Friday, 14 December 2012

The language of Lae.

PNG is the most linguistically diverse place on earth. Most people up here, despite many of them having little or no education are bilingual,even trilingual. Most locals speak their regional language (As Ples** or Tok Ples) and either Tok or Mutu, the two official languages. These are not dialects, they are different and distinct languages. And most locals up here speak English. Which means your humble gardener, or flowa boi, probably speaks a couple more languages than you do.

**(As, as in "Arse" Place.. as in where you sit down, your home village)

Not bad for a country where the locals are often frowned upon by some expats as stupid and lazy.

The most used language up here is  Tok Pisin, or simply "tok" as it's known . Although it was originally a pidgin, Tok Pisin is now considered a distinct language in its own right, because it is a first language for some people and not merely a lingua franca to facilitate communication with speakers of other languages.

Tok is an awesome language, derived from English picked up in the cane fields of Queensland during the very dark Blackbirding years, a huge smattering of Australian English brought in by soldiers during WWII, with some German and Dutch.

All letters only have one possible pronunciation. There is no "F" in Tok, although given that most people also speak English, it has kinda crept into Tok via the back door. But a tru tok speaker would never use it.

A is always pronounced as the a in "father", E as in "example", I as in "issue", O as in "code" and U as in "clue"

Vowels aren't followed by the "R" sound, so "work" is "wok",, pronounced just like the Asian cooking implement.

Some of my favourite phrases are "gras bilong het" (grass bilong head) or hair. Usually just shortened to "gras". Not to be confused with "maus gras" or a beard/moustache. "Skru bilon han" is elbow.

A "wantok" (one talk) is a dear friend, someone who literally speaks the same as you, linguistically and emotionally.

Tok can sound kinda rude to the non speaker.  "as ples bilon mi, em bikpela bagarap" which sound a little like "arse plaice  bill on me em bickpela bugger up" It means "My home village is badly damaged".

One of the words that causes Newbies to do a double take up here is "pinis". It means "finish" or "end", so it's perfectly acceptable up here to say ' Yu em pinis?"

You're  not being asked if you're a dick, you're being asked if you've finished..

The first time I was invited to a "Go Pinis" party, I was pretty sure I was being asked to put my car keys in a bowl, and get on with (hitherto un-explored) my wife-swapping self.

Newp, it's a party thrown for people who are leaving. You have a go pinis party when you leave a job. Or te country.

"pis" in Tok Pisin could mean in English: "beads", "fish", "peach", "feast" or "peace".
"sip" in Tok Pisin could mean in English: "ship", "jib", "jeep", "sieve" or "chief"

Far be it from me, an avowed atheist to  promote the idiocy of religion, but the lord's prayer is a great way to learn Tok, because almost everyone knows the words. Sound the words out, using the vowel rules as I've described, and you can hear the meaning:

Papa bilong mipela
Yu stap long heven.
Nem bilong yu i mas i stap holi.
Kingdom bilong yu i mas i kam.
Strongim mipela long bihainim laik bilong yu long graun,
olsem ol i bihainim long heven.
Givim mipela kaikai inap long tude.
Pogivim rong bilong mipela,
olsem mipela i pogivim ol arapela i mekim rong long mipela.
Sambai long mipela long taim bilong traim.
Na rausim olgeta samting nogut long mipela.
Kingdom na strong na glori, em i bilong yu tasol oltaim oltaim.

And my personal favourite, a road sign in the Ramu Valley:

Ol man an mari, yu save.  Draiv isi isi. Yu noken lukatim ol bullamacau on rot. Yu bagarap im ca.

(Everyone take note, Drive slowly and watch out for Cattle crossing the road. Or you will have a car accident)

 Got it? And Tok creeps into your everyday conversations with native English speakers. With a large smattering of colloquial Australian English thrown in. I might greet a couple I know with "G'day tupla!  (Hello, you two). I couldn't 'phone you earlier because my Digi (cell) was bagarap (broken) Yu olrite? (are you well?). You going to the barbie for Jane's go pinis ? (farewell barbeque) I'm isi isi on the piss down the Yoti tonight." (I'm going easy on the alcohol at the Yacht Club tonight)..

What it sounds like to the English-attuned ear is

Giidae Tooplar , I coodn phone you earlier bcz meh didgee was buggered rap. Yoo orait. Yoo goin to the Barbie for Jane's Penis? I'm easy easy nda piss down the Yoddy tnite.

And it's said REALLY fast, so all the words kinda run into each other and leaves you wondering why Tupac is performing digital buggery on a Barbie Doll with Jane's penis while Izzy is urinating on Yoda.

It's a language not for the faint hearted. Then there's learning what a "chook raffle" is, or "footy" (pronounced "fuudie), or knowing your 'mates' are "ARSOL's" and why on Tuesday's The Yoti (pronounced 'Yoddy') draws a meat tray.

Welcome to PNG, the land of the unexpected.


  1. As an old B4 (before independence) I love your rekindling of my years teaching in PNG. I also blog and often write about my time in PNG.

    Kevin Lock

  2. Where where you, Kevin? Are you an old Lae-ean? Plenty of old B4's still here!