[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1987/3 pp25-28 later designated J6.]
[See Journal, Newsletter, Anthology, SPB articles and Personal View 10 by Valerie Yule.]

English Spelling and Pidgin: Examples of International English Spelling.

Valerie Yule.

Valerie Yule was until 1986 Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology of the University of Aberdeen, and later at the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia.


Features of the orthographies of two Australasian pidgin-English languages are described to demonstrate what may be desirable characteristics for optimum spelling for universal practical use, when tradition is not a constraining factor.


Where Britain rules her spelling, it is hers. It is changing to meet modern needs, but it changes very slowly indeed. However, international English today is increasingly used by people who have had to learn it as a second language. Within twenty years there may even be more Indian users of English than there are literate native speakers in Britain, America and the white Commonwealth. ('Users' is the appropriate word, rather than speakers, since because of English spelling it is difficult for those who learn spoken English as a second language to read or write it, and for those who learn to read English, to speak it.) There may soon come the time when an overseas majority will believe that an 'international English' requires an international spelling. It is therefore worth observing how 'English' is spelt in the modem world when there are no bonds to enforce continuity with the past, and efficiency is the prime concern.

The extension of world English is not due to its spelling but to its historical advantages, its dominance as a medium for science and commerce, extensive heritage of print, and primacy in air and sea communication, as well as linguistic advantages of relatively simple grammar with few inflections, a rich and precise vocabulary, and its nature as a through its combined Teutonic borrowings and lendings with many other languages.

However English has lost ground post-war as a medium for education and internal communication in many third world multi-lingual countries where it could have been invaluable - nationalism and difficulty of linking spoken and written word have been too much. Pidgin varieties of English language are thriving, however, partly because of this. They are becoming 'respectable' and developing written forms.

The two examples to be discussed are Melanesian pidgin - Tok Pisin, the lingua franca of Papua Niugini and neighboring islands, which is spoken by over a million people to communicate in a country divided by 300 other languages, and which is overtaking English as a major language for government and the media - and Australian Creole, a mix of Ngukurr-Bamyili dialects spoken in the Roper River area of the Northern Territory. ('Pidgin' becomes a 'Creole' language when it becomes the native tongue of a complete district.)

Origins of Pidgin.

The word 'pidgin' derived from 'business' in early Chinese-European trade, indeed the first dictionary of neo-Melanesian pidgin in 1945 was entitled Dictionary of Bisnis English. Pidgin forms of English have developed as lingua franca from first contact with British traders in many parts of the world from the 17th century on, because of:-

1. The need for communication between peoples with many languages.

2. The difficulties of spoken and written English. Something much simpler was needed for immediate basic communication by itinerant Britishers. Vocabulary and grammar were adopted from the other languages too, to make reasonably effective communication with the simplest possible grammar and minimum vocabulary, so that pidgin could be picked up very easily. Some of these linguistic characteristics are described later, since they have intrinsic fascination, even though only indirectly relevant to orthography.

3. It is possible that in colonial days in some places it may have been thought desirable to keep natives in their place by communicating with them in a low-status dialect that could not help them gain social mobility (cf. Asian languages which until recently had several layers of forms of address and honorifics to distinguish Castes and social groups in communication.) Until recently too most pidgins were regarded as 'bastard jargons', with no claims to being proper languages at all; but today both nationalistic needs and linguistic scholarship have raised their status. It is even pointed out that English and other European languages may themselves be creolised versions from an original Indo-European source (Hall in the Encyclopedia Britannica 1973, p.1058). Swahili, Afrikaans and Bahasa Indonesia have all been labelled pidgin languages.

'Restricted pidgins' are only contact languages used for limited purposes by speakers of other mother tongues, and they are very simple and limited indeed. An 'extended pidgin' however has become permanently useful for communication and can develop into a creole when it becomes the native language of a community, its grammatical structure and vocabulary extend, and it becomes more or less stable over a wide area.

Spellings for pidgin.

