Tok Pisin

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Tok Pisin
Native to Papua New Guinea
Native speakers
120,000 (2004)[1]
4 million L2 speakers (no date)[2]
English Creole
  • Pacific
    • Tok Pisin
Latin script (Tok Pisin alphabet)
Pidgin Braille
Official status
Official language in
Papua New Guinea
Language codes
ISO 639-2 tpi
ISO 639-3 tpi
Glottolog tokp1240[3]
Linguasphere 52-ABB-cc
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Tok Pisin (English /tɒk ˈpɪsɪn/;[4] Tok Pisin [ˌtokpiˈsin]) is a creole language spoken throughout Papua New Guinea. It is an official language of Papua New Guinea and the most widely used language in that country. In parts of Western, Gulf, Central, Oro Province and Milne Bay Provinces, however, the use of Tok Pisin has a shorter history, and is less universal, especially among older people.

While it likely developed as a trade pidgin, Tok Pisin has become a distinct language in its own right. Non-academic Anglophones living in Papua New Guinea tend to refer to it as "Pidgin," "New Guinea Pidgin" or "Pidgin English", but it is common usage among academics, as well as people familiar with Tok Pisin, to refer to the language by its own name.

Between five and six million people use Tok Pisin to some degree, although not all speak it well. Many now learn it as a first language, in particular the children of parents or grandparents who originally spoke different vernaculars (for example, a mother from Madang and a father from Rabaul). Urban families in particular, and those of police and defence force members, often communicate among themselves in Tok Pisin, either never gaining fluency in a vernacular (tok ples), or learning a vernacular as a second (or third) language, after Tok Pisin (and possibly English). Perhaps one million people now use Tok Pisin as a primary language.


A 1971 reference book on Tok Pisin (then called Melanesian Pidgin).

Tok is derived from English "talk", but has a wider application, also meaning "word", "speech", or "language". Pisin derives from the English word pidgin; the latter, in turn, may originate in the word business, which is descriptive of the typical development and use of pidgins as inter-ethnic trade languages.

While Tok Pisin's name in the language is Tok Pisin, it is also called New Guinea Pidgin[5] in English. Papua New Guinean anglophones almost invariably refer to Tok Pisin as Pidgin when speaking English.[6] However, professional linguists prefer to use the term Tok Pisin, as this is considered a distinct language in its own right.[7] The language can no longer be considered a pidgin strictly speaking: it is now a first language for numerous people, and is not simply a lingua franca to facilitate communication with speakers of other languages.


The Tok Pisin language is a result of Pacific Islanders intermixing, when people speaking numerous different languages were sent to work on plantations in Queensland and various islands (see South Sea Islander and Blackbirding). The labourers began to develop a pidgin, drawing vocabulary primarily from English, but also from German, Malay, Portuguese and their own Austronesian languages (perhaps especially Kuanua, that of the Tolai people of East New Britain).

This English-based pidgin evolved into Tok Pisin in German New Guinea (where the German-based creole Unserdeutsch was also spoken). It became a widely used lingua franca – and language of interaction between rulers and ruled, and among the ruled themselves who did not share a common vernacular. Tok Pisin and the closely related Bislama in Vanuatu and Pijin in the Solomon Islands, which developed in parallel, have traditionally been treated as varieties of a single Melanesian Pidgin English or "Neo-Melanesian" language. The flourishing of the mainly English-based Tok Pisin in German New Guinea (despite the language of the metropolitan power being German) is to be contrasted with Hiri Motu, the lingua franca of Papua, which was derived not from English but from Motu, the vernacular of the indigenous people of the Port Moresby area.

Official status

Along with English and Hiri Motu, Tok Pisin is one of the three official languages of Papua New Guinea. It is frequently the language of debate in the national parliament. Most government documents are produced in English, but public information campaigns are often partially or entirely in Tok Pisin. While English is the main language in the education system, some schools use Tok Pisin in the first three years of elementary education to promote early literacy.

Regional variations

There are considerable variations in vocabulary and grammar in various parts of Papua New Guinea, with distinct dialects in the New Guinea Highlands, the north coast of Papua New Guinea (Pidgin speakers from Finschhafen speak rather quickly and often have difficulty making themselves understood elsewhere) and the New Guinea Islands. The variant spoken on Bougainville and Buka is moderately distinct from that of New Ireland and East New Britain but is much closer to that than it is to the Pijin spoken in the rest of the Solomon Islands.


