders intermixing, when people speaking numerous different languages were sent to work on plantations in Queensland and various islands (see South Sea Islander and Blackbirding). The labourers began to develop a pidgin, drawing vocabulary primarily from English, but also from German, Malay, Portuguese and their own Austronesian languages (perhaps especially Kuanua, that of the Tolai people of East New Britain).

This English-based pidgin evolved into Tok Pisin in German New Guinea (where the German-based creole Unserdeutsch was also spoken). It became a widely used lingua franca – and language of interaction between rulers and ruled, and among the ruled themselves who did not share a common vernacular; the closely related Bislama in Vanuatu and Pijin in the Solomon Islands developed in parallel. The flourishing of the mainly English-based Tok Pisin in German New Guinea (despite the language of the metropolitan power being German) is to be contrasted with Hiri Motu, the lingua franca of Papua, which was derived not from English but from Motu, the vernacular of the indigenous people of the Port Moresby area.

Official status

Along with English and Hiri Motu, Tok Pisin is one of the three official languages of Papua New Guinea. It is frequently the language of debate in the national parliament. Most government documents are produced in English, but public information campaigns are often partially or entirely in Tok Pisin. While English is the main language in the education system, some schools use Tok Pisin in the first three years of elementary education to promote early literacy.

Regional variations

There are considerable variations in vocabulary and grammar in various parts of Papua New Guinea, with distinct dialects in the New Guinea Highlands, the north coast of Papua New Guinea (Pidgin speakers from Finschhafen speak rather quickly and often have difficulty making themselves understood elsewhere) and the New Guinea Islands. The variant spoken on Bougainville and Buka is moderately distinct from that of New Ireland and East New Britain but is much closer to that than it is to the Pijin spoken in the rest of the Solomon Islands.


Tok Pisin, like many pidgins and creoles, has a far simpler phonology than the superstrate language. It has 16 consonants and 5 vowels. However, this varies with the local substrate languages and the level of education of the speaker. The following is the "core" phonemic inventory, common to virtually all varieties of Tok Pisin. More educated speakers, and/or those where the substrate language(s) have larger phoneme inventories, may have as many as 10 distinct vowels.

Nasal plus plosive offsets lose the plosive element in Tok Pisin e.g. English hand becomes Tok Pisin han. Furthermore, voiced plosives become voiceless at the ends of words, so that English pig is rendered as pik in Tok Pisin.


Labial Coronal Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p b t d k ɡ
Fricative v s h
Nasal m n ŋ
Lateral l
Approximant w j
Rhotic consonant r
  • Where symbols appear in pairs the one to the left represents a voiceless consonant.
  • /t/, /d/, and /l/ can be either dental or alveolar consonants, while /n/ is only alveolar.
  • In most Tok Pisin dialects, the phoneme /r/ is pronounced as the alveolar tap or flap, [ɾ].


Tok Pisin has five vowels, similar to the vowels of Spanish, Japanese, and many other five-vowel languages:

Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a


The verb has a suffix, -im (from "him") to indicate transitivity (luk, look; lukim, see). But some verbs, such as kaikai "eat", can be transitive without it. Tense is indicated by the separate words bai (future) (from "by and by") and bin (past) (from "been"). The present progressive tense is indicated by the word stap – e.g. "eating" is kaikai stap (or this can be seen as having a "food stop").

The noun does not indicate number, though pronouns do.

Adjectives usually take the suffix -pela (sometimes pronounced -pla; from "fellow") when modifying nouns; an exception is liklik "little".[2] It is also found on numerals and determiners:

Tok Pisin: "wanpela" → English: "one"
Tok Pisin: "tupela" → English: "two"
Tok Pisin: "dispela boi" → English: "this bloke".

Pronouns show person, number, and clusivity. The paradigm varies depending on the local languages; dual number is common, while the trial is less so. The largest Tok Pisin pronoun inventory is,

Singular Dual Trial Plural
1st exclusive mi
(he/she and I)
(both of them, and I)
(all of them, and I)
1st inclusive yumitupela
(thou and I)
(both of you, and I)
yumipela or yumi
(all of you, and I)
2nd yu
(you two)
(you three)
(you four or more)
3rd em
(they two)
(they three)
(they four or more)

Reduplication is very common in Tok Pisin. Sometimes it is used as a method of derivation; sometimes words just have it. Some words are distinguished only by reduplication: sip "ship", sipsip "sheep".

There are only two proper prepositions: bilong (from "belong"), which means "of" or "for", and long (from "along"), which means everything else. Tok Pisin: "Mipela i go long blekmaket". → English: "We went to the black market". Tok Pisin: "Ki bilong yu" → English: "your key" Tok Pisin: "Ol bilong Godons". → English: "They are from Gordon's". (ibid. 640f). Some phrases are used as prepositions, such as long namel (bilong), "in the middle of".

Several of these features derive from the common grammatical norms of Austronesian languages – although usually in a simplified form. Other features, such as word order, are however closer to English.

