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Roger Clarke's Pidgin Lost, Pidgin Regained?

Pidgin: Lost in the Translation?!

Roger Clarke

Version of 20 February 1998

© Ross Eastgate, 1997, 1998

This document is at

This document is an addendum to Ross Eastgate's 'Kai Kai the Buai'. It reproduces a letter Ross wrote to the Brisbane 'Courier Mail', in response to a dreadful piece of Pidgin translation.


FOR a nation of some three million people, Papua New Guinea boasts an incredible diversity of language.

Specialist linguists, most notably from the Sumner Institute of Linguistics, have identified and recorded over 800 separate languages (not dialects) throughout isolated village groups in remote and often inhospitable terrain.

As a consequence and out of necessity, most Papua New Guineans speak a number of languages, including at least one of the hybrid trade languages, the best known of which is "Pidgin", or to give it its correct title, Neo Melanesian Pidgin.

There are several different Pidgin languages in the Pacific region and in Northern Australia, each with its own identity and characterised by distinctive forms and grammar.

Borrowing from a rich array of languages, where once they were despised as bastard jargon, some have evolved to become indispensable binding forces in culturally diverse societies.

Melanesian Pidgin as spoken in Papua New Guinea is a mix of English, German, Malay and Portuguese, as well as words which have migrated from any one of the major regional languages of PNG, such as Kuanua from East New Britain.

It borrowed from such sources as the influx of allied servicemen who fought in PNG during World War 2, although some words which are common usage in Pidgin would attract the notation in conventional English dictionaries, "no longer in polite usage."

Pidgin is not a language for the delicate or faint hearted. Like any living language, it is evolving as society changes, and although many experts confidently predicted its eventual demise in favour of conventional English, it shows no sign of disappearing. Father Frank Mihalic, an American Divine Word missionary based in Wewak is considered the ultimate authority on Melanesian Pidgin, and is the author of "The Dictionary and Grammar of Melanesian Pidgin."

The essential reference for any serious student of the language, Mihalic's dictionary is based on the northern dialect of Pidgin, which is referred to in academic circles as the definitive "high" Pidgin for use in writing, allowing regional dialects to survive in the spoken word.

Pidgin is not, as many believe, a simple matter of bunging "im" on the end of a verb, inserting a few longs, slipping into baby talk and hoping for the best.

New arrivals, or worse transient visitors who claim proficiency in Pidgin after a few days in country, are invariably the worst offenders, for Pidgin is a language which is deceptively precise, anatomically robust, occasionally vulgar, unapologetically politically incorrect and racist, but a colourful delight to the ear when used by skilled speakers.

It takes years to master its subtleties, and there is nothing more embarrassing to a fluent Pidgin speaker than the sound of an expatriate loudly prattling in gibberish in the belief that he or she is speaking Pidgin.

Anyone who has spent even a short time visiting or working in Papua New Guinea has a fund of stories, invariably apocryphal, concerning some disastrous experience or other with the "natives" based on a misunderstanding of language.

As reported recently in this paper, Australian Defence Force peace keepers posted to Bougainville [Ed.: which dates this letter nicely to the 1995-97 timeframe!] have been undergoing crash courses in Pidgin conducted by instructors from the RAAF School of Languages at Point Cook, but as the errors in the "Pidgin" translations which accompanied that article testify, there are numerous traps awaiting the unwary.

The Australian Army once numbered hundreds of proficient Pidgin speakers in its ranks, and there is a fund of stories about expatriates whose assumed knowledge of Pidgin caused them considerable grief.

One of the better stories concerns an old soldier, with years of service in PNG who was at one time the Regimental Sergeant Major of the 1st Battalion of the Pacific Islands Regiment based at Taurama Barracks.

An otherwise excellent Pidgin speaker, he was attempting to describe a simple drill movement to the assembled battalion when he became momentarily confused.

He intended to have the battalion raise and lower one leg, but ordered them instead to "upim tupela wantaim!" (lift both at once) with the result that all the soldiers fell over.