The Tok Pisin alphabet contains 22 letters and 4 digraphs, five of which are vowels. The letters are (vowels in bold):

a, b, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, u, v, w, y

There are four digraphs:

ai⟩, ⟨au⟩, ⟨oi⟩ and ⟨ng⟩ (used for both /ŋ/ and /ŋɡ/)


Tok Pisin, like many pidgins and creoles, has a far simpler phonology than the superstrate language. It has 16 consonants and 5 vowels. However, this varies with the local substrate languages and the level of education of the speaker. The following is the "core" phonemic inventory, common to virtually all varieties of Tok Pisin. More educated speakers, and/or those where the substrate language(s) have larger phoneme inventories, may have as many as 10 distinct vowels.

Nasal plus plosive offsets lose the plosive element in Tok Pisin e.g. English hand becomes Tok Pisin han. Furthermore, voiced plosives become voiceless at the ends of words, so that English pig is rendered as pik in Tok Pisin.


Labial Coronal Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p b t d k ɡ
Fricative v s h
Nasal m n ŋ
Lateral l
Approximant w j
Rhotic r
  • Where symbols appear in pairs the one to the left represents a voiceless consonant.
  • Voiced plosives are pronounced by many speakers (especially of Melanesian backgrounds) as prenasalized plosives.
  • /t/, /d/, and /l/ can be either dental or alveolar consonants, while /n/ is only alveolar.
  • In most Tok Pisin dialects, the phoneme /r/ is pronounced as the alveolar tap or flap, [ɾ].


Tok Pisin has five vowels, similar to the vowels of Spanish, Japanese, and many other five-vowel languages:

Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a


The verb has a suffix, -im (from "him") to indicate transitivity (luk, look; lukim, see). But some verbs, such as kaikai "eat", can be transitive without it. Tense is indicated by the separate words bai (future) (from "by and by") and bin (past) (from "been"). The present progressive tense is indicated by the word stap – e.g. "eating" is kaikai stap (or this can be seen as having a "food stop").

The noun does not indicate number, though pronouns do.

Adjectives usually take the suffix -pela (now often pronounced -pla, though more so for pronouns, and -pela for adjectives) when modifying nouns; an exception is liklik "little".[8] It is also found on numerals and determiners:

Tok Pisin: "wanpela" → English: "one"
Tok Pisin: "tupela" → English: "two"
Tok Pisin: "dispela boi" → English: "this bloke"

Pronouns show person, number, and clusivity. The paradigm varies depending on the local languages; dual number is common, while the trial is less so. The largest Tok Pisin pronoun inventory is,[9]

Singular Dual Trial Plural
1st exclusive mi
(he/she and I)
(both of them, and I)
(all of them, and I)
1st inclusive  – yumitupela
(you and I)
(both of you, and I)
yumipela or yumi
(all of you, and I)
2nd yu
(you two)
(you three)
(you four or more)
3rd em
(they two)
(they three)
(they four or more)

Reduplication is very common in Tok Pisin. Sometimes it is used as a method of derivation; sometimes words just have it. Some words are distinguished only by reduplication: sip "ship", sipsip "sheep".

There are only two proper prepositions: bilong (from "belong"), which means "of" or "for", and long (from "along"), which means everything else. Tok Pisin: "Mipela i bin go long blekmaket". → English: "We went to the black market". Tok Pisin: "Ki bilong yu" → English: "your key" Tok Pisin: "Ol bilong Godons". → English: "They are from Gordon's". (ibid. 640f). Some phrases are used as prepositions, such as long namel (bilong), "in the middle of".

Several of these features derive from the common grammatical norms of Austronesian languages – although usually in a simplified form. Other features, such as word order, are however closer to English.

Sentences which have a 3rd person subject often put the word i just before the verb. This may or may not be written separate from the verb, occasionally written as a prefix. Although the word is thought to be derived from "he" or "is", it is not itself a pronoun or a verb but a grammatical marker used in particular constructions, e.g., "Kar i tambu long hia" is "car forbidden here", i.e., "no parking".

