Kinship Terms in Tok Pisin

Even today Papua New Guineans stand under a host of kinship obligations which would seem oppressive to most Europeans and North Americans. Some traditional societies reckon kinship through the father, some through the mother, and some through both parents. Similarly residence and gardening rights may pass through the father, the mother or both. In some societies where it is believed that women sap men’s strength and endanger men’s health, husbands and wives did not live in the same house until forced by Christian missionaries to do so (and even today often live in separate rooms of a shared house). In some societies, certain relatives have an obligation to provide pigs, shell money and other forms of wealth (these days including increasingly large amounts of cash) to help a man pay the brideprice (braitprais; mani bilong baim meri) custom requires him to give his prospective wife’s family. The basic Tok Pisin kinship terminology is given below.

  • lain – ‘clan, family, group, relatives’
  • bisnis – ‘clan, moiety, relatives’
  • pisin – ‘totem, clan, moiety, relatives’
  • famili – ‘(nuclear) family’ (a modern concept)

In some PNG societies marriage partners must be chosen across clan, moiety or totemic groups. Where revenge killing is still practiced, it is enough to kill a member of the murderer’s lain. Revenge does not require killing the murderer himself.

  • tumbuna – ‘ancestor, grandparent; grandchild’
    • tumbuna man ~ bubu (man) ~ lapun papa – ‘grandfather’
    • tumbuna man ~ bubu (man) – ‘grandson’
    • tumbuna meri ~ bubu (meri) ~ lapun mama – ‘grandmother
    • tumbuna meri ~ bubu (meri) – ‘granddaughter’

In some traditional societies, children receive the name of a dead relative from their grandparents’ generation.

  • papa ~ dedi – ‘father’
    • bikpela papa – ‘father’s older brother’
    • smolpapa – ‘father’s younger brother’
  • mama ~ mami – ‘mother’
    • bikpela mama – ‘mother’s older sister’
    • liklik mama – ‘mother’s younger sister’
    • mama tru – ‘(biological) mother’
  • kandere – ‘maternal uncle’

Traditionally, a kandere has many responsibilities to his sister’s son, the most important of these being seeing him through initiation rituals.

  • pikinini – ‘child’
    • pikinini man – ‘son’
    • pikinini meri – ‘daughter’
  • bratasusa – ‘sibling’
    • brata – ‘brother
    • susa – ‘sister’

Today brata and susa are used as in English, but originally a brata was a sibling of the speaker’s sex and a susa a sibling of the opposite sex.

  • kasen – ‘cross-cousin (father’s sister’s or mother’s brother’s child)’
    • kasen brata – ‘male cross-cousin’
    • kasen susa – ‘female cross-cousin’

Cross cousins are such an important class that PNG English also uses the terms cousin brother and cousin sister. Traditionally a cross cousin was a favored marriage partner.

  • tambu – ‘in-law’

In many traditional societies, a number of taboos surround the in-law relation.

  • wantok – ‘someone from the same ethnic group; a countryman; a friend’

Not strictly speaking a kinship relation, the “wantok system” remains extremely important in PNG since a wantok is someone who can be turned to for aid when moving to a new town and the like.

Not surprisingly, members of PNG’s emerging middle class often feel caught between wantok and kinship obligations, which require providing hospitality and sharing wealth, and modern capitalist society’s demand for saving, investment and looking out for one’s own rather than one’s sister’s children’s future. Still, PNG remains a country where sharing (particularly sharing food)—rather than hording things up for oneself—is the norm. In PNG societies, one has a host of material obligations to various kin. And status can be gained by distributing goods and food on certain societially important occasions.

The fairly common obligation to share food is illustrated nicely by anthropologist Robert J. Foster, who asked students at the University of Papua New Guinea and Port Moresby settlement residents about the last time they had drunk a soft drink. Most reported sharing a bottle with a friend. One had been bought a bottle by a former workmate who had just won the lottery. Only one, a university student from Madang, reported never sharing her soft drinks. Although she made other excuses to her friends, she revealed to the researcher that her actual reason for not sharing food was a fear of sorcery. (It is worth remembering that sorcery is forbidden by PNG law and that two or three suspected sorcerers are still murdered every year in PNG. So this is still a very living category in PNG, where misfortune or death may still be attributed to sorcery and good luck or revenge may be achieved with the help of a sorcerer.)

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