Sentences which have a 3rd person subject often put the word i just before the verb. This may or may not be written separate from the verb, occasionally written as a prefix. Although the word is thought to be derived from "he" or "is", it is not itself a pronoun or a verb but a grammatical marker used in particular constructions. E.g. "Kar i tambu long hia" is "car forbidden here", i.e. "no parking".

Tense and aspect

Past Tense: Marked by "bin" (from English 'been'): Tok Pisin: "Na praim minista i bin tok olsem". English: "And the prime minister spoke thus". (Romaine 1991: 629)

Continuative Same Tense is expressed through: Verb + i stap. Tok Pisin: "Em i slip i stap". English: "He/ She is sleeping". (ibid.: 631)

Completive or perfective aspect expressed through the word "pinis" (from English: finish): Tok Pisin: "Em i lusim bot pinis". English: "He had got out of the boat". (Mühlhäusler 1984: 462).

Transitive words are expressed through "-im" (from English: him): Tok Pisin: "Yu pinisim stori nau." English: "Finish your story now!". (ibid.: 640).

Future is expressed through the word "bai" (from English: by and by): Tok Pisin: "Em bai ol i go long rum" English: "They will go to their rooms now. (Mühlhäusler 1991: 642).

Development of Tok Pisin

Tok Pisin is a language that developed out of regional dialects of the languages of the local inhabitants and English, brought into the country when English speakers arrived. There were four phases in the development of Tok Pisin that were laid out by Loreto Todd.

  1. Casual contact between English speakers and local people developed a marginal pisin
  2. Pisin English was used between the local people. The language expanded from the users' mother tongue
  3. As the interracial contact increased the vocabulary expanded according to the dominant language.
  4. In areas where English was the official language a depidginization occurred (Todd, 1990)

Tok Pisin is also known as a "mixed" language. This means that it consists of characteristics of different languages. Tok Pisin obtained most of its vocabulary from the English language: i.e. English is its lexifier. The origin of the syntax is a matter of debate. Hymes (Hymes 1971b: 5) claims that the syntax is from the substratum languages: i.e. the languages of the local peoples. (Hymes 1971b: 5). Derek Bickerton's analysis of creoles, on the other hand, claims that the syntax of creoles is imposed on the grammarless pidgin by its first native speakers: the children who grow up exposed to only a pidgin rather than a more developed language such as one of the local languages or English. In this analysis, the original syntax of creoles is in some sense the default grammar humans are born with.

Pidgins are less elaborated than non-Pidgin languages. Their typical characteristics found in Tok Pisin are:

  1. A smaller vocabulary which leads to metaphors to supply lexical units:
    • Smaller vocabulary:
      Tok Pisin: "vot"; English: "election" (n) and "vote" (v)
      Tok Pisin: "hevi"; English: "heavy" (adj) and "weight" (n)
    • Metaphors:
      Tok Pisin: "skru bilong han" (screw of the arm); English: "elbow" (This is almost always just "skru" – hardly ever distinguished as "skru bilong han" except in liturgical contexts, where "brukim skru" is "kneel").
      Tok Pisin: "gras bilong het" (grass of the head); English: "hair" (Hall, 1966: 90f) (Most commonly just "gras" – see note on "skru bilong han" above).
  2. A reduced grammar: lack of copula, determiners; reduced set of prepositions, and conjunctions
  3. Less differentiated phonology: [p] and [f] are not distinguished in Tok Pisin (they are in free variation). The sibilants /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/, and /dʒ/ are also not distinguished.
    "pis" in Tok Pisin could mean in English: "beads", "fish", "peach", "feast" or "peace".
    "sip" in Tok Pisin could mean in English: "ship", "jib", "jeep", "sieve" or "chief"


Tok Pisin can sound very colourful in its use of words, which are derived from English (with Australian influences), indigenous Melanesian languages and German (part of the country was under German rule until 1914).

