Dark Glass
Tragedy of the Papuan Wonderland

'Tok Pisin i go we?’ asks Swiss academic as he heads for PNG


Chris Neuenschwander is a PhD student at the University of Berne in Switzerland. He’ll be in Papua New Guinea (visiting Madang and Port Moresby) from tomorrow, pursuing his research, which he describes in this article, into the social dynamics of Pidgin English. He’s been stuck in the vaults of the National Library of Australia but more recently has begun to talk with people including Michael Dom in Adelaide, Paul Oates in Brisbane and me, in Noosa’s pleasant domain - KJ

“TOK Pisin i go we?” This was the fundamental question raised at a 1973 conference at the University of Papua New Guinea, and it subsequently became the title of a collection of articles that emerged from that conference.

Tok Pisin i go we?” asked Suzanne Romaine almost 20 years later, in her book about the development of the language.

Another 20 years on, academic interest in Tok Pisin has largely subsided. However, the question of where the Pidgin is going – and where it has been – can still trigger an intriguing journey into the cultural heart of PNG. Today more than ever, I would argue.

My personal journey started at the Linguistics Department of the University of Bern. Linguists tend to treat Tok Pisin as a prime example of a “successful” pidgin – no lecture about mixed languages would be complete without mentioning the popularity and status of the Papua New Guinean lingua franca.

Indeed, Tok Pisin has come a long way from being described as “bastardised English” to being mourned for becoming “bastardised by English”.

Yet, the social, political and economic factors that shaped attitudes towards Tok Pisin at different stages of its development have never been investigated in depth.

My journey so far has taken me to Australia, where I browsed the PNG newspaper archives at the National Library, and where I learned about Pidgin from a number of people: former kiaps, teachers, poets and journalists.

“Pragmatic” has come up on several occasions as a description of the relationship between Papua New Guineans and their national language.

In a country with over 800 linguistic varieties, a common language seems more valuable than almost anything else. This may well have set this “pragmatic” middle course that Papua New Guinea took.

On the one hand, Tok Pisin is more prestigious by far than, say, Hawai’i Creole, which is dismissed as “broken English” by so many people. On the other hand, the many regional variations of Tok Pisin never caused passionate and controversial debates about standardising the orthography (as in the case of Haitian Creole).

While standardisation did take place to some extent in PNG, forcing one standard variety upon such a multilingual society probably would have been political suicide.

My journey will take me to Madang and Port Moresby this week, to a country where a national literature is emerging.

This process will likely challenge Tok Pisin – and maybe the laissez faire attitude towards its spelling, which was criticised by proponents of a national literature as early as the 1970s.

I look forward to meeting people in PNG and hearing their stories of Tok Pisin. Sure enough, neither my journey nor that of Tok Pisin is anywhere near its end.


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Adam Paliwala

You can give Chris my email address and I'll send him a copy of my University of Sydney PhD dissertation on 'creole/superstrate code switching: Tok Pisin and English in Papua New Guinea' if you like Keith.

Nice blog and twitter feed by the way.

Thanks Adam, I've done that. I'm sure Chris will be most appreciative - KJ

Michael Dom

Ah Chris, tenkiu tumas. Mi hamamas tru long bungim yu long Adelade.

Raun gut long kantri b'long mi na lukim yu samp'la taim wantaim 'siks'.

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