Tok Pisin. From Simplified English to Complex Language

Term Paper 2005 24 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical Facts

3. Sociocultural and sociolinguistic background

4. Linguistic Description
4.1 Phonetics and Phonology
4.2 Vowels
4.3 Consonants
4.4 Variabilities in Tok Pisin phonology
4.4.1 Voiceless Plosives
4.4.2. Consonant Clusters
4.4.3 Nasalisation
4.4.4. Variability in /l/ /r/
4.4.5 Variability in /p/ /I/
4.4.6 Variability in /s/ /sh/ /ch/
4.4.7 Variability between /h/ and /ø/
4.4.8 Reduction for phonological expansion
4.2 Lexicon-Vocabulary
4.3 Grammar
4.3.1 Morphology
4.3.2 Syntax Verbals Tense, Aspect, Modality Pronouns Prepositions Interrogation Negation

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography


Tok Pisin is an English based Creole Language spoken by more than two million people throughout Papua New Guinea. Besides English and Hiri Motu, it is recognised as one of the official languages of a country counting about 800 indigenous languages. Also known as Melanisian Pidgin English, New Guinea Pidgin or Neo-Melanesian, the language has gained considerable prestige since the Second World War and and is now widely used as the preferred national language. After a short historical and socio­cultural illustration, the phonological and lexical developments and their change over time will be discussed. Furthermore, an overview of the most important morphological and syntactical features and tendencies will be given. Due to the renewed contact between English and Tok Pisin, further transformations are taking place, possibly leading to the establishment of two distinct varities of the language. It is, however, impossible to give a complete account of all the on-going changes. Therefore, only a few examples will serve to show some of the changes responsible for the emergence of distinct varieties.

2. Historical Facts

The history of Papua New Guinea reaches back more than 40,000 years. It can be divided into three major periods. The first period covers the time before colonisation, the second phase comprises the colonial and transition period from 1884 to 1914 and the third period includes the development since independence in 1975.

Very little is known about the early days of Papua New Guinea, before European settlers arrived in the 16th century. It is assumed that the island that was peopled by different waves of migrants from the Oceanic region at different times. They brought with them their traditions and languages causing a great cultural and linguistic diversity enhanced by the geographical, mountainous fragmentation of the area.

The first European colonisers to arrive in Papua New Guinea were Spanish navigators under the command of Ortiz de Retes. He also gave the island its name. However, until the 19th century very little contact between Europeans and indigenous population was recorded. The (mostly Spanish) colonisers focussed on the colonisation of the Americas and other, economically and environmentally, more attractive parts of Asia. Secondly, since myths about head hunters and cannibals were told, the Europeans were cautious to settle in the region. Thus, the phase of colonisation (and exploitation) began relatively late, in the 19th century with Dutch colonisers claiming the western part of the island in 1828. The Dutch, however, did not develop the territory in terms of economy or infrastructure, it simply remained an imperial land claim. Only at the beginning of the 20th century when the British complained about raids into their territory, the Dutch started to explore the most eastern part of their possessions. Nonetheless, it remained commercially underdeveloped since the Netherlands possessed more profitable regions in Indonesia. At the end of the second World War, another of the Dutch colonies struggled for independence. Finally, in 1949, Indonesia became independent, not including the territory of West New Guinea which progressed under the Dutch colonial rule. Indonesia continued to claim the territory and tensions between the Dutch and Indonesia culminated in 1962, when the Indonesians launched a military campaign and international pressure forced the Dutch to leave West New Guinea. It became a sovereignty of Indonesia under UN trusteeship and, in 1969, the most eastern province of Indonesia under the name of Irian Jaya with the capital Jayapura (former Hollandia). However, the relations between Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya are tense as both struggle for independence of Irian Jaya and a unification with Papua New Guinea are discussed.

Another European power that expanded into the south west pacific were the Germans who established their first trading spot in Samoa in 1856. From there, the Germans settled further on New Britain in the Bismarck archipelago (now part of Papua New Guinea) and founded the first copra plantations. On the 3rd of November 1884, German New Guinea was proclaimed a German protectorate, including the north eastern part of New Guinea mainland (also known as Kaiser Wilhelmsland), the Bismarck archipelago (including the islands of New Britain and New Ireland) and since 1899, including a few more of the smaller islands like Bougainville and Buka. The administration over the area was given to the New Guinea Company, a private syndicate that tried to sell the land to German settlers. Due to the hostility of the indigenous people and the rough living conditions on the New Guinea mainland, their plan was not successful, except on the islands of the Bismarck archipelago with already established trading and plantations businesses. Additionally, the Bismarck archipelago functioned as an important place for labour recruitment for the German plantations on Samoa. In 1899, the administration of German New Guinea was handed over to the German government and the capital of the territory became Rabaul on New Britain. German New Guinea remained a German protectorate until the outbreak of the 1st World War in 1914, during which period the plantation and trading business increasingly intensified (Tryon 2004:324). After the surrender of the German government, the territory became known as the Trust Territory of New Guinea under Australian military administration. In 1921, it was transformed into a civil administration and given as a mandate to Australia by the League of Nations until the Japanese occupation in 1942.

