Tok Pisin: Papua New Guinean Creole

Photo of Amrita Dasgupta
14 October 2016

The language Tok Pisin has developed over the last 150 years as a combination of native languages and colonial tongues. Papua New Guineans still use it today and it is ever-changing.

© One Laptop per Child/Flickr

Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the Pacific, It is home to a large number of indigenous tribes, many of whom have never had any outside contact. There are 841 living languages belonging to the indigenous people and 11 with no known speakers.

During the post-colonization period this diversity in language and ethnicity had resulted in a need for a common language for trade and inter tribal communication. What evolved was a Pidgin language, which derives its vocabulary and grammar from speakers of different languages, to provide a common lingua franca. This language came to be known as Tok Pisin.

© One Laptop per Child/Flickr

The name Tok Pisin was been derived from ‘talk’ in English and Pisin from ‘Pidgin’. However Tok Pisin has now achieved independent language status as a creole, which is a language with its origins usually in a Pidgin but which has a substantial number of speakers who use it as their primary language. Tok Pisin is now the most widely spoken language in the country. Along with English and Hiri Motu, Tok Pisin is now one of the three official languages of Papua New Guinea.

Between one and two million people now consider Tok Pisin their first language, in particular the children of parents or grandparents who speak different vernaculars. Urban families, police and law enforcement officers, often communicate between themselves in Tok Pisin. Perhaps one million people now use Tok Pisin as a primary language.

In a country where more than 800 local languages are spoken, Tok Pisin is most frequently used in Papua New Guinea to communicate, to teach, to command, to pray and express thoughts and feelings. The language has developed over the last 150 years by the people who use it, and is still changing.

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