The soldiers immediately christened him "hap mad" (half mad), a nickname which close acquaintances use to this day.

A popular domestic example goes along the lines, "I told the haus boi to pluck and clean a chicken and put it in the fridge, and when I got home there was this naked chook in the fridge, shivering and blue with cold!". [Ed.: 'chook' in Australian means a chicken, especially an old one].

Investigation of what exactly was said will invariably show that these were the instructions given, for Papua New Guineans in a simple, logical way will carry out instructions to the letter.

Further, Papua New Guineans traditionally don't gut or necessarily kill an animal before cooking it, so what is assumed by an expatriate is not always taken for granted by the local.

The expatriate probably said, "Kisim wanpela kakaruk, rasim ol gras bilong en, klinim em, na putim em i go insait long bokis ais." (Get a chook, pluck it, clean it and put it in the fridge.)

A more explicit instruction would have been: "Kisim wanpela kakaruk, na katim pinis nek bilong en wantaim tomiak. Rausim ol gras bilong en, na rausim ol lewa samting long insait long bel bilong en. Na behain, wasim kakaruk indai wantaim kolpela wara tasol, na putim em i go insait long bokis ais. (Get a chook and cut its head off with an axe. Remove its feathers and gut it. When you've done that, wash it in cold water, then put it in the fridge.)

Myths such as the one which suggests that a helicopter is called a "mixmasta bilong Jesus" simply ignore the fact that someone who is unfamiliar with a helicopter is also unlikely to understand the intricate workings of an electric kitchen appliance.

One enduring legend concerns the late [Australian] actor Chips Rafferty [Ed.: who Crocodile Dundee'd long before Hoges did], who told Cinesound News on his return from filming in PNG [Ed.: in the 1950's] that he had seen "a twenty foot pek pek floating down the Fly River".

Perhaps he meant "puk puk," which is Pidgin for crocodile, whereas the other is an item more commonly found floating in sewers.

Em tasol. (That's all!) <This is the customary end to any Pidgin story>

Rossco's Quick Guide to Simple Pidgin

Domestic staff. May be a Haus Boi (male) or Haus Meri (female). They often live in servants quarters called a Boi Haus.

When attempting to attract one's cat, do not sing out "Puss! Puss!", particularly if one is female. "Puskat! Puskat!" is a safer choice.

When directing someone to move something, push comes to shove. Thus, "sabim i go" (shove it away) is preferable to "pusim i go" (push it away.)

"Painim" means "to look," "Lukim" means "to find." Thus, "mi painim, painim, tasol mi no lukim!" means I looked and looked, but I didn't find it.

Be careful with boxes. A 'blak bokis" is a flying fox. A "bokis dewai" is a wooden box. A bokis ais is a fridge. Do not use "bokis" on its own. Don't ask why.

Distance is imprecise. Something may be "long hap i go" (that way a bit); long hap i kam (this way a bit); "longwe. longwe" (some distance); longwe lik lik (not too far.); longwe tumas ( a considerable distance), longwe pinis (too far.)

Balas means ballast, balus means aeroplane or a large bird (a small bird is a pisin) and bilas is adornments and decorations, such as the elaborate finery worn during sing sings (traditional dances) or adornments worn on military uniforms, such as badges, brassards or medals.

Someone who has passed out or is unconscious may be said to dai tasol. Someone who has passed away may be said to be dai pinis or indai. Something which is broken is bagarap. Degrees of unserviceability are bagarap tasol (broken, but repairable) bagarap bikpela (a challenge!) or bagarap pinis (unrepairable.) People as well as things may bagarap.

Blari bulsit. An expression of annoyance, or disbelief e.g., Haus boi: "Missus, ol tikap, pilat samting, oli kalap kalap long tebel, na pundaun long plua, na oli bruk bruk nabaut!" . (Missus, all the cups and saucers jumped off the table to the floor and broke into lots of pieces everywhere!). Missus: "Blari bulsit ia!" (Gosh, what a bother!/I don't believe you!)

Em tasol!

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Created: 20 February 1998 - Last Amended: 20 February 1998 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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