Smalley's five basic criteria for an adequate orthography (Smalley 1963), developed from missionary experience, were to combine to the maximum possible, and in order of importance, learner motivation, government acceptance, maximum representation of speech insofar that there remained maximum case for the learner, maximum transfer for reading in other languages, and, less importantly, maximum ease of reproduction. Smalley pointed out that many theoretically perfect 'designed' writing systems have failed because they were too complicated for learners-and as we know, others not so theoretically perfect could be described as failures for the same reason.

Despite the myth current in English circles that spellings cannot be tampered with because they have a natural life of their own, both pidgins have been put on paper after much thought and discussion among 'experts' and nationals. Smalley's criteria have been taken seriously.

Neo-Melanesian pidgin, originally called 'Beche de Mer English', is only a hundred years old, but by 1971 there were nine different spelling systems for it. Even government departments used different systems from each other. There were two main schools of thought about rationalisation. The administrators were inclined to make spelling represent the nationals' pronunciation, since it was their language, while educators and others often wanted to make it like English, so that the transition to English would be easier - e.g. ticher rather than titsa for teacher. There was the usual sort of emotional controversy that spelling seems to arouse in the hearts of men. Finally the norm that emerged was that of the Medang area, the linguistic centre of Melanesian pidgin, rather than the areas closest to anglicisation. The government aim was to establish a standard written pidgin for general use, without any interference with the spoken dialects.

The official standardisation was promulgated in March 1956, with the premise that "the ideal orthography for a language is a completely phonemic one." However the phonemic orthography that had been developed by Dr Robert A Hall of Cornell University was modified by pragmatic, nonlinguistic factors - cultural pressure to avoid any letters or other usages not present in English, the preference for a "less than linguistically accurate, sub-phonemic" orthography (according to Mihalic, 1971) that would be most useful pragmatically at Medang rather than taking account of all the phonemes in a wide range of dialects (and with some influence from the spelling of Bahasa Indonesia not so far away), and thirdly cutting out English phonemes that were not adopted by nationals, in order to have as few phonemes as possible. The five single vowel letters are used to represent nine spoken phonemes, and there are only four 2-letter diphthongs. It was found easier to have fewer spelling patterns than phonemes, rather than the opposite, as in English, which has hundreds of spelling patterns for 42 phonemes.

In the past, when pidgins had no recognised orthographies of their own, when they appeared in print English writers would give them 'etymological spelling' - with the result that they looked like quaint, clumsy and rather stupid English dialect. (See the etymological spelling' of the Bendigut story below.) Their modern spellings reflect linguistic features that appear to be advantageous for easy learning, speaking and writing:-

4. Simplification and reduction of consonant clusters and digraphs, e.g. ailan for island. Vowels can even be inserted to prevent consonant sequences, e.g. bokis for box.

5. Comprehensive simple vowels that cover a variety of shades of phoneme, rather than distinguishing between them, e.g. arurut for arrowroot, when the <u> is both long and short, rather like our <a> in banana.

6. A preference for CVCV or CVC spelling structures, so that slurred vowels are represented rather than omitted - but unlike English with more consistent and predictable spelling, the most common forms being <i> or <e>. This is in line with the observation that child spellers often find label less confusing than table.

7. No problems with double letters.

8. Compound words, with consistent representation of morphemes, e.g. klostu, wantaim, legoim (put down), and the very useful and respectable bagarapim for all things that go wrong.

The spellings of both Tok Pisin and Australian Creole have the additional feature of current fluidity, because both languages are 'continuurn' - that is, extending over dialects that range from close to distant recognisability with English. The 'dialect problem' that is always raised when English spelling reform is mentioned is basically a matter of accents, vowel shifts and some extra vocabulary, but written pidgin must surmount more than that - another reason for its deliberate 'coverall' principles rather than absolutely accurate representation of any one version.

Since these pidgins are derived from English it might seem sensible for those languages to be spelt as closely to English as possible, so that anyone literate in English would have no trouble with pidgin, and pidgin speakers could learn English more easily. But Voorhoeve (1963) wrote about new orthographies - and I make no comment - "one cannot expect the users of a language only to be able to spell correctly with the use of a dictionary". And there are also psycho-social factors. Look at the difference between Roper River Creole as spelt in its phonemic form, and when spelt according to English etymology, in the Bendigut example given later. The one, you might say, is a fine, upstanding language in its own right - the other looks a childish, handmedown broken English, likely to arouse condescension from English-speakers, without doing any service at all to the nationals.

