Tok Pisin language

Tok Pisin language

Tok Pisin
Native to Papua New Guinea
Native speakers Template:Sigfig  (2004)Template:Infobox language/ref
4 million L2 speakers
Language family
English Creole
  • Pacific
    • Tok Pisin
Official status
Official language in  Papua New Guinea
Language codes
ISO 639-2 tpi
ISO 639-3 tpi
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Tok Pisin (English /tɒk ˈpɪsɪn/;[1] Tok Pisin [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, 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 among 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's name in the language is Tok Pisin, it is also called New Guinea Pidgin[2] in English. Papua New Guinean anglophones almost invariably refer to Tok Pisin as Pidgin when speaking English;[3] 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. Tok Pisin and the closely related Bislama in Vanuatu and Pijin in the Solomon Islands, which developed in parallel, have traditionally been treated as varieties of a single Melanesian Pidgin English or "Neo-Melanesian" language. 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".[4] 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" (American English: "this guy")

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 pidgin
  2. Pidgin 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).
    • Periphrases:
      Tok Pisin: "nambawan pikinini bilong misis kwin" (literally “first child of Mrs Queen”); English: Prince Charles.[5]
  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"


Many words in the Tok Pisin language 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 – bird (an Austronesian loan word) - by extension aeroplane
  • belhat – angry (lit. "belly hot")
  • belo – bell - as in "belo bilong lotu" = "Church bell". By extension lunch or midday break (from the bell rung to summon diners to the table). A fanciful derivation has been suggested from the "bellows" of horns used by businesses to indicate the beginning of the lunch hour but this seems less likely than the straightforward derivation.
  • 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)
  • gut - good
  • hamamas / amamas – happy
  • hap – a piece of, as in "hap diwai" = a piece of wood. (from "half")
  • hap ret - purple (from "half red")
  • haus – house or building
    • hausboi/hausmeri – a male/female domestic servant - hausboi (or haus boi) can also mean "servants quarters"
    • haus kaikai — restaurant (from "house food")
    • 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 (vulgar, even in tok pisin) – toilet (from "shit house"), also:
      • liklik haus – toilet
      • smol haus – toilet/bathroom ("small house")
    • haus tambaran – traditional 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 (Austronesian loan word); also
    • kaikai bilong moningtaim - breakfast (from "food belong morning time")
    • kaikai bilong nait - dinner/supper (from "food belong night")
  • 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"
  • olsem wanem - what?
  • 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)
  • manmeri – people (from "man", man, and "meri", woman)
  • maski – it doesn't matter, don't worry about it (from German "macht nichts" = "it doesn't matter")[citation needed]
  • 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?, what's going on?
  • 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)
  • raskol - thief (from "rascal")
  • raus, rausim ("rausim" is the transitive form) – get out, throw out, remove (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")
  • sop - soap; also
    • sop bilong tit - toothpaste (from "soap belong teeth")
    • sop bilong gras - shampoo (from "soap belong hair")
  • 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.
  • telefon - telephone
  • 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



Further reading

External links

  • Tok Pisin Translation, Resources, and Discussion Offers Tok Pisin translator, vocabulary, and discussion groups.
  • Tok Pisin phrasebook on
  • A bibliography of Tok Pisin dictionaries, phrase books and study guides
  • Revising the Mihalic Project, a collaborative internet project to revise and update Fr. Frank Mihalic's Grammar and Dictionary of Neo-Melanesian. An illustrated online dictionary of Tok Pisin.
  • Tok Pisin background, vocabulary, sounds, and grammar, by Jeff Siegel
  • Radio Australia Tok Pisin service
  • Tok Pisin Radio on Youtube
  • Robert Eklund's Tok Pisin Page
  • Corpus of Tok Pisin folk tales published in Wantok
  • Buk Baibel long Tok Pisin (The Bible in Tok Pisin)
  • Eukarist Anglican liturgy of Holy Communion in Tok Pisin
  • Port Moresby compiled by Terry D. Barhost and Sylvia O'Dell-Barhost.
  • Recorded dialogs, children's ditties at Robert Eklund's Tok Pisin website
  • Rosetta Project