Isn’t that Just Bad English? Tok Pisin Explained

For those who want to know what my newest language project is, have a look at this video:

This is the creation story in the Book of Genesis, as related in Tok Pisin, one of Papua New Guinea’s national languages.

Wait, don’t drag out Google Maps quite yet!

Papua New Guinea is a country located north of Australia and east of Indonesia. Settled by Anglophones and by Germans, Tok Pisin has influence from both, although most notably from English (and it should be said that influence from the local languages of Papua New Guinea, or “PNG” as it is often referred to in shorthand, by far outweighs German influence on the language).

Tok Pisin (think of “Talk Pidgin”) is a Creole Language. For those of you wondering what the difference between a Creole Language and a Pidgin Language is, let me clear this up:

A Creole Language has native speakers. A Pidgin language does not.

A Creole Language evolves from a Pidgin, and Pidgin languages arrive as combinations of existing ones,  for the purposes of trade. The most widespread in the world is Haitian Creole, which is featured not only in Google Translate but also (surprise!) on signs in New York City’s subway systems (!!!)

My first-ever exposure to a creole language came about through my father, who worked in Sierra Leone. Because of influence from nearby Liberia, which was an area of Western Africa with influence from freed slaves (hence, the capital of Liberia is “Monrovia” and the flag bears a resemblance to that of the U.S.), there is an English Creole Language spoken there, known as “Krio”.

My father said two things about it: (1) that it was merely a “downgraded” version of English (I don’t remember if he used the word “downgraded” but he used a word very much like it) and (2) he didn’t even “understand why (he) needed a translator” (this thought came in retrospect).

The fact is, that Creole Languages are legitimate and should be treated as such. The idea that Creole Languages are just broken versions of other languages was one heavily peddled by…colonial empires (no big surprise there!)

All languages are mixtures of other languages. The same way that Tok Pisin has influence from the 800+ local languages of Papua New Guinea and from British English, Standard Norwegian has influence from Danish and Swedish. But I don’t hear anyone calling Norwegian degenerate. Or Dutch, for that matter. Or…most languages that have served as similar combinations…in Europe.

Creole Languages (every one I can think of has a base in a European Language) actually get their own language family, and are not classed with, let’s say, the Indo-European Languages.

Tok Pisin is spoken by millions of people, including those who have no command of English, including those outside of PNG.

I have flirted on and off with Tok Pisin for about two months.

Pros: Very similar to English (no surprise). The grammar is also very simple, with very few prepositions, with a very easy pronunciation system. Thanks to the fact that one of PNG’s official languages is English (and so happens to be the one in which the National Anthem of that country is written in), there is plenty of material to be found, in English, for learners of all stripes. You just need to know where to look. But given as materials are scarce on the Internet, I may…whoops, I don’t think I’m supposed to mention that quite yet.

Cons: Tok Pisin serves people from extraordinarily differing cultures within the country. PNG is actually a lot bigger than it appears on a map. As a result, consistency in vocabulary is…non-existent, even for native speakers! Consistency in spelling, while it exists in the letter of the law of the academy (yes, there is an academy for Tok Pisin!), has yet to catch on in some areas of the Tok Pisin world. This is a feature of Pidgin languages everywhere, actually.

The biggest con? The fact that, during colonial times, some British people used to address locals from PNG in a mixture of English and Tok Pisin, spoken slowly. My guidebook tells me that this is known as “Tok Masta”, which is very inappropriate to use as a white person to locals! But obviously if it were never appropriate for a white person to speak it, then…the guidebook wouldn’t exist. Also, British Royalty (in contemporary times) have sampled Tok Pisin during their visits to the country, and have received rounds of applause.

Tok Pisin’s identity is tied up with that of PNG, so much so that it is not uncommon for the national anthem of the country to play before Tok Pisin shows broadcasted out of PNG.

Here is my book, for Tok Pisin and other Pidgin languages of the Pacific:

2015-03-17 20.17.12

And here is…how typical of me… a musical sample!

Basil Greg, from my naïve understanding, became active in the 1980’s. One thing that also inspired this journey was the fact that my father had visited Papua New Guinea, a long time before I was born…



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