About 85% of the root words of Tok Pisin come from English and the aboriginal pidgin is almost entirely derived from English, so a knowledge of how sounds have translated is often sufficient for English readers to be able to make some sense of both in print. This is because the spelling systems are consistent. Switch of 'spelling set' is often sufficient. But the initial appearance can look rather different from English, as in this paragraph about a protest over compensation pay from the newspaper Wantok, which is better understood if spoken aloud:

Ol pipel belong Siviri viles klostu long Kerema i bin wokim wanpela protes mas long Tunde 3 Februari long autim tok kros bilong ol i go long provinsal gavman na nesenel gavman. Ol i belhat bikos gavman i wok isi tru long stretim kompensesen pe bilong graun we Kerema haiskul i sanap long en nau.
The naive English reader only needs a few clues to immediately become aware of the great difference in difficulty between Tok Pisin and English spelling. In Niugini itself others confirm the observation of John Downing (1987) that nobody is taught to read Tok Pisin - it was even banned from accredited schools in 1960 - but its written form may be seen anywhere, and it's just taken for granted that if you can read in any other language, whether it's your mother tongue (which Niugini children can read fairly easily) or English (which is difficult indeed for them), then you can read in Tok Pisin too.

Roper River Creole.

There have been pidgin dialects in Australia ever since the "barbarous mixture of English with the Port Jackson dialect" that David Collins wrote home about in 1796 (commenting, as so often happens in British communication with 'foreigners', that "the natives have the advantage, comprehending with much greater aptness than we can pretend to, every thing they hear us say"). Hodgkinson wrote in 1845 of the spread of "aboriginal English" on the east coast that the "stockmen and sawyers supposed it to be the language of the natives, while they supposed it to be ours".

There were so many dozens of native languages that pidgin English also became the common language for inter-tribal communication. Today around ten major pidgins, creoles and forms of aboriginal English have been distinguished around Australia, but only one has a recognised orthography - the creole used in the Roper River area of the north by aborigines speaking to aborigines, who have around two dozen different language backgrounds.

Until 1972 aboriginal children were punished if they used Creole and not English in school, but following Australian government bilingual education policies it was then permitted as a medium in education, and the development of an orthography for it began in 1973, first by white, Australians and then increasingly with Creole speakers involved. In 1976 a Creole orthography was finally decided upon. The decisions are interesting.

The roman alphabet is used with near maximum representation of significant sounds, but allows under-differentiation in spelling - that is, complete representation is not regarded as necessary. (Sir James Pitman's concept of 'diaphones' that are broad-band representations that may overlap phonemes is seen here.) It was decided deliberately not to make Creole not look like English, but like a language of its own - and hence spellings designed to look like English were rejected.

There are 38 letters and digraphs, including 11 consonant digraphs and 7 vowels, two (rarely used) with diacritic <:>, and 4 diphthongs spelt with digraphs. That is, complexity of vowels, usually the hardest part of spelling and aural distinction, is reduced to the minimum. (English recognises 19 vowels - a large number to distinguish, with an even larger number of spellings.)

It is worth noting that bilinguals tend to perceive Creole as having more significant sounds than those who speak Creole alone.

Morphemes are recognised in that words used in forming compound words must be spelt consistently, but there is still great latitude for writers to spell the way they speak, regardless of dialect. There is often a continuum from distant to near English, according to distance from English-speaking centres - e.g. jilib, jilip, silip, slip for English sleep and jineg, jinek, sinek, sineik and sineik for English snake.

My information dates back to 1977, and I am currently looking into the present situation. However, the early trials then were suggesting that aboriginal learners progressed well, while fluent English readers could read in Creole without assistance. Other English readers did need some formal help, however, particularly with the vowels, since the two vowel systems are distinct. This is expected to be a difficulty of transfer also when aboriginals are learning English language literacy - although the major problem will be the intrinsic difficulty in English spelling itself.

