I’VE BEEN ENJOYING the discussion in PNG Attitude about the literary merits of Pidgin English. I think Tok Pisin can be a remarkably expressive language. But then what language isn’t?
With Tok Pisin, because of the challenge of not having a full complement of vocabulary for many words in English, there is a need to be much more descriptive.
For example, big, large, huge, enormous, gigantic, great, tremendous, etcetera are all represented by either bikpela or traipela in Tok Pisin.
Whereas, in the foregoing English sequence, from big to great to tremendous, the meaning and intention of the adjectives change.
The subtle but real differences in word meaning are what make English such a versatile language.
In Tok Pisin there is no word for versatile, only phrases like gutpela long olgeta wok. But this need not be a hindrance provided the writer uses some creativity, mainly through comparative statements.
For example, graun bilong mi em traipela na traipela tru, abrusim mak bilong solwara, or pik bilong yu bai kamap bikpela moa moa yet olsem bebi kau.
Many English words are being rewritten in their Tok Pisin equivalents, for example komuniti, kapten, kongregesen. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Nowadays we continue to bastardise both English and Tok Pisin in our search for more words to fit into our modern Tok Pisin.
For example, fatpela is used to describe width as opposed to longpela for length. Or smartpela to describe intelligence or qualify the best.
This is a common phenomenon worldwide. Creole languages are a natural development of the human need to communicate irrespective of one’s mother tongue. In Singapore there is Singlish. In China there is Chinglish. Pinglish is mixed English and Persian language.
It is arguable whether 'native' Tok Pisin speakers, i.e., those who may only think and speak in Tok Pisin, would be better at expressing ideas in Tok Pisin than those who have a dual Tok Pisin-English understanding. I believe both groups have something to offer.
Street slang Tok Pisin has many new expressions added to it regularly, e.g., Yu kam gud meaning you’ve done well, nating tru meaning effortlessly or too easy, kisim wara meaning to get drunk on alcohol or naispela ya, nogat mosong blong em*, etcetera.
And it’s interesting that rural Tok Pisin has nuances tied more closely to the cultural atmosphere.
In a village in Madang, the people responded by nodding and saying ‘yes, yes, em i tok tru, gutpela tru, bai yumi tingting gut long mekim olsem yu tok’. But this response was not being affirmative.
Rather they were playing for time, ‘egging me on’ to talk more and reveal more information and more importantly, to give time to the kukurai to get to the meeting so that he would give them the final decision.
On the other hand, in Lae or Port Moresby, such a group response would have been taken as an affirmation of intended action.
Tok Pisin works well in shared contexts, but can be difficult when expressing concepts because it is difficult to be precise and concise. But this kind of ambiguity is a useful trait in poetry and metaphors are very common in Tok Pisin.
The most important point about using Tok Pisin is that it is uniquely Melanesian. We have our own way of expression and that should be conveyed to other people too. Tok Pisin is the language expression of our lifestyle and our intermingled cultures.
I think that, for a poet, as I am, language is a tool. My instinct for creative writing is to use what works best for the piece and that might mean whatever is on hand at the time.
I believe that’s what Geoffrey Chaucer (poet and ‘father of English literature’) was doing in 14th century England.
Here is a poem that was inspired by a friend who one evening, in his own language, told me an old saying about the moon’s corona. Roughly translated the saying goes, ‘tonight the moon carries her umbrella’.
Recently, with a colleague at the University of Adelaide, I re-created that phrase in a poem translated from Bahasa Indonesia.
Tonight the moon carries her umbrella
Dia beranjak kesiangan hari ini
Dan malam inii dia membawa payungnya
Hamparan kabut terpapar di balik kilauan sarung kebayanya
Saat dia berjalan melintasi duniaku
Jauh dan semakin jauh dia melangkah
Sendiri, dimana tanganku tak bisa menggapai untuk memeluknya.
She rises late in the afternoon
And tonight she carries her umbrella
Smoky tendrils trail behind her glittering sarung kobaya
As she strolls across my universe
Far, far away she walks, alone
Where my arms cannot reach to embrace her.
* Literally ‘Hey nice, not itchy’; metaphorically, smooth, fresh, young and untouched - often used with a sexual connotation, but appreciative rather than physical. And you didn’t think Tok Pisin was a complex and nuanced language….
Michael Dom, an agricultural scientist, is undertaking post-graduate studies at the University of Adelaide