Tok Pisin, Tok Motu na Tok Ples

BY MICHAEL DOM

If “Tok Pisin is the language expression of our lifestyle and our intermingled cultures”[i] then what does this language say about us as a people?

As first language English speaking Papua Niuginians my siblings and I were introduced to Tok Pisin during our late primary and secondary school years. Our parents had placed little importance on instructing us in our Sinesine tokples by conscious decision of my father during the 1970’s era when he was at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG). In hindsight it was probably not his best idea and possibly hypocritical since dad was also schooled to read in Hebrew while at Martin Luther Seminary.

Nevertheless, our father made the equally emphatic order that we learn English to the best standard possible and the command, which was executed mainly by mother even though she had voiced her disapproval, was not entirely detrimental to us but rather afforded us some advantage in the education system and later on in our work and everyday lives. So I too am possibly hypocritical in championing others to use local languages.

Reconnecting with our own country folk by adopting Tok Pisin was a journey we consciously took over many years. The best aspect of this experience was to make us sensitive to other people’s language use, style and the nuances of expression, since we were learning by imitation from many different people and not being formally schooled in Tok Pisin.

One outcome was that we were exposed to other PNG cultures during our interactions and learned about them mostly through the kindness of our friends in entertaining our otherwise poor language skills while they advantaged themselves by exposure to our use of good English. It’s not certain if either side of that bargain achieved any great mastery.

This summary does not encompass all the ways we learned Tok Pisin in exchange for practicing English but it will have to do for this purpose. Unfortunately, only one of my siblings gained passable skills to converse in Hiri Motu and we all share a sketchy and half-almost-knowing sense of our parent’s native tokples Sinesine.

It is mostly from this background that I myself have come to have an appreciation for other people’s use of their own tokples. Truthfully I may have no idea what they’re saying but it sure sounds nice to hear a Papua Niuginian language being vocalized. I have not felt challenged by being surrounded by people speaking languages other than English or Tok Pisin and in PNG that would be absurd.

However, today the bilingual use of English and Tok Pisin (trilingual if Motu is included) and a general ignorance of our parents Tok Ples is not unique for modern day Papua Niuginians living in urban areas. This is becoming part of the norm in PNG for a variety of reasons.

Although I am not knowledgeable on the statistics of current language use, in the past it might have been true to say that almost every Papua Niuginian was a polyglot, while in more recent times there are less and less multilingual and more and more tri-, bi- and mono-lingual Papua Niuginians.

This is a sad scenario for reasons which are more deeply a part of our cultural intelligence than merely an aesthetic: we’ve allowed absurdity to enter our paradise lounge of languages by which we interpret the world.

Tok Pisin emi kamap strong tru

A key cause commonly cited as contributing to the demise of many of our 820 plus Tok Ples is that Tok Pisin has replaced their use in everyday life and is increasingly valued by the majority of Papua Niuginians.

Urban drift under prevailing economic development paradigms is partly to blame for the demise of our Tok Ples usage. Indeed, languages fade out as the number of speakers dwindles.

Tok ples were a primary communication tool before other languages arrived and much like tools they need to be regularly utilized in order for them to be well preserved.

Even the strictly Motuan speakers of bygone days have adapted to the use of Tok Pisin whereas it was, as I understand, sneered at as being an ‘uncouth’ form of speech in some circles. Hiri Motu on the other hand has a wonderfully natural lyricism about it however its practice may be on the decline.

There is also preference for Tok Pisin over English, which is a phenomenon fought tooth and nail by teachers across the country. Indeed, I recall many skirmishes between teachers and pupils whenever Tok Pisin was launched around the classroom and playground or had infiltrated an exercise book in broken English form. (Their foot soldiers fell on our bagu’s and bumbums!)

In more recent times proponents of Tok Ples and Tok Pisin had championed integration of dual language teaching at the kindergarten to elementary level. There were mixed results apparently.[ii]

Interestingly one ex-kiap (Patrol Officer) of renowned practicality noted how “Tok Pisin is an extremely good language to relax in and will encourage innuendoes and nuances that either can’t or shouldn’t be effectively translated into English”.[iii]

This is a valuable insight from a post-colonial era Australian government officer who would have worked very closely with Papua Niuginians in mainly rural outstations where it is likely that both the white-man and the black-man were learning and adapting Tok Pisin on the fly.