Under pressure from Australia and only three days later than Germany, the British established British New Guinea on the 6th of November in 1884. The south eastern part of mainland New Guinea and the adjacent islands became a British protectorate with the capital Port Moresby and were transformed into a British annexation in 1888. Until 1902 very little commercial development occurred, except a regulation to plant coconuts which failed to succeed. In 1902, British New Guinea became a part of the Commonwealth of Australia and was renamed Territory of Papua (Tryon 2004:331). From then on, the economic and commercial development intensified: copra and rubber plantations as well as goldmines were established but they never reached the amounts of produce of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. From 1920 on, both territories were administered separately by the Australians who did not unite the two parts. Papua was a part of the Commonwealth and New Guinea was to become independent (Romaine 1992: 15). The European miners of New Guinea favoured the unification idea since they promised themselves a better access to the Papuan labour force. But even by 1939, a commission of inquiry noted the lack of enthusiasm for unification on both sides of the island. The circumstances changed with the Japanese occupation of large parts of the island during the second World War. An Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit was formed in 1942, recruiting officers from both territories in order to expel the Japanese. Eventually, the Japanese were driven from the island, but the unity created between the people from both sides continued into the post war period. It helped to establish a basis for a joint administration, expressed in the Papua and New Guinea Act of 1949. With Indonesia becoming independent, the demand for an independent country of Papua New Guinea was encouraged. With the establishment of the House of Assembly in 1964 the first step towards independence was taken. The House of Assembly contained indigenous members and is re-elected every four years. In 1973, Papua New Guinea became self-governing and in 1975, the country achieved its independence from Australia under Michael Somare as the leader of the Pangu Party and Prime Minister. Papua New Guinea’s independence was not a struggle against a colonising nation and was not encouraged by nationalistic ambitions. Due to the geography of the country the provinces are very loosely connected and separatist ambitions have occurred, escalating for example in the war about the island of Bougainville in 1988. Since the settlement of the Bougainville conflict in 2001, the focus of the government has been on reforms in the economy of the country.

3. Sociocultural and sociolinguistic background

The sociocultural and sociolinguistic background is closely connected to that of the political and economic exploitation of Papua New Guinea. Therefore, the roots of Tok Pisin lie in the colonisation of the area by European powers in the 19th century (Romaine 1992:20). At first, the sociolinguistic history before colonisation will briefly be described. Secondly, the development of the pidgins in the South Sea and thirdly, the period of linguistic isolation of Papua New Guinea and its consequences for the establishment of Tok Pisin.

The area of Melanesia is characterised by its great linguistic diversity. More than 1500 indigenous languages are found there. Between 750-800 indigenous languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea today, a country that bears less than a thousandth of the world’s population (Romaine 1992:23). The reasons are numerous: firstly, the languages serve as a cultural identification of the different indigenous groups, secondly, the long time span of habitation on the islands, in which different tribes arrived bringing with them their own cultural traditions and languages, thirdly, the rugged nature of Papua New Guinea and furthermore, the lack of a common administration and standardisation until colonisation. The vernacular languages belong two different linguistic families, namely the Austronesian and Non-Austronesian language family. These indigenous languages have often influenced each other through language contact and have taken certain features from one another. It is, however, believed that the Papuan languages arrived before the Austronesian languages.

With the arrival of the European traders and whalers, English was brought to Oceania first and has had a major influence on the decline and change of the indigenous languages as well as on the establishment of pidgins (Romaine 1992:30). While it is impossible to ascertain the exact linguistic history of the area, it is generally assumed that a Pacific Jargon English was spoken throughout the whole area. This unstable jargon was an English-based pidgin language that was spread by whalers and traders of sandalwood and bêche-de-mer (sea slug) who used it as a means of communication between the speakers of different languages. How the development into distinct pidgins advanced further is not entirely clear, it is, however, proven that in the case of Tok Pisin the recruitment of labour for the sugar and copra plantations in Samoa helped the establishment of the pidgin (Mühlhäusler 1987: 444). The German company Godeffroy recruited workers from Melanesia for its plantations on Samoa from the 1870s onwards. With the German annexation of north eastern Papua New Guinea and the Bismarck archipelago in 1884, the recruitment of labour by competing European powers and Australia from and to Papua New Guinea to other Melanesian islands stopped. Only the Germans continued recruiting people from their territory. This linguistic isolation, namely the absence of English during the time of German occupation is believed to be responsible for the distinct development of Tok Pisin. Though it was a foreign language, Tok Pisin continued to be used and had therefore to be learned by both parties. Tok Pisin spread further when the recruited men returned to their homes where Tok Pisin was quickly learned by other men of the village. Additionally, the use of the language by missionaries which continued their work even after the Germans had left, was another reason for the expansion and stabilisation of Tok Pisin. With their aim to proselytise the people, they set up missionary schools that taught in Tok Pisin. As Romaine (1992:45) points out, two other important factors were the standardisation and nativisation of Tok Pisin. The language became nativised by its spread into the urban centres after the First World War, where soon a new generation of first language speakers emerged. On the other hand standardisation took place:

By standardisation linguists normally mean that a language possesses an agreed set of codified norms which are acepted by the speech community and which for the basis for teaching it either as a first or second language. (Romaine 1992:46)



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ISBN (Book)
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University of Leipzig – Anglistik
Anglistik Pidgin Creole Baby-Talk New Englishes Papua-NewGuinea Melanisian Pidgin New Guinea Pidgin Neo-Melanesian Linguistik




Title: Tok Pisin. From Simplified English to Complex Language