Tense and aspect

Past tense: marked by "bin" (from English 'been'): Tok Pisin: "Na praim minista i bin tok olsem". English: "And the prime minister spoke thus". (Romaine 1991: 629)

Continuative same tense is expressed through: verb + "i stap". Tok Pisin: "Em i slip i stap". English: "He/She is sleeping". (ibid.: 631)

Completive or perfective aspect expressed through the word "pinis" (from English: finish): Tok Pisin: "Em i lusim bot pinis". English: "He had got out of the boat". (Mühlhäusler 1984: 462).

Transitive words are expressed through "-im" (from English: him): Tok Pisin: "Yu pinisim stori nau." English: "Finish your story now!". (ibid.: 640).

Future is expressed through the word "bai" (from English: by and by): Tok Pisin: "Em bai ol i go long rum" English: "They will go to their rooms now. (Mühlhäusler 1991: 642).

Development of Tok Pisin

File:Tok Pisin Road Work Warning Sign.jpg
Sign in common use in the 1980s giving a warning in Tok Pisin: "Work on road, cars must stop if you see the red sign."

Tok Pisin is a language that developed out of regional dialects of the languages of the local inhabitants and English, brought into the country when English speakers arrived. There were four phases in the development of Tok Pisin that were laid out by Loreto Todd.

  1. Casual contact between English speakers and local people developed a marginal pidgin
  2. Pidgin English was used between the local people. The language expanded from the users' mother tongue
  3. As the interracial contact increased the vocabulary expanded according to the dominant language.
  4. In areas where English was the official language a depidginization occurred (Todd, 1990)

Tok Pisin is also known as a "mixed" language. This means that it consists of characteristics of different languages. Tok Pisin obtained most of its vocabulary from the English language, i.e., English is its lexifier. The origin of the syntax is a matter of debate. Hymes (Hymes 1971b: 5) claims that the syntax is from the substratum languages, i.e., the languages of the local peoples. (Hymes 1971b: 5). Derek Bickerton's analysis of creoles, on the other hand, claims that the syntax of creoles is imposed on the grammarless pidgin by its first native speakers: the children who grow up exposed to only a pidgin rather than a more developed language such as one of the local languages or English. In this analysis, the original syntax of creoles is in some sense the default grammar humans are born with.

Pidgins are less elaborated than non-Pidgin languages. Their typical characteristics found in Tok Pisin are:

  1. A smaller vocabulary which leads to metaphors to supply lexical units:
    • Smaller vocabulary:
      Tok Pisin: "vot"; English: "election" (n) and "vote" (v)
      Tok Pisin: "hevi"; English: "heavy" (adj) and "weight" (n)
    • Metaphors:
      Tok Pisin: "skru bilong han" (screw of the arm); English: "elbow"
      Tok Pisin: "skru bilong lek" (screw of the leg); English: "knee" (Just "skru" almost always indicates the knee. In liturgical contexts, "brukim skru" is "kneel").
      Tok Pisin: "gras bilong het" (grass of the head); English: "hair" (Hall, 1966: 90f) (Most commonly just "gras" – see note on "skru bilong lek" above).
    • Periphrases:
      Tok Pisin: "nambawan pikinini bilong misis kwin" (literally “first child of Mrs Queen”); English: Prince Charles.[10]
  2. A reduced grammar: lack of copula, determiners; reduced set of prepositions, and conjunctions
  3. Less differentiated phonology: [p] and [f] are not distinguished in Tok Pisin (they are in free variation). The sibilants /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/, and /dʒ/ are also not distinguished.
    All of the English words "fish", "peach", "feast" or "peace" would have been realised in Tok Pisin as pis. In fact the Tok Pisin pis means "fish" (and usually has more of a short "i" sound, almost like the English word "piss", sometimes "pfiss"). English "piss" was reduplicated to keep it distinct: thus pispis means "urine" or "to urinate".
    Likewise, sip in Tok Pisin could have represented English "ship", "jib", "jeep", "sieve" or "chief". In fact it means "ship".


Many words in the Tok Pisin language are derived from English (with Australian influences), indigenous Melanesian languages and German (part of the country was under German rule until 1914).

