From Poland to Pidgin

27th July 2021

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Born in 1965 in communist Poland (then officially the People's Republic of Poland), Pawel Kornacki recalls his initial years growing up in a district of Warsaw that had a pretty hard reputation for being poor and unattractive, yet tough and enterprising. Here’s an alumnus of ANU who has lived up to the name of the town he was raised in.


Given the political environment, not surprisingly, the first foreign language Pawel was required to learn as a school kid was Russian. In secondary school, he started to learn English, and this was when Pawel realised that both English and Russian combined could open a world of foreign languages for him. Having graduated from secondary school, Pawel began studying English and Chinese at the University of Warsaw. Towards the end of the 1980s, he received a student scholarship to study Chinese in Shanghai, China. In many ways, Pawel believes it was his experience in China that drove him to his PhD in linguistics at ANU.

“I was fortunate to have an exceptional supervisor, Professor Anna Wierzbicka whose work in semantics and linguistic anthropology inspired me to give a scholarly shape to my own ideas, memories, notes, readings and observations from China.”

At this point, for those of you who are wondering what this has to do with CHL, get this:

While Pawel’s PhD focus was on Chinese cultural semantics, he quickly found out that ANU had truly a lot to offer to a student of linguistics. While he was a first-year student in Warsaw, he learned a few words and phrases of an unusual language called Tok Pisin. He learned them during a series of lectures by a Polish missionary ethnographer, talking about his stay in Papua New Guinea. And there’s the CHL connection!

A couple of years later, in Canberra, Pawel spoke to German linguist Professor Ulrike Mosel [then at the ANU Linguistics/Arts Department] about Tok Pisin, who introduced Pawel to Dr Tom Dutton, one of the foremost authorities on Tok Pisin in Australia. They chatted for a while, and Dr Dutton offered some helpful suggestions to an ‘exotic’ Eastern European student of Chinese, apparently interested in pidgin and creole languages as well! Pawel acquired Dr Dutton’s book, A New Course in Tok Pisin (New Guinea Pidgin) (ANU, 1985) and started to learn the language with the help of some Melanesian students residing at the ANU Graduate House (which was where Pawel lived at that time): Em stori bilong mi tasol.

Tok Pisin, because…

As a linguist, Pawel finds Tok Pisin fascinating, because it offers insights into how its users built (evolved, developed, constructed) a language of wider communication in a massively multilingual environment. As a creole language, Tok Pisin is neither a copy of local Melanesian languages, nor a clone of English. While there is a very large body of research documenting the history and development of Tok Pisin as a grammatical system, there seems to be significantly less of it, when it comes to meaning-driven linguistic studies. Pawel sees this as a research opportunity for his own work on the cultural semantics of key Tok Pisin ethno-psychological concepts and expressions.

On a lighter note, Pawel also loves Tok Pisin for some of the amazing words of the language. One is definitely pukpuk, or ‘crocodile’ (this word could be also used to refer to a powerful man; well, a croc is a powerful animal!). In Polish, though, there is a same-sounding onomatopoeic expression, puk-puk, which means something like ‘knock-knock’.

“You can make some really nice cross-linguistic puns in Polish when you use pukpuk! This is, at least, what some of my students routinely do.”

Another favourite of Pawel’s is wantok (friend, mate, literally ‘one talk’, i.e., fellow same-language speaker). This is a very common address and reference term in Tok Pisin.

“It carries a subconscious yearning to find a speaker of the same language as one on its sleeve, so to speak. It is a Tok Pisin cultural keyword worthy of its name.”

Today and beyond…

Currently, Pawel is Associate Professor (Polish title: dr hab) of Linguistics in the Institute of English Studies at the University of Warsaw. At various times, he has also taught some linguistics courses at other departments of the university, such as the Chinese Department, the Institute of Polish Studies, and the Institute of Asian Studies. He has taught, and still teaches, courses in the Introduction to Linguistics, Introduction to Chinese Linguistics, Modern Chinese Grammar, Cross-Cultural Communication, Semantics of Emotion Concepts, Cross-Cultural Semantics (Introduction to the Natural Semantic Metalanguage project), and last—but definitely not least—Introduction to Tok Pisin.

“I am a linguistic anthropologist interested in examining language-and-culture connections. My work on Chinese has had to do with everyday concepts and linguistic expressions of emotion and social interaction. In a somewhat parallel fashion, I see my interests in Tok Pisin as extending into a comparable domain in a significantly different cultural and linguistic setting.”

Generally speaking, Pawel strives to use the output of his research to enhance his university courses, In particular, he is keen to apply insights from linguistic anthropology and ethnolinguistics to the teaching of cross-cultural communication.

According to Pawel, the teaching of cross-cultural communication (in Poland, at least) tends to be seen as the province of cross-cultural psychologists. He believes, however, that “zooming in on selected aspects of languages and cultures with the help of essentially anthropological linguistic tools can be a useful corrective to psychological approaches, which only too often tend to rely on experience-distant concepts and representations.”

With respect to a theoretical aim of his planned work on Tok Pisin, Pawel foresees a book-length semantic study of key Tok Pisin social concepts and expressions, examined in their cultural and linguistic context—two short preliminary fragments of it have been published as Kornacki (2019a and b). More specifically, he intends to apply the methodological lenses of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach to meaning in language and culture, to examine one significant proposal that set about delineating the scope of Melanesian worldview (Franklin 2007).

ANU CHL-University of Warsaw

Tok Pisin, Chinese, linguistics, languages, culture, history—a CHL-University of Warsaw collaboration seems natural and imminent. According to Pawel, there is little academic activity devoted to the Australia and Pacific region within the University of Warsaw, and the institution has potential podcast opportunities for CHL academics; these would be quite indispensable to the formation of more substantial links.

At the University’s Faculty of Oriental Studies, scholars and students of Chinese and Sanskrit have expressed interest in learning more about the activities of CHL’s CALE flagship event web platform. Further, the University of Warsaw’s Institute of English Studies (part of the Faculty of Modern Languages) has stated interests in Psycholinguistics, Englishes around the World, Multiculturalism, Language and Culture Acquisition. Their research webpage showcases graduate students' and some scholars' activities.

According to Pawel, institute or faculty-level cooperative projects can feed into major, university-to-university level projects (termed 'Flagships') at the University of Warsaw. Consequently, establishing a small-scale collaboration is a prerequisite to a longer-term, university-level formal partnership.

“So, if you ask me about my academic hopes for the future, it is that such a collaboration be established, with a broad purpose of multidisciplinary study of varieties of English around the world.”

We at CHL also hope that this profile marks the start of something collaboratively amazing for the future and the long-term enrichment of languages overall.

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster