Let’s… Tok Pisin!


Those of you who thought that “pidgins” were a type of bird, read on! The fascinating reality behind the so-called pidgin languages is made up of centuries of colonialism, slavery, emigration and, most importantly, one of the basic human needs: communication.

Historically, when two or more communities with no language in common came into contact with each other, their members had to develop a lingua franca that would make communication possible among them. Pidgin languages are the result: they are usually a blend of the vocabulary of one major language (mainly those of the former colonial powers: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch or French) with the grammar and structure of one or more minor languages. The word “pidgin” is thought to originate from a Chinese mispronunciation of the English word “business“.

Road sign in Guadeloupe Creole meaning “Slow down. Children are playing here”. The literal translation is “Lift your foot [from the accelerator]. There are children playing here”.

An example is Hawaiian Pidgin, originated on plantation fields in Hawaii from the contact between English-speaking residents and native Hawaiian people in the 19th century. Chinese Pidgin English, another well-known pidgin, developed in the 17th century in Guangzhou as a trade language between the English and the Chinese. Unlike Hawaiian Pidgin, which is still widely spoken nowadays (and has been recently recognised by the US Census), Chinese Pidgin English is now extinct in China – although a variety of it is still spoken in the Pacific island of Nauru.


Pidgins only last for a few years or decades, because they tend to either disappear (when the communities move apart), be replaced by a more prestigious language (usually the official language of the country), or evolve into creoles.

Creoles are languages with a more structured grammar and extended vocabulary, and they are the first language of the descendants of pidgin speakers – while nobody speaks pidgin as their first language. Over time, creoles develop more features and can increase their prestige or even become the country’s official language.

One of the most fascinating examples of the huge variety of pidgin and creole languages in the world is Papua New Guinea. With more than 850 spoken languages (most of them with fewer than 1000 speakers!), the country is the most linguistically diverse area on earth – the ideal place for (socio)linguistic research.

Despite the amount of languages actually spoken in Papua New Guinea, there are “only” three official languages: English, Hiri Motu (an Austronesian language used long before European contact), and Tok Pisin, the most widely used and understood – in fact, the other two official languages are only spoken by 1%-2% of the population.

Papua New Guinea in the early 1980s. The sign means “Work on road, all cars must stop when you see the red sign.”

Tok Pisin is now a creole language spoken by almost six million people, but it started off as an English-based pidgin, as its name reveals: it literally means “talk pidgin” (tok = from English “talk”, pisin = “pidgin”). Although it originated in Queensland, Australia, where Pacific Islanders speaking different languages were sent to work on plantations (19th – 20th century), it then evolved in German New Guinea and, over the following decades, spread across all Papua New Guinea.

As in most pidgins and creoles, phonology, grammar and vocabulary of Tok Pisin are much simpler than in English. For example, there are only 17 consonants and 5 vowels in the alphabet; verbs are not conjugated, as tense is specified through separate words (bin from “been” indicates past, bai from “by and by” indicates future); my personal favourite grammatical feature is the use of prepositions, which are only two in Tok Pisin: bilong (from “belong”), meaning “of” or “for”, and long (from “along”), meaning… everything else! Listening to Tok Pisin as a non-speaker is a lot of fun, because it sounds like long and bilong are pretty much everywhere.

Also, despite the fact that several grammatical norms are those typical of Austronesian languages (for example, clusivity), most words and expressions of Tok Pisin are derived from English – although some of them come from other languages such as German, Portuguese and Malay. Since the vocabulary is limited, a lot of metaphors and periphrases are commonly used: for example, maus gras (from “mouth grass”) means moustache, skru bilong lek (“screw of the leg”) is knee, haus sik (“house sick”) means hospital. For English speakers it’s fairly easy to recognise the etymology of many Tok Pisin words.


Front sign to the Lae War Cemetery


If you are interested in learning more about this amazingly fun language, here are some great resources:


Some history and linguistic features:




The main portal for Tok Pisin translation and discussion, with a Tok Pisin – English dictionary and translation tool:



Tok Pisin for beginners and phrasebooks:





Tokpisin grammar workbook for English speakers, Produced for Peace Corps/PNG by Elpie Bajao and Dicks Thomas (1991):



Ethnologue report:



Personal, interesting blog entry about Tok Pisin and Papua New Guinea:



More information about creoles and pidgins:




Written by Silvia Morani

Communication Trainee at TermCoord