Friday, July 6, 2012

Rait Long Tokpisin

Spoken Tokpisin is second nature to most Papua New Guineans. We use it without worrying about how it forms, sounds, or about its variants. We also use it with zest and pride without needing to be grammatically correct. Tokpisin has come to be our main language of communication.

Yet when it comes to written Tokpisin we encounter difficulties and fumble our way through. We make so many mistakes and remain unconcerned about the development of written Tokpisin. 

Written Tokpisin is harder for even those who were born speaking Tokpisin. The elements of written Tokpisin are difficult to master.  Translating English to Tokpisin in written expression is even harder or vice versa. 

Many may believe it is easy to translate an expression in English to Tokpisin. The contrary is true. The difficulty arises out of the grammatical principles that govern the operation of each language. English observes the grammatical rule that the subject comes before the verb and object. On the other hand Tokpisin language observes the opposite where the object precedes the verb and the subject. 

Such differences often make it difficult for Tokpisin speakers to express themselves clearly in English. Many Papua New Guineans in their written expressions in English do not realize that the rules they are using for their written expressions are innately grounded in Tokpisin grammatical rules or in their vernacular linguistic upbringing. 

Written literature in Papua New Guinea has yet to fully develop a corpus of Tokpisin works of literature. Apart from Tokpisin writing done in newspapers such as the Wantok newspaper it remains a less explored aspect of our contemporary literary culture. Some of the Tokpisin legends published in the Wantok Niuspepa over the years are now available in Tom Slone’s books such as One Thousand and One Nights and Tumbuna Stories. Slone is also the owner and publisher of Masalai Press, an important publishing partner of PNG books.

UniBooks has recently published Bernard Minol’s book Opisa Pokep, OBE: Laip Bilong Wanpela Polisman. The book is the first book ever written by a Papua New Guinea writer in Tokpisin without English translation. The book has taken many years to reach a publishable form. In the process of writing Dr. Bernard Minol had the expert assistance of Tokpisin scholar Dicks Thomas in the editorial department. This is a difficult book to write, but the writer and editor pulled it off, making it become the first book in Tokpisin published by the UPNG Press.

As a book written in Tokpisin it puts to test the question of which version of Tokpisin is the standard to follow. The writer and editor were at odds sometimes, on deciding which was the ‘correct’ Tokpisin or that Tokpisin that we may characterize as a general Papua New Guinean Tokpisin. Do we have a general Papua New Guinean Tokpisin, especially standardized vocabulary list, spelling, grammar, and word usage? Are there semantic differences that are standandized for use in commercial and public policy documentation? Are there Tokpisin features that are innovative in both written expression and oral usage?

I have observed the use of Tokpisin as a written expression used carelessly without needing to make sure of its standard usage. The need for standard usage as a written expression is far from developed. Dictionaries and written publications in Tokpisin are needed to standardize Tokpisin. It is often held that the Mihalic Dictionary, the Wantok Niuspepa, NBC, and Air Niugini have been the benchmark for standardized Tokpisin. But with the changing technology and the global influences resulting in more exposure to the international world and English language usage many young people use abbreviated forms of language to communicate with each other, resulting in two things. First a new usage of a word is introduced and popularized. Second, an old word takes on a new spelling. The challenge is to ask if we are to standardize written Tokpisin we need to document these linguistic changes constantly and in written form.

I am an advocate for the use of written Tokpisin. I have tried to capture the Tokpisin elements in my poetry.  My latest book of poems is in Tokpisin with English translations. I enjoyed writing in Tokpisin, but when it came to translation into English I had to deal with difficulties of translation from one language to another. What appears natural or amuzing in Tokpisin when translated no longer retains its naturalness or amusement. That is the challenge one has to deal with when translating from English to Tokpisin or from Tokpisin to another language.

Papua New Guineans express themselves using the languages they are comfortable in, but in terms of written literature more is desired. 

We need to retain the original languages so as to maintain the quality of expressions in those languages. In translation writers will lose the vernacular element that holds the power of that expression. The vernacular expressions retain their authority in the original language if they are untranslated. This is evident in Bernard Minol recently published book entitled Opisa Pokep signaling a new direction in PNG writing. Yumi mas raitim moa buk long Tokpisin.

The interplay of multiple languages in my writings or other Pacific writers serves as the artistic brush and paint of the images we produce about ourselves by using the local color, landscapes, feelings, and the local way life.

The best metaphor that encapsulates the reasons for me to write in English is that of a main hull of a canoe supported by two outriggers. English operates as the main hull where the rower and his belongings are held. The supporting outriggers on either side are the lingua franca and the vernaculars of the writer. In my case the outrigger languages are Tokpisin and Nagum Boiken languages. All three languages complement each other, work together, and share the burden of the writer.

It does not really matter what language I use as long as it conveys the burden of my experience—a James Baldwinian expression adopted by Chinua Achebe in defence of his written language choice.


  1. I often wonder what happened to the Tok Pisin dictionary that Word Publishing had on their computers that worked on Word 3, as well as the extensive Tok Pisin dictionary that Fr Mihalic wrote as an expansion of his Jacaranda dictionary but was unable to find a publisher to produce it.

    1. Hi Keith,

      Interesting. I hope someone from Wantok Niuspepa or other readers with connection to Word Publishing will answer that. Thank you for bringing that up.

  2. I have a Oxford Papaua New Guinea Tok Pisin Dictionary 2008 that is produced in association with Wantok Niuspepa. Could this be the one that you are referring to Keith?


  3. Interesting. I am learning Tok Pisin and was surprised to discover that there were literally no novels in Tok Pisin before "Opisa Pokep." I have been studying for a couple of months and I can now read "Wantok" niuspepa, slowly. I will definitely try to find this book and your book of poetry to read, although it seems that there is no library in the whole of the ACT region that has either -- do you have an address where I could order them? Tok Pisin is a fascinating and elegant language and one that deserves more literature, I feel!

    1. Here is a online version of the Oxford Papaua New Guinea Tok Pisin Dictionary -

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