Tok Pisin – a vital language of unity

Phil Mercer

An energetic mix of English, German, Malay and Bahasa Indonesian, Tok Pisin plays a crucial role in strengthening Papua New Guinea’s traditional kinship system and in helping to forge a sense of national identity in a country renowned for its wide cultural diversity.

Introducing himself as nambawan pikinini bilong miss kwin (“the number one child belonging to Mrs Queen”), Britain’s Prince Charles was able to master a few sentences of Tok Pisin, one of Papua New Guinea’s national languages, on a recent official visit to the country. A Creole argot, or pidgin, Tok Pisin has been strongly influenced by English along with heavy hints of German, Malay and Bahasa Indonesian.

This adventurous tongue has no rigid rules and is constantly evolving, where new words and phrases are frequently added. But in a culturally magnificent, and at times disparate, country that boasts well over 800 indigenous languages, Tok Pisin has become an increasingly powerful unifying force.

It is the first language of choice for an estimated one million people – a sixth of the population – who have embraced its fast pace and phonetics. Bruk means ‘broke’, while gras bilong dok is ‘dog fur’, katim gras is ‘haircut’ and ‘goodbye’ is lukim yu behain.

When Papua New Guinea gained independence from Australia in 1975, it had three national languages: English, Tok Pisin and Motu, the latter spoken mostly by residents living in and around the capital, Port Moresby.

While Motu can be tricky to master, pidgin has emerged as a dominant tongue and has given the South Pacific archipelago one of its most important words, wantok. Variously translated as ‘close friend’, ‘one talk’ or ‘someone who speaks my language’, wantok is a kinship network that binds relatives, neighbours and friends together in an informal system that protects and provides for those in need.

“You never hear in Papua New Guinea of situations that you may have in Africa or elsewhere in the world where there are major famines; [this is] because people’s wantoks who now spread across the country help out. It is like a traditional social welfare system where people will look out for their wantoks,” said Jonathan Ritchie, a senior research fellow at Deakin University in Melbourne.

“Papua New Guineans who are studying or working in cities in Australia would regard each other as wantoks, even though, of course, in Papua New Guinea they wouldn’t be,” he added.

While some Papua New Guineans complain that the system with its unspoken rules to offer help with money and other essentials to the needy is an unnecessary burden and that it is invariably hard to say no, others worry that close clan relationships can also foster sleaze and nepotism in a country beset by corruption. Academics argue, however, that the wantok system that is based on blood ties and geography is a vital part of Papua New Guinea’s identity.

Ceridwen Spark, a post-doctoral research fellow at Victoria University, was born to Australian parents in Wewak, the capital of East Sepik province, in 1971. She believes the country’s strength lies in its richness of tradition and the kinship system that remains so important.

“The task of bringing together 800 peoples with different traditions, beliefs and ideas about who they are and making a nation with an imported system (of government) has just proved understandably challenging,” said Spark. “I think it is so often the case that Papua New Guinea is represented as so troubled and at war, with ethnic conflict, but there is this other side (the cultural diversity) that we could do well to learn from ourselves.”

Papua New Guinea has more indigenous languages than anywhere else on earth, and that abundance makes the country a rare cultural treasure-house. However, it is the ever-evolving Tok Pisin that brings this treasure-house together, gradually becoming an integral and practical part of its national fabric.

About the author:

Phil Mercer, a BBC correspondent in Sydney, is a regular visitor to Papua New Guinea


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