The grammar of tok-pisin

Tok Pisin differs from the other dialects because most of the returned labourers worked in Samoa rather than Queensland. Also, nearly all of the New Guinea labourers were from New Britain and New Ireland and the neighbouring small islands, where the internal German-owned plantations were also located. So Tok Pisin has many words from the languages of these islands, as well as from Samoan and German (see vocabulary below).

After Tok Pisin stabilized, it began to be used for new functions, such as religion, newspapers and radio broadcasting. As its use was extended into these new areas, it changed linguistically to become more complex — e.g., acquiring more vocabulary and more grammatical rules and inflections. The same thing occurred with Bislama and Pijin. So today Tok Pisin (and Melanesian Pidgin as a whole) is an expanded pidgin. When Papua New Guinea (PNG) was born in 1975, Tok Pisin was recognized in the constitution as an important language of the new country.

In recent years, especially in urban areas of PNG like Port Moresby and Lae, people have been marrying outside their traditional language groups. So often the common language of the parents is Tok Pisin and this is what their children acquire as their first language. The process of a pidgin becoming spoken as a mother tongue or native language is called nativization. Along with nativization comes even greater functional and grammatical expansion, so that the language becomes just like any other. A pidgin that becomes the native language of a community is called a creole.

It is debatable, however, whether Tok Pisin (and Melanesian Pidgin as a whole) can be called a creole. Those who call it a creole emphasize the fact that it has thousands of native speakers and has the functions and grammatical features found in typical creoles. Those who say it is still a pidgin point out that more than 90%of its speakers have a different native language.)

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Is Tok Pisin just simplified English?

At first glance, Tok Pisin grammar seems to be just simplified English. For example, you don’t have to add an “s” to show plural:

wanpela pik ‘one pig’
tripela pik ‘three pigs’

You don’t have to add “ing” or “ed” to show tense:

Mi wok nau. ‘I’m working now.’
Mi wok asde. ‘I worked yesterday.’

The same word em can mean ‘he’, ‘him’ ‘she’, ‘her’ and ‘it’. For example, the following sentence can have three different meanings, depending on the context:

Em i stap long haus. ‘He’s in the house’ or ‘She’s in the house’ or ‘It’s in the house.
Em i lukim mi. ‘He/she/it saw me.’
Mi lukim em. ‘I saw him/her/it.’

But Tok Pisin has its own grammatical rules.

First of all, look at the following sentences:

Mi wok. ‘I worked.’
Yu wok. ‘You worked.’
Em i wok. ‘He/she worked.’
Tom i wok. ‘Tom worked.’

Note that the last two sentences have the little word i before the verb. (Remember that in Tok Pisin, i is pronounced something like “ee”.) This little word is called a “predicate marker”, and it must occur in a sentence when subject is em or a noun (like “Tom” or “the bicycle”). This rule is certainly different from anything found in English.

To show plural, you put the word ol before the word instead of “s” at the end of the word:

Mi lukim dok. ‘I saw the dog.’
Mi lukim ol dok. ‘I saw the dogs.’

To be specific about tense or aspect, or about other things like ability, you can use different short words. Some occur before the verb and some occur after the verb. Here are some examples:

Ben i bin wok asde. ‘Ben worked yesterday.’
Ben bai i wok tumora. ‘Ben will work tomorrow.’
Ben i wok i stap nau. ‘Ben is working now.’
Ben i wok pinis. ‘Ben is finished working.’
Ben i save wok long Sarere. ‘Ben works on Saturday.’
Ben i ken wok. ‘Ben can work (he is allowed to).’
Ben inap wok. ‘Ben can work (he has the ability).’

Although we saw that it seems Tok Pisin has a pronoun system which is “simpler” than that of English, this is not the full story. The pronoun system of Tok Pisin makes some other distinctions that are not made in English. For example, while standard English has only one pronoun, “you” for referring to either singular or plural, Tok Pisin has four different pronouns: yu (singular – ‘you’), yutupela (dual -‘you two’), yutripela (trial – ‘you three’) and yupela (plural – ‘you all’). So Tok Pisin pronouns make a four-way distinction in number — singular, dual, trial and plural — while English pronouns sometimes make no distinction, as with “you”, or at the most only a two way singular-plural distinction, as with “I” versus “we”.

Tok Pisin pronouns also make another distinction not found in English. It has two sets of non-singular pronouns, “inclusive” versus “exclusive”, all corresponding to English “we”. To understand this distinction, let’s look at the following English sentence:

The girls said to Miriam, “Fred invited us to the party!”

It would not be clear to Miriam from the statement “Fred invited us to the party” whether she was included in the invitation or not. In other words, it could have two possible meanings:

1. Fred invited us (including you) to the party.
2. Fred invited us (but not you) to the party.

In Tok Pisin there would be no such confusion. There is an inclusive plural pronoun yumi (‘we or us, including you’) and an exclusive plural pronoun mipela (‘we or us, not including you’). So the two meanings would be expressed in Tok Pisin in different ways:

1. Fred i bin singautim yumi long pati.
2. Fred i bin singautim mipela long pati.

You have seen that in Tok Pisin the suffix -pela is attached to pronouns to show plural — e.g. yu vs yupela. This suffix also has another function. It is attached to some adjectives and numbers:

bikpela haus ‘big house’
strongpela man ‘strong man’
blakpela pik ‘black pig’
tripela dok ‘three dogs’

Tok Pisin has another suffix (or word ending) with a function unlike anything in English. This is the suffix -im which is attached to some verbs. To see how it works, look at the following sentences:

Em i rit. ‘He is reading.’
Em i ritim buk. ‘He’s reading a book.’
Wara i boil pinis. ‘The water has boiled.’
Meri i boilim wara pinis. ‘The woman has boiled the water.

Bai mi rait. ‘I’ll write.’
Bai mi raitim pas. ‘I’ll write a letter.’

Kanu i kapsait. ‘The canoe capsized.’
Ol i kapsaitim kanu. ‘They capsized the canoe.’

You can see that the suffix -im is attached to the verb when it is followed by an object. So, for example, if you say he’s reading, there’s no need for -im on the verb rit ‘read’. But if you say he’s reading something, then you do need to add the -im suffix.

So you can see that Tok Pisin has its own grammatical rules which are very different from the rules of English. Therefore, the answer to the question “Is Tok Pisin just simplified English?” is clearly NO!



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