079_Global12_InFocus_Zimbabwe

Global 13

In FocusPapua New Guinea Tok Pisin – a vital language of unity 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 Phil Mercer Introducing himself asnambawan 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 Artist’s impression of aspects of Papua New Guinean culture, displayed on a wall in Port Moresby pace and phonetics. Bruk means ‘broke’, while gras bilong dok is ‘dog fur’, katim “Papua New Guineans who are studying fellow at Victoria University, was born to gras is ‘haircut’ and ‘goodbye’ islukim yu or working in cities in Australia would re- Australian parents in Wewak, the capital of behain. gard each other aswantoks, even though, of East Sepik province, in 1971. She believes When Papua New Guinea gained inde- course, in Papua New Guinea they wouldn’t the country’s strength lies in its richness pendence from Australia in 1975, it had be,” he added. of tradition and the kinship system that re- three national languages: English, Tok Pi- While some Papua New Guineans com- mains so important. sin and Motu, the latter spoken mostly by plain that the system with its unspoken “The task of bringing together 800 peo- residents living in and around the capital, rules to offer help with money and other ples with different traditions, beliefs and Port Moresby. ideas about who they are and making a na- While Motu can be tricky to master, The task of bringing tion with an imported system (of govern- pidgin has emerged as a dominant tongue ment) has just proved understandably chal- and has given the South Pacific archipelago together 800 peoples lenging,” said Spark. “I think it is so often one of its most important words,wantok. the case that Papua New Guinea is repre- Variously translated as ‘close friend’, with different traditions, sented as so troubled and at war, with eth- ‘one talk’ or ‘someone who speaks my lan- beliefs and ideas, has nic conflict, but there is this other side (the guage’, wantok is a kinship network that cultural diversity) that we could do well to binds relatives, neighbours and friends to- proven understandably learn from ourselves.” and provides for those in need. challenging languages than anywhere else on earth,Papua New Guinea has more indigenous gether in an informal system that protects “You never hear in Papua New Guinea and that abundance makes the country a of situations that you may have in Africa essentials to the needy is an unnecessary rare cultural treasure-house. However, it or elsewhere in the world where there are burden and that it is invariably hard to say is the ever-evolving Tok Pisin that brings major famines; this is because people’s no, others worry that close clan relation- this treasure-house together, gradually be- wantoks who now spread across the coun- ships can also foster sleaze and nepotism in coming an integral and practical part of its try help out. It is like a traditional social a country beset by corruption. Academics national fabric.● welfare system where people will look out argue, however, that thewantoksystem that for theirwantoks,” said Jonathan Ritchie, a is based on blood ties and geography is a Phil Mercer, a BBC correspondent in Sydney, senior research fellow at Deakin University vital part of Papua New Guinea’s identity. is a regular visitor to Papua New Guinea in Melbourne. Ceridwen Spark, a post-doctoral research globalfirst quarter 2013 www.global-briefing.org l79


Global 13
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