  • as – bottom, cause, beginning (from "ass"/"arse"). "As ples bilong em" = "his birthplace". "As bilong diwai" = "the stump of a tree".
  • bagarap(im) – broken, to break down (from "bugger up") – (the word is commonly used, with no vulgar undertone, in Tok Pisin and in even in Papua New Guinea English).
  • bagarap olgeta – completely broken
  • balus – bird or more specifically a pigeon or dove (an Austronesian loan word) - by extension aeroplane
  • belhat – angry (lit. "belly hot")
  • belo – bell - as in "belo bilong lotu" = "Church bell". By extension lunch or midday break (from the bell rung to summon diners to the table). A fanciful derivation has been suggested from the "bellows" of horns used by businesses to indicate the beginning of the lunch hour but this seems less likely than the straightforward derivation.
  • bilong wanem? – why?
  • buai – "betelnut"
  • buai pekpek – "betelnut spit"
  • bubu – grandparent, any elderly relation – also grandchild. Possibly from Hiri Motu – where it is a familiar form of tubu, as in tubuna or tubugu.
  • diwai – tree, wood, plant, stick etc.
  • gat bel – pregnant (lit. "has belly"; pasin bilong givim bel = fertility)
  • gut - good
  • hamamas / amamas – happy
  • hap – a piece of, as in "hap diwai" = a piece of wood. (from "half").
  • hapsait - the other side (from "half side")
  • hap ret - purple (from "half red")
  • haus – house or building
    • hausboi/hausmeri – a male/female domestic servant - hausboi (or haus boi) can also mean "servants quarters"
    • haus kaikai — restaurant (from "house food")
    • haus moni – bank (from "house money")
    • haus sik – hospital (from "house sick")
    • haus dok sik – animal hospital (from "house dog sick")
    • haus karai – place of mourning (from "house cry")
    • sit haus (vulgar) – toilet (from "shit house"), also:
      • liklik haus – toilet
      • smol haus – toilet/bathroom ("small house")
    • haus tambaran – traditional Sepik-region house with artifacts of ancestors or for honoring ancestors; tambaran means "ancestor spirit" or "ghost"
  • hevi – heavy, problem. "Em i gat bigpela hevi" = "he has a big problem".
  • hukim pis – to catch fish (from "hook")
  • kaikai – food, eat, to bite (Austronesian loan word); also
    • kaikai bilong moningtaim - breakfast (from "food belong morning time")
    • kaikai bilong nait - dinner/supper (from "food belong night")
  • kakaruk – chicken (probably onomatapoetic, from the crowing of the rooster)
  • kamap – arrive, become (from "come up")
  • kisim – get, take (from "get them")
  • lotu – church, worship from Fijian, but sometimes sios is used for "church"
  • mangi/manki – small boy, by extension, young man (Probably from the English jocular/affectionate usage "monkey", applied to mischievous children, although a derivation from the German "männchen", meaning "little man" has also been suggested)
  • manmeri – people (from "man", man, and "meri", woman)
  • maski – it doesn't matter, don't worry about it (Probably from German "macht nichts" = "it doesn't matter")
  • maus gras – moustache (lit: "mouth grass").
  • meri – woman (from the English name "Mary"). Also means female, e.g., "bulmakau meri" (lit. "bull cow female") = cow.
  • olgeta – all (from "all together")
  • olsem wanem - what?, what's going on? (Literally "like what"? Sometimes used as an informal greeting, similar to "what's up?" in English)
  • pisin – bird (from "pigeon"). The homophony of this word with the name of the language has led to a limited association between the two; Mian speakers, for example, refer to Tok Pisin as "wan weng", literally "bird language".
  • pasim – close, lock (from "fasten")
  • pasim maus – shut up, be quiet, i.e. "yu pasim maus" lit: "you close mouth" = "shut up!"
  • paul – wrong, confused, i.e. "em i paul" = "he is confused" (from English "foul")
  • pikinini – child (from Pacific Pidgin English, but ultimately from Portuguese influenced Lingua franca, cf. pickaninny)
  • raskol - thief, criminal (from "rascal")
  • raus, rausim ("rausim" is the transitive form) – get out, throw out, remove (from German "raus")
  • rokrok – frog (probably onomatopoetic)
  • sapos – if (from "suppose")
  • save – know, to do habitually (from Pacific Pidgin English, but ultimately from Portuguese influenced Lingua franca, cf. "savvy")
  • sit – remnant (from "shit")
  • solwara – ocean (from "salt water")
  • sop - soap; also
    • sop bilong tit - toothpaste (from "soap belong teeth")
    • sop bilong gras - shampoo (from "soap belong hair")
  • stap – be, live, stay (from "stop")
  • susa – sister, though nowadays very commonly supplanted by "sista". Some Tok Pisin speakers use "susa" to indicate a sibling of the opposite gender, while a sibling of the same gender as the speaker is a "brata" or "barata".
  • susu – milk, breasts, from Malay
  • tambu – forbidden, from "taboo", but also means "in-laws" (mother-in-law, brother-in-law, etc.) and other relatives whom one is forbidden to speak to, or mention the name of, in some PNG customs.
  • telefon - telephone
  • tasol – but, only (from "that's all")

