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‘You-me-fellow’ and ‘me-three-fellow’ – on Tok Pisin personal pronouns

In our last post, Loren A. Billings compared the pronoun systems of his two native languages: English and Tagalog. He pointed out some distinctions made in Tagalog which are not made in English, for instance a singular vs. plural you, or a way of distinguishing we (us including you) and we (us, but not you!). This reminded me of the pronoun system of Tok Pisin, which can give some inspiration on how such an English system would look like.

Tok Pisin is a creole language spoken in Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea is perhaps the most linguistically diverse country on earth. It is roughly the size of Sweden by area, with a slightly smaller population (8.7 million). The website Ethnologue lists 839 indigenous living languages of Papua New Guinea, which is more than 10% of their total number of languages in the world (7139). Therefore, Tok Pisin is commonly used as a lingua franca (common language) in Papua New Guinea.

Tok Pisin emerged as a result of European colonization, labor trade and plantation economy in several areas of the Pacific. In these circumstances, workers (either recruited or forced/kidnapped ‘blackbirded’) had no common language and developed a grammar of their own based on English, the language of the colonists. As such, much of the vocabulary comes from English, but with a grammar of its own.

Tok Pisin has a system of pronouns quite unlike the English system. Letʼs compare the English personal pronoun system to the Tok Pisin system below.

English personal pronouns
1st personIwe
2nd personyou
3rd personhe, she, itthey
Tok Pisin personal pronouns
1st person, inclusivemiyumiyumitupelayumitripela
1st person, exclusivemipelamitupelamitripela
2nd personyuyupelayutupelayutripela
3rd personemoltupelatripela

As we can see, Tok Pisin makes several distinctions not made in English. For instance, it distinguishes not only singular vs. plural (for instance ‘I’ vs. ‘we’), but also dual (for instance yutupela ‘the two of you’) and trial (for instance yutripela ‘the three of you’).

There is also an inclusive/exclusive distinction: yumi refers to ‘all of us, including you’ whereas mipela refers to ‘all of us, excluding you’. These types of distinctions are common in Oceanic languages of the area, so it seems safe to assume that this system has been transferred from local languages. In fact, Tolai, which had a large influence on Tok Pisin, has a very similar personal pronominal system.

Letʼs break down some of the pronouns!

In Tok Pisin, the ending -pela, which comes from the English word ‘fellow’, has many usages. It is used on personal pronouns to mark the plural, e.g. yu ‘you (sing.)’ vs. yupela ‘you all’. Quite obviously, the dual element tu and the trial element tri come from the English words two and three, respectively.

In order to make mi ‘I’ plural, we add -pela > mipela. If we want it to refer only to two people we add -tu-: mitupela, or ‘translated’ into English: me-two-fellow. In the third person, em comes from the English word ‘him’, but refers to all genders, so in this case English makes a threefold distinction not made in Tok Pisin. The plural ol comes from English ‘all’.

Letʼs look at these distinctions in action:

Yumi no ken les.
‘We all [including you] must not give up.’

Mipela i bin tromoi faiv kina tasol.
‘We all [but not you], have spent only five kinas.’

Mitripela i inap i go long ka.
‘The three of us [but not you] can go by car.’

Yumitripela inap mekim wanpela samting.
‘The three of us [including you] will be able to do something.’

Ol i no laik mekim wok long han na kisim doti.
‘They donʼt like to do manual work and get their hands dirty.’

Tupela i toktok strong long ol manmeri bai ol i no ken mekim sin.
‘The two of them urged strongly that the people not commit sin.’

My advice to Loren, longing for these distinctions, is obviously to incorporate them into English as well. Imagine the efficiency of just saying you-me instead of the somewhat clunky ‘all of us including you’, or me-three-fellow instead of ‘the three of us but not you’.


Lynch, John, Ross, Malcolm & Crowley, Terry (eds.) (2011). The Oceanic languages. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

Siegel, Jeff (2008). The emergence of pidgin and Creole languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Verhaar, J. W. M. (1995). Toward a Reference Grammar of Tok Pisin: An Experiment in Corpus Linguistics. Oceanic Linguistics Special Publications26, i–469.

Wurm, S. A. & Mühlhäusler, Peter (eds.) (1985). Handbook of Tok Pisin (New Guinea Pidgin). Canberra: Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National Univ.

September 17, 2021

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