  • as – bottom, cause, beginning (from "ass"/"arse"). "As ples bilong em" = "his birthplace"
  • bagarap(im) – broken, to break down (from "bugger up") – also used in Papua New Guinea English in contexts that would be considered vulgar in other countries.
  • bagarap olgeta – completely broken
  • balus – airplane or bird (from a Melanesian word for "bird")
  • belhat – angry (lit. "belly hot")
  • belo – lunch (from the bellow of horns used by businesses to indicate the lunch hour has begun)
  • bilong wanem? – why?
  • bubu – grandparent, any elderly relation – also grandchild. Possibly from Hiri Motu – where it is a familiar form of tubu, as in tubuna or tubugu.
  • diwai – tree, plant, stick etc.
  • gat bel – pregnant (lit. "has belly"; pasin bilong givim bel = fertility)
  • hamamas / amamas – happy
  • hap – a piece of, as in "hap diwai" = a piece of wood. (from "half")
  • haus – house
    • haus meri – female domestic servant
    • haus moni – bank (from "house money")
    • haus sik – hospital (from "house sick")
    • haus dok sik – animal hospital (from "house dog sick")
    • haus karai – place of mourning (from "house cry")
    • sit haus (rarely used) – toilet, also:
    • liklik haus – toilet
    • haus tambarantraditional Sepik-region house with artifacts of ancestors or for honoring ancestors; tambaran means "ancestor spirit" or "ghost"
  • hevi – heavy, problem. "Em i gat bigpela hevi" = "he has a big problem".
  • hukim pis – to catch fish (from "hook")
  • kaikai – food, eat (a Polynesian loan)
  • kakaruk – chicken (probably onomatapoetic, from the crowing of the rooster)
  • kamap – arrive, become (from "come up")
  • kisim – get, take (from "catch them")
  • lotu – church, from Fijian, but sometimes sios is used for "church"
  • manki – small boy, by extension, young man (Probably from the English jocular/affectionate usage "monkey", applied to mischievous children, although a derivation from the German "männchen", meaning "little man" has also been suggested)
  • maski – it doesn't matter, don't worry about it (from German "macht nichts" = "it doesn't matter")
  • manmeri – people
  • maus gras – moustache (lit: "mouth grass").
  • meri – woman (from the English name "Mary"). Also means female, e.g. "Bulmakau meri" (lit. "bull cow female") = cow.
  • olgeta – all (from "all together")
  • olsem wanem – how?
  • pisin – bird (from "pigeon"). The homophony of this word with the name of the language has led to a limited association between the two; Mian speakers, for example, refer to Tok Pisin as "wan weng", literally "bird language".
  • pasim – close, lock (from "fasten")
    • pasim maus – shut up, be quiet, i.e. "yu pasim maus" lit: "you close mouth" = "shut up!"
  • paul – chicken, confused, i.e. "em i paul" = "he is confused"
  • pikinini – child (from Pacific Pidgin English, but ultimately from Portuguese influenced Lingua franca, cf. pickaninny)
  • rausim – get out, throw out (from German "raus")
  • rokrok – frog (probably onomatopoetic)
  • sapos – if (from "suppose")
  • save – know, to do habitually (from Pacific Pidgin English, but ultimately from Portuguese influenced Lingua franca, cf. "savvy")
  • sit – remnant (from "shit")
  • solwara – ocean (from "salt water")
  • stap – be, live, stay (from "stop")
  • susa – sister, though nowadays very commonly supplanted by "sista". Some Tok Pisin speakers make an additional distinction where a "barata" is a woman's sister.
  • susu – milk, breasts, from Malay
  • tambu – forbidden, from "taboo", but also means "in-laws" (mother-in-law, brother-in-law, etc.) and other relatives whom one is forbidden to speak to, or mention the name of, in some PNG customs.
  • tasol – but, only (from "that's all")

Example of Tok Pisin

The Lord's Prayer in Tok Pisin:

Papa bilong mipela
Yu stap long heven.
Nem bilong yu i mas i stap holi.
Kingdom bilong yu i mas i kam.
Strongim mipela long bihainim laik bilong yu long graun,
olsem ol i bihainim long heven.
Givim mipela kaikai inap long tude.
Pogivim rong bilong mipela,
olsem mipela i pogivim ol arapela i mekim rong long mipela.
Sambai long mipela long taim bilong traim.
Na rausim olgeta samting nogut long mipela.
Kingdom na strong na glori, em i bilong yu tasol oltaim oltaim.

The Lord's Prayer in English:

Our father,
who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil,
for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, now and forever.

See also


  1. ^ Thus the published court reports of Papua New Guinea refer to Tok Pisin as "Pidgin": see for example Schubert v The State [1979] PNGLR 66.
  2. ^ Liklik can also be used as an adverb meaning "slightly", as in dispela bikpela liklik ston, "this slightly big stone".


  • Volker, C. A. (2008). Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin English Dictionary. South Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195551129. 
  • Mihalic, Francis (1971). The Jacaranda Dictionary and Grammar of Melanesian Pidgin. Milton, Queensland: Jacaranda Press. ISBN 0701681128. OCLC 213236. 
  • Murphy, John Joseph (1985). The Book of Pidgin English (6th edition ed.). Bathurst, New South Wales: Robert Brown. ISBN 0404141609. OCLC 5354671. 
  • Smith, Geoff P. (2002). Growing Up With Tok Pisin: Contact, Creolization, and Change in Papua New Guinea's National Language. London: Battlebridge Publications. ISBN 1903292069. OCLC 49834526. 
  • Dutton, Thomas Edward; Thomas, Dicks (1985). A New Course in Tok Pisin (New Guinea Pidgin). Canberra: Australian National University. ISBN 0858833417. OCLC 15812820. 
  • Wurm, S. A.; Mühlhäusler, P. (1985). Handbook of Tok Pisin (New Guinea Pidgin). Pacific Linguistics. ISBN 0858833212. OCLC 12883165. 
  • (in Tok Pisin) Nupela Testamen bilong Bikpela Jisas Kraist. The Bible Society of Papua New Guinea. 1980. ISBN 0647036711. OCLC 12329661. 

Further reading

External links


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