Example of Tok Pisin

The Lord's Prayer in Tok Pisin:

Papa bilong mipela
Yu stap long heven.
Nem bilong yu i mas i stap holi.
Kingdom bilong yu i mas i kam.
Strongim mipela long bihainim laik bilong yu long graun,
olsem ol i bihainim long heven.
Givim mipela kaikai inap long tude.
Pogivim rong bilong mipela,
olsem mipela i pogivim ol arapela i mekim rong long mipela.
Sambai long mipela long taim bilong traim.
Na rausim olgeta samting nogut long mipela.
Kingdom na strong na glori, em i bilong yu tasol oltaim oltaim.

The Lord's Prayer in English:

Our father,
who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil,
for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, now and forever.


  1. Tok Pisin at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Tok Pisin at Ethnologue (15th ed., 2005)
  3. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Tok Pisin". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  5. E.g. Nupela Testamen bilong Bikpela Jisas Kraist, 1969.
  6. The published court reports of Papua New Guinea refer to Tok Pisin as "Pidgin": see for example Schubert v The State [1979] PNGLR 66.
  7. See the Glottolog entry for Tok Pisin (itself evidence that the linguistic community considers it a language in its own right, and prefers to name it Tok Pisin), as well as numerous references therein.
  8. Liklik can also be used as an adverb meaning "slightly", as in dispela bikpela liklik ston, "this slightly big stone".
  9. Verhaar, John W.M. (1995). Toward a reference grammar of Tok Pisin : an experiment in corpus linguistics. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai'i Press. p. 354. ISBN 9780824816728.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Prince of Wales, 'nambawan pikinini', visits Papua New Guinea". The Telegraph. 4 November 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Volker, C. A. (2008). Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin English Dictionary. South Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-555112-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Mihalic, Francis (1971). The Jacaranda Dictionary and Grammar of Melanesian Pidgin. Milton, Queensland: Jacaranda Press. ISBN 0-7016-8112-8. OCLC 213236.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Murphy, John Joseph (1985). The Book of Pidgin English (6th ed.). Bathurst, New South Wales: Robert Brown. ISBN 0-404-14160-9. OCLC 5354671.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Smith, Geoff P. (2002). Growing Up With Tok Pisin: Contact, Creolization, and Change in Papua New Guinea's National Language. London: Battlebridge Publications. ISBN 1-903292-06-9. OCLC 49834526.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Dutton, Thomas Edward; Thomas, Dicks (1985). A New Course in Tok Pisin (New Guinea Pidgin). Canberra: Australian National University. ISBN 0-85883-341-7. OCLC 15812820.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Wurm, S. A.; Mühlhäusler, P. (1985). Handbook of Tok Pisin (New Guinea Pidgin). Pacific Linguistics. ISBN 0-85883-321-2. OCLC 12883165.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Nupela Testamen bilong Bikpela Jisas Kraist (in Tok Pisin). The Bible Society of Papua New Guinea. 1980. ISBN 0-647-03671-1. OCLC 12329661.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Volker, C.A. (2008). Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin English Dictionary. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-555112-9

Further reading

External links