Another of those post-colonial icons with a more literary bent agreed with his conservative colleague saying that “I especially like poetry written in Tok Pisin. It has a very distinct flavour all its own that you can’t reproduce in an English translation”.[iv]

Tok Pisin was heralded early on by Elton Brash, a linguist at the UPNG in 1971 (also a good friend and colleague of my father) who suggested that “Three features of the language promise well for its future life and development: its syncretic capacity and its resultant incremental growth; the imaginative life it embodies and the new forms of figurative expression it is rapidly evolving; the successful use of Pidgin by New Guineans as a creative medium It is worth noting that Pidgin has always existed in a multilingual context. It has always been a second language and often a third or fourth.” [v]

Academics overseas had also commented on the merging of our primary trade and official languages as part of the process of national economic and social development, and as addressed through arts and literature; “Papua New Guinea’s writers needed to create an “acceptable Niuginian English, a national type of English,” just as the Americans and Australians had.”

“This was necessary because of the sheer diversity of languages in PNG. Ultimately both the oral tradition as well as the newer contemporary literature needed to come together to create what Enos felt was “national unity through literature”.”[vi]

Conversely, national academics, educators and other elite commentators have had different opinions about the utility of Tok Pisin, and by extension Tok Ples, in literary works[vii]. It may be that English and Tok Pisin, sharing similar development and utilitarian origin, are more flexible to the exigencies of creative writing.

More pertinently from a linguistic angle our Tok Ples do not have written scripts and are reliant on oral continuity within existing native speaking populations, whereas Hiri Motu and Tok Pisin were developed and adapted by English language script now used and abused by a growing generation of young Papua Niuginians.

These may be other underlying factors considered by UPNG Prof. Steven Winduo when he wrote that “I share the view of Chinua Achebe that whatever language I use must bear the burden of my experience. English provides the structure of literary experience by which I am able to create a tapestry of my experience.”[viii] This articulation captures my experience as a poet[ix].

But the ‘PNG literary language’ negotiation is considered far from over by more than one of our ex-kiaps, those masters of practicality whom in their time had managed to get their jobs done under trying conditions, usually with minimal fuss all while communicating between tribes who were speaking those 820 plus Tok Ples.[x]

In any case, it seems that the deck was stacked against our Tok Ples from the very start and through post-colonial history for educational, economical, practical and literary purposes.

Tok Ples bai istap iet o nogat

Perhaps in the case of what to do about preserving our Tok Ples we should look towards New Zealand, Asia and Europe instead of Australia and America.

Indeed the latter two nations, multicultural though they may be today, could be said to have had no originating language of their own. This is not to negate the very many languages of the first (prehistoric migrant) people to inhabit the two continental countries. Rather it seems to me that our attitude to linguistic diversity and its preservation is less relatable to Australia and America since they were essentially created by English speaking people.

In Aotearoa New Zealand teaching of Maori culture and language is mainstreamed into educational institutions. “By learning te reo and becoming increasingly familiar with tikanga, Māori students strengthen their identities while non-Māori journey towards shared cultural understandings”.[xi] Albeit a dual language teaching system may have its own challenges and one primary dispute for PNG provinces may be which language and culture is promoted for training in school.

I contend firstly that it may not necessarily be the entire teaching curriculum which needs to be converted into another Tok Ples. Moreover, it is logistically impossible for us to choose which of PNG’s 800+ cultures we’d like to teach in school.

In the example of New Zealand there are still problems with poor Moari student outcomes and views differ on the value of immersing students within a culture-based rather than disciplinary-based curriculum.[xii]

Nevertheless, learning and utilizing a local language may be offered as a course within the school curriculum.

Secondly, it appears to me that we have already chosen two of our own national languages as alternatives, Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu, and that there is no need to forcibly favour one particular Tok Ples over another when other factors such as available tutors, appropriate programs and advantageous practical exposure will in the end determine which of these may in fact be achieved in any local context.

In short, the most common and dominant, and the most organized and resourced local Tok Ples may be promoted for learning without purposefully extinguishing others. That seems like the more practical approach.

For example, Kuman in Simbu appears to be dominating, Melpa in Western Highlands and Kuanua in the Islands region, whereas Enga has less of a problem choosing because they all speak ‘Engalish’.

