Tok bilong Maus bilong Mi

Our first Sunday in church, Pasto Maniosa was translating for us, and gave an introduction.  He started in Tok Pisin, and then switched to English for our sake — I remember him saying “Or, as we say, in the language of the birds.”  His gentle manner made me laugh.  But that is a literal translation in Tok Pisin –  Pisin is a word for bird, and Tok, well, is simply “talk.”

In the midst of those 750-900 languages, Papua New Guinea has three official languages.  Motu, a language that I understand to be from the Port Moresby area; Tok Pisin; and as a member of the British Commonwealth, English.

There are plenty of pidgin languages in the world, wherever people of different languages need to benefit each other.  Swahili is a pidgin, Creole is a pidgin, Hawaii has their own pidgin which is very different from PNG’s pidgin.  Wikipedia says that while some people think it is taken from “pidgeon” because they were used for communicate, the prevailing view is that it actually comes from the Chinese pronunciation of the English word “business.”

A linguist will tell you that Tok Pisin is not technically a language.  It is a “creole.”  One of the main differences is that in order for something to be classified a language, it has to be used in the home.  As people from different language groups marry because their lives are brought together in cities, Tok Pisin is increasingly being spoken in the home (missionary orientation, 2013).  My training in developmental psychology leads me to wonder what effect it has on children for their primary language to have a vocabulary of less than 3000 words.  All the same, I am amazed at what can be communicated in it.

Pidgin happens because of the need to conduct business.  Trade is the main one, but Tok Pisin in particular also has its roots in slavery.  Blackbirders – or pirates who would kidnap people from the beaches, would take people elsewhere to work on plantations, and communication was necessary.  It wasn’t necessarily a lifetime sentence, so the workers would eventually return home, and people in PNG found Tok Pisin to be useful in trade.

Our main work is in Tok Pisin.  And it is incredibly interesting to function in a language developed mostly by sailors and ruffians.  Honestly, it’s a lot of fun, because it is always full of surprises.  Sometimes, with such a simple vocabulary, things are so straightforward.  There are not blunt words and delicate words.  It’s just how it is.  One day, the head man of the congregation mentioned how we need to squeeze together at the communion rail to get everybody in, though some people like Bishop, Jeff, and Lora are fat.  “olsem sampela manmeri olsem Bishop, Pasto Jeff na Lora i pat.”

To speak Tok Pisin, it’s a good idea to get over one’s hangups.  Plenty words, because of pronunciation differences, mean something else entirely in English.  The biggest one that comes to mind is the word for “finish.”  This is often used to make a sentence past tense.  Traditionally, f’s are pronounced as p’s, and sh is said as s.  So, yes.  The word is “pinis.”  One of our missionaries jokes that those Australian sailors were probably laughing at the thought of missionary wives having to go around saying “Mi kisim pinis.”  F’s are becoming more pronounced though, so plenty of people now say “finis.”

To say that something is the core of something, the center, or the core principle of something is to say that it is the ass.  Sitting on your butt is a huge part of life here.  Weaving bilums, preparing food, discussing important matters, are usually all done sitting on the ground.  It’s not unusual to be sitting in church and to hear the pastor say “Kros bilong Krais is stap as bilong mari mari bilong God.”  (The cross of Christ is the source of the mercy of God).  When I am not ready for it, I still have to suppress a snicker.

Some words are just creative.  Currently the only one that comes to mind is “wanpis,” or one fish. It means “alone.”  And it carries the connotation that it might not be quite right, because most fish survive by being in groups.  (Again, fish – “pis” is one of those words that can just sneak up on you.  Still more and more thankful that the letter “f” is coming into use).

There are words that have racist connotations in English, that really are just thought of as part of the language to Papua New Guineans.  Pikanini is the word for child. Waitskin (White Skin) and Blakskin are the words for skin color.  One of our missionaries was at a conference where a director was commenting that it is not okay to call boys “monkeys.”  But the word for boy in Tok Pisin is indeed “mangi.”

It’s amazing what there isn’t a use for.  There is no word for “love.”  Laik is all there is.  It’s possible to emphasize how much someone is liked — plenti, tumas, and tru are all ways of saying that Iike  someone a lot.

Because there are so few words, sometimes it can take several sentences to state something that in English or Enga probably would only take a few words or a sentence.  The vocabulary is easy, in many ways.  The skill is in learning to say something the way that people would say it.  While I was better at first at vocabulary and basic grammar, Jeff excels at this.

What amazes me is how Tok Pisin creeps into our English.  One of the missionaries says “em nau” (kind of like hey, now).  “Laik biong yu” is another one. It’s the Pidgin way of saying “As you wish” or “do what you want.”  (I always envision Wesley rolling down the hill after being pushed by Buttercup — “Laik—-bilong—-yu”)  It just kind of comes out.  A lot of people focus on how much you can’t say in Tok Pisin — but there are some things that just seem clearer or more tender in Tok Pisin.  “Mi laikim yu tru,” sometimes seems richer than “I love you.”

Mi finisim dispela post nau.  Lukim yu bihain.  (See ya later).

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