Sandefur (1979) gives an example in both Creole orthography and what an 'English spelling' would look like, in a story about childless Mr and Mrs Bandicoot going to ask the kangaroo for two children because he had plenty.

Creole spelling
Wel, langa naja kantri, ola Bendigut bin jidan. Im en im waif bin nogud-binji dumaji tubala nomo bin abum biginini. Wandei tubala bin lisin geman keingunu bin abum loda biginini. Tubala bin labda golanga keingurru blanga tubala biginini.
Engl. etymological spelling
Well, long another country, all the bandicoot been sit-down. Him and him wife been no-good-binjey too much two-fellow no-more been have-him piccaninny. One-day two-fellow been listen gammon kangaroo been have-him lot-of piccaninny. .......
Tubala bin go en tubala bin karnat langa jad keingurru kemp. Two-fellow been go and two-fellow been come-out long that kangaroo camp
Wen jad keingurru bin luk tubala, imin askim tabala en imin sei, "Wanem bla yundubala bin kan iya?" jadkeingurru bin sei. When that kangaroo been look two-fellow, him-been ask-him two-fellow and him-been say, "What-name belong you-and-two-fellow been come here?" that kangaroo been say.
En jad Bendigut bin sei, "Wel, mindubala bin kambla askim yu bla tubalas biginini, dumaji mindubala nomo gadem eni biginini." And that bandicoot been say, "Well, me-and-two-fellow been come belong ask-him you belong two-fellow piccaninny, too-much me-and two-fellow no-more got-him any piccanny."

The spelling of pidgin in fact, pronunciation shifts apart, could be regarded as a form of Cut Spelling. Pidgin may appear long-winded in comparison with English when it has only minimum vocabulary to work with (e.g. ples bilong putim ol bok for book-case in Tok Pisin), but as vocabulary increases, its economy increases also.

Future developments.

Australian Creole orthography is still in a young, even fluid state. As literacy in Australian Creole develops, greater standardisation may be expected, and also probably a degree of 'spelling pronunciation', in which the dialects themselves become more uniform, converging to the major versions appearing in the printed word. It is possible, though not certain, that the Creole may become more like English, particularly as its vocabulary extends, and its spelling be rather like an English spelling reform, apart from the pronunciation shifts in consonants and vowels.

Tok Pisin spelling is still not set rigid, and variations can be found even in the same issue of a publication, but its general principle of 'make it as easy as possible' is unlikely to be changed.

However, again, it would be very much in the interests of the progress of a country like Papua New Guinea if English were the lingua franca, because of its value for international communication, commerce, science, technology and education. Spoken English is still overall a more economical and precise language than pidgin-for example, a bilingual public notice in a newspaper took 48 words in English against 83 words in pidgin, i.e. nearly double, but the English spelling took up more space.

If in Papua New Guinea some periodicals, e.g. newspapers, also included columns in English language with 'Niugini' pidgin spelling, then it could become easier for nationals to read English and also increase spoken vocabulary without pronunciation worries. However there would also certainly be some confusion, and whether that would be constructive or not is uncertain.

For example, here is a public notice in pidgin spelling, and the English version of it, with common vocabulary also spelt in Tok Pisin (apart from some changes of vowels and consonants, e.g. the Tok Pisin grapheme <p> may sometimes be pronounced closer to /f/).

Tok Pisin:
Nau em i taim bilong Papua Niugini i ma gohet long wok egrikalsa ig o bungim yia 1987 na bai i go yet.
English Translation with Tok Pisin spelling:
Nau yu are moving with Papua Niugini in Agrikalsa intu yia 1987 and beyond.
In future it is possible that pidgin spelling may come closer to English spelling without adopting its inconsistencies, as with increasing commercial influences, secondary education and international communication more Niugini and Roper River nationals are exposed to English pronunciations and English spelling. This trend can already be seen in contrasts between city and rural residents.