Realistically the loss of some languages is probably unavoidable but the price of inaction on our part will be a rate of loss which is uncontrollably swift and sure.

While others may argue over the minutiae of the matter[xiii], the undoubtedly difficult processes of integration and foreseeable progress pains, I would suggest that as for any worthy project goal we set out to achieve we ‘begin with the end in mind’.

What does the endpoint look like?

Well, consider that the New Zealand national anthem, God Defend New Zealand, is also sung in Maori and was translated in 1878.[xiv] Their National Maori Language Week has been celebrated since 1975.[xv] I’ll leave those two facts right there.

Also, while it is indisputable that there are still cultural challenges in their society, today non-Maori Kiwi’s have for the better part engaged with, if not entirely embraced, their countries Pacific Island heritage at a national level. “Respect, optimally, comes naturally, but New Zealand shows that it can also be taught”. xi

These days the general thinking seems to be that social and cultural diversity is a situation which needs to be enforced upon people. But in my opinion social and cultural diversity is the natural state of humanity and the trends of modern day conformity are the odd progeny of economic globalization and institutionalized intellectuals. The language of trade took over and its teachers regulated it right through their own heads and into ours.

We need to facilitate for cultural diversity to continue to flourish in the PNG garden and that means allowing for a riotous mess rather than keeping the pedicured lawns and manicured hedges of an English country garden.

Across in Asia their vast national populations and predominantly cultural-based lifestyles provide a pool for indigenous languages to be maintained. Many of these nations in fact have descended from ancient civilizations which rose and fell over millennia before the arrival of European explorers and conquerors, delinquents and desecrators.

Moreover, much of the history and culture of our Asian neighbours has been recorded in their own language script, some of which is still in use today.

While PNG linguists may debate the utility or profitability of devising scripts for our Tok Ples – think JRR Tolkien I say – I have heard it challenged elsewhere that ‘if the Japanese and Indonesians can have signs on their streets written in their Tok Ples why can’t we use Tok Pisin?’

That does not seem too implausible a suggestion and if only we would not keep removing street signage there might be more means to visualize that endpoint.

By comparison, PNG is the largest Pacific island nation and with a population predicted to reach 15 million souls by 2050 it may be suggested that we will have good enough numbers to spread between our 820 languages but even, say, 18,000 tonsils a tongue is an overestimate for some mama tang.

In multicultural Europe, now infected by a diversity-at-all-costs ideology, their unique cultures which eventually blended into the most successful civilization in human history (aka Western society) now appears to be raging against the dying of the light.

I say we rage on too, to let diversity be its own light – magically unique not misguidedly ubiquitous.

Linguistic diversity is refracted light from the multifaceted prism of existence. We not only have different ways of witnessing our world, we have different ways of expressing our meaning in it.

The questions still posed are what’s good about that situation and how do we get there.

Multilingualism is always admirable and in fact people with such language abilities were the key to historical exploration ventures and eventually played a key role in the development and use of creole languages.

Similar to PNG it is not uncommon for Europeans to be conversant in several languages.

Nederland actor Viggo Mortensen, also known as Strider/Aragorn in JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth, speaks no less than seven languages, having lived and studied across Europe and in America, and mastered the Elvish speech (Quenya) invented by Tolkien.

My mother is conversant in at least five of our PNG Tok Ples and she had decided not to go on to high school in the 1960’s, leaving Simbu to work in Goroka, saving money to attend a women’s training school in Baitabag Madang, then later on working for the Lutheran Mission in Gagidu Finschafen.

The life and language learning story of Viggo and my mother, absorbing languages wherever they lived for long periods of time, was more common in the past than we may think but may certainly be declining today.

We are educating the native languages out of our societies and along with them entire visualizations and expressions of the human experience. We’re in danger of getting dumber the duller our conversations become when everyone thinks in the same way.

It’s likely that education does less to influence linguistic capacity than we may think and linguistic capacity may be better related with intelligence than schooling. It’s suggested that “language has a significant influence on memory, behavior, and general thought processes”.[xvi]

A solution then is to enable youth to learn Tok Ples within varied and dynamic modes rather than enforce their training within regimented and examined school curriculum.

Wanem tingting emi gutpela

Tok Pisin has become a powerful language in all our toolkits so we should also look towards supporting Hiri Motu use, if not for variety, beauty and creativity then at least for ownership of a wonderfully wicked tongue.

Tok Ples support may be provided by designing innovative school programs for the creative arts and literature, presentation of stories, drama, poetry, dance and even debate.

Leaving the technical discussion to those more qualified I will suggest that in order to preserve our Tok Ples we must think more affirmatively of the valuable endpoint we want to achieve and the strengths and responsibility we have towards reaching this goal.

We are the most linguistically diverse nation on Earth and we still have time to preserve that unique and valuable aspect of our nationhood. This is a difference of quality worth maintaining.

Utilization of language is key and can be achieved by broader strategies, such as, ensuring rural development so that local communities (native speakers) are better able to maintain their way of life, as well as more specific programs directed at schools and communities, through creative activities where local languages and culture can be promoted – em olsem ples singsing bilong taim bipo.

Youth need to interact dynamically with Tok Ples in order to discover the utility and intrinsic value using language to open the doorway to their own imaginations and abilities.

If we want generational continuity then we must look to providing the opportunity for our school children to be nurtured in those languages, with the added value of learning different cultures and customs.


[i] Michael Dom Tok Pisin as a literary language The Musing of an Assistant Pig Keeper (2014)

[ii] https://edu.pngfacts.com/education-news/teaching-vernacular-vital-for-children-in-png

[iii] Paul Oates Small Steps along the Way (2019) Go here to download a free PDF copy of the book: https://www.pngattitude.com/small-steps-along-the-way-by-paul-oates.html

[iv] Phil Fitzpatrick Should Tok Pisin be the language of literature in PNG? PNG Attitude article (9 March 2013)

[v] Brash, Elton (1971). “Tok pilai, tok piksa, na tok bokis (imaginative dimensions in Melanesian Pidgin).” Kivung: Journal of the Linguistic Society of Papua and New Guinea 4(1): 12-20.

[vi] Richard Hamasaki Dancing yet to the Dim Dim’s beat: Contemporary poetry in Papua New Guinea (1987)

[vii] Ben Jackson in a PNG Attitude article Ben’s PNG Diary – Day 2: The poetry of Tok Pisin (April 2013) (Poetry Slam at the Port Moresby Arts Theatre) “Dr Winduo saw weakness in Tok Pisin for written work because expression is shared equally by word choice and the demeanour of the person speaking those words and, as such, meaning is lost without the author’s presence. However for live recitals, such as the Poetry Slam, Dr Winduo was a tremendous advocate for Tok Pisin and it was easy to appreciate this view when I heard the entrants recite their pieces.”

[viii] Professor Steven Winduo University of Papua New Guinea Transitions and Transformations: Literature, Politics and Culture in Papua New Guinea (2013)

[ix] ibid. “This suggests to me that although our cultural expressions are relevant, the framework in the language for communicating needs to be structurally sound. In other words, there must be known borders, a landscape and space in which to craft a poem in a form which displays its artistry; art which explores beyond known territory by using our own poetics.”p153

[x] Philip Fitzpatrick comment on PNG Attitude article Toksingsing: danis bilong yumi iet (July 2020) “Papua New Guinean writers need to talk to each other and determine what their literature means and how best to interpret and present it. There is still a lot to be discovered before a definitive national literature evolves. Regional differences, for instance, may be significant.”

[xi] https://www.newamerica.org/weekly/new-zealand-model-cultural-education-were-not/

[xii] Megan Lourie & Elizabeth Rata (2012): A critique of the role of culture in Maori education, British Journal of Sociology of Education, DOI:10.1080/01425692.2012.736184

[xiii] https://learningportal.iiep.unesco.org/en/blog/the-language-of-instruction-controversy-in-papua-new-guinea

https://www.onepng.com/2013/08/the-education-reform-system-in-papua.html

https://learningportal.iiep.unesco.org/en/blog/the-language-of-instruction-controversy-in-papua-new-guinea

[xiv] https://www.maorilanguage.net/waiata/e-ihowa-atua-nz-national-anthem/

[xv] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/northern-advocate/news/whangarei-parade-to-kick-off-te-wiki-o-te-reo-maori/MDN72DSZZKBFAKW7A6ZWRRWAFI/

[xvi] https://towardsdatascience.com/the-importance-of-language-in-human-cognition-and-artificial-general-intelligence-6d33af481684

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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