English literacy is facilitated not only by familiarity with the sight of English print in everyday shopping and travelling, but also by the practice of the pidgin weekly paper Wantok, which carries large slabs of sport and advertising in English, mixed with the rest of the Tok Pisin reporting. This sort of model for familiarisation may be followed eventually for the introduction of English spelling reform in English-speaking countries - by exposure to a mixture in blocks in everyday media; however another model can be the Korean example of transition from Chinese characters to the Korean alphabet hangul, which commenced in the media by the introduction of Korean function words that were not represented by the Chinese ideographs, and gradually extended.

A note on pidgin language.

Pidgins are moulded by necessity, not kept in a mould by tradition. Efficiency is essential for survival, even if consistency is not 100% through lack of standardisation. Their structure and changes therefore are good indicators of what may be 'optimum' for languages that are not defined by an elite, but required for universal use.

Because pidgins originated to communicate between peoples who did not share a common grammar, everyday words take the place of inflexions that might not be understood. The grammar of pidgin has the effect of labelling every piece of information very clearly so that listeners with minimum vocabulary will not be lost. Emphasis is often given by repetition, as in Malaysian and Indonesian, e.g. liklik, toktok. The possessive is usually a word derived from belong, and fellow is usually a bound morpheme, to indicate number and many other qualities, e.g. dispela, wanpela, tupela, sikispela, nainpela, bikpela, trupela. A term like em may indicate subject, and bound morpheme im indicate a transitive verb.

The English problem of sexist language is usually overcome by inclusiveness - for example, brata is brother, sister, cousin or friend of the same sex, susa is brother, sister, cousin or friend of the opposite sex, and bratasusa is brothers and sisters, manmeri is people, and em refers indifferently to he, she, it, them.

Some illustrative spellings from Tok Pisin.

Janueri, Februeri, Mas, Epril, Me, Jun, Julai, Ogast, Septemba, Oktoba, Novemba, Desemba.

Some English words from a pidgin advertisement:
Debol Sais Foam Materes, Stov (to kuk), Prais Moni, Sterio, Set long ol Sospen (Sospan), Masin, Pilo, Kwalatai Vidio Rekoda, Spika.

Government is almost entirely derived from English and all the exotic words below have a touch of familiarity:
Dipartmen, Praimeri, Indastri, Nasenel Brotkasting Komisin, Praim Minista, Australian Asosiet Pres Nius Sevis, Waia Seves, Eksekyutiv Opisa, Gavman Komyuniti Projek, Palamen, Provinsal Seketeri, Bisnis Kampani, Spesel Operata, Swisbot Operata, Greduesen Seremonis, Gurnius Elekerik, Lokel Maket, Milion, Misis, Mista, Moto Mit, Mamapapa Nogut, Notis, Niuspepa, Piksa, Promis, Politikal, Prinvinsal, Pablik, Posta, Pipel, Saplai, Smel, Supamaket, Televisin, Turis, Tiket, Wok, Wik, Yusim, Yu, Dia Edita, winim vot bikos eleksen.


Collins, D (1796) Account of the English Colony (quoted from Sandefur).

Downing, J (1987) 'The Transfer of Skill in Language Functions' in Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J5 1987/2, pp.5-12, reprinted in J28 2000/2, pp3-11.

Hodgkinson, C (1845) Australia (quoted from Sandefur).

Mihalic, F (1971) The Jacaranda Book of Melanesian Pidgin Milton, Queensland: Jacaranda Press.

Mihalic, F (1982) Tok Pisin the easy way, Boroko, PNG: Wantok Publications.

Sandefur, J R (1979) An Australian Creole in the Northern Territory: A Description of Ngukurr-Bamyili Dialects (Part 1), Work Papers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Australian Aborigines Branch, Series B, Volume 3, Darwin.

Smalley, William A (1963) 'How shall I write this language?' in W A Smalley et al., Orthography Studies: Articles on New Writing Systems, London: United Bible Societies.

Voorhoeve, J 'Spelling Dificulties in Sranan', in W A Smalley, op. cit.

Wantok, wik niuspepa, Boroko, Papua New Guinea.

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