Hiri Motu

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Hiri Motu
Police Motu
RegionPapua New Guinea
Native speakers
(Very few cited 1992)[1]
120,000 L2 speakers (1989)[1]
Official status
Official language in
Papua New Guinea
Language codes
ISO 639-1ho
ISO 639-2hmo
ISO 639-3hmo

Hiri Motu, also known as Police Motu, Pidgin Motu, or just Hiri, is a language of Papua New Guinea.

It is a simplified version of Motu, of the Austronesian language family. Although it is strictly neither a pidgin nor a creole, it possesses some features of both language types. Phonological and grammatical differences make Hiri Motu mutually unintelligible with Motu. The languages are lexically very similar, and retain a common, albeit simplified, Austronesian syntactical basis. It has also been influenced to some degree by Tok Pisin.

Even in the areas where it was once well established as a lingua franca, the use of Hiri Motu has been declining in favour of Tok Pisin and English for many years. The language has some statutory recognition.[3]

Origin of Hiri Motu[edit]

The term hiri is the name for the traditional trade voyages that created an important culture and style of living for the Motu people. "Hiri Motu" became a common language for a police force known as "Police Motu".

The name Hiri Motu came to be during the early 1970s during a conference held by the Department of Information and Extension Services. During this conference, the committee recommended the name "Hiri Motu" for several reasons.

  • The language’s history is older than the name "Police Motu" implies. This was recommended because it was a simplified from the language of the Motu people, which was the language used when they traded goods with their customers.
  • Police Motu at the time was never used as a language of trade or social contact. In fact, since the unity of New Guinea Police Force in 1946, "Police Motu" had lost most of its functions in police work. Pidgin was adopted at that time and was used with majority of the police force.
  • The committee thought that the new name should have some meaning behind it. Instead of having a language relating to police work, they thought the language should reflect the legacy of the language and how it's used in everyday life.

Motu people[edit]

Motu people are native inhabitants of Papua New Guinea. They live along the southern coastal line of their country. Motu people typically live in dry areas, on the leeward side of the mountain, where dry seasons are harsh on the people who live there. Traditional Hiri voyages carried prized treasures to the people of the Gulf of Papua.


Hiri Motu has two dialects, called "Austronesian" and "Papuan". Both dialects are in fact Austronesian in both grammar and vocabulary, due to their derivation from Motu; the dialect names refer to the first languages spoken by users of this lingua franca. The "Papuan" dialect (also called "non-central") was much more widely spoken in the language's heyday, and was, at least from about 1964, used as the standard for official publications. The "Austronesian" (or "central") dialect is closer to Motu in grammar and phonology, and its vocabulary is both more extensive and closer to the original language. For these reasons, it was the prestige dialect, regarded by speakers as more "correct".

The distinction between Motu and its "pidgin" dialects has been described as blurred – forming a continuum from the original "pure" language, through the established creoles, to what some writers have suggested constitutes a form of "Hiri Motu–based pidgin" used as a contact languages with people who had not fully acquired Hiri Motu, such as the Eleman and Koriki.[4]


Consonants in Hiri Motu[5][6][7]
Labial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Plosive voiceless p t k
voiced b d ɡ
Fricative β s h
Nasal m n
Tap ɾ
Lateral l
Approximant w
Vowel sounds[5][7]
Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid ɛ ɔ
Open a


Personal pronouns[edit]

In the Hiri Motu language, the distinction between "inclusive" and "exclusive" forms of "we" is very important.

To further explain this, think of a time when you and your friend were thirsty. You would go up to him and say "We have no water". When talking to your friend, you are including you and your friend. This "we" is inclusive, which is the person you are speaking to. In Hiri Motu this would be "ita" (we, inclusive)

Now we explain "we" exclusive using the same example. Now say you and your friend approach a different person and tell him "we have no water". This excludes the person who is not thirsty. The word for this is "ai" (we, exclusive)

Personal pronouns
We (Inclusive) We (Exclusive)
Ita Ai


  • egu=my
  • emu=your (singular)
  • emui=your (plural)
  • ena=his,her,its
  • edia=their
Motu Translation S. Pl
oi-emu Yours x
lau-egu mine
umui-emui yours x
idia they

In the table above, the 'lau-egu' is placed before the noun, lau-egu boroma (my pig)

Take note that the first half of the word (lau, oi) may be taken out of the word. For example, 'lau-egu' can be shortened to 'egu boroma.


Hiri Motu uses postpositions. A standard postposition is 'ai', which can mean in, on, or at. For example, maua ai "in the box", pata ai "on the table", and Konedobu ai "at Konedobu (a location in Papua)".

Because Hiri Motu does not allow double vowels, ai will often fuse with the word. Some examples:

  • lalo-na-ai > lalonai - in, inside
  • lata-na-ai > latanai - on, on top of

Word order[edit]

Word order

In Hiri Motu, the word orders Subject–object–verb (SOV) and Object-subject-verb (OSV) are used interchangeably. These sentence structures either start with a subject which is followed by an object, or vice versa start with an object which is followed by a subject, and both end with a verb. Notice that the sentence always ends with a verb regardless of the word order.

OSV is more common in Hiri Motu.

With the option of having an SOV and an OSV word order, some ambiguity may come about in some cases.

For example, "Inai mero boroma badana ia alaia" can either mean, "This boy killed a big pig" or "A big pig killed this boy"

To solve this, a subject marker can be used. In Hiri Motu, the subject marker is "ese", and is placed immediately after the subject of the sentence.

With it, the sentence reads: "Inai mero ese boroma badana ia alaia" (Literally, This boy <subject marker>, a big pig he killed.) - "This boy killed a big pig."

However, do not over-use this subject marker. Use it only when the sentence would be ambiguous without it. You will never use a subject marker in a sentence in which the verb is an Intransitive verb.


Hiri Motu Translation
Daika? Who? Whom?
Dahaka? What?
Daika ena? Whose?
Dahaka dainai?/

Badina dahaka?


Edana bamona?

Hida? How many?
Edeseni?/ Edeseni ai? Where?
Edana negai? When?

(Edana is sometimes spelt and pronounced Edena)

Take note that 'hida' always follows the noun it is referring to, while 'edana' always follows it.


Unai mero daika? Who is that boy?

Inai gau dahaka? What is this thing?

Dahaka oi karaia? What are you doing?

Stay away from question in the negative form, some of the replies/answers you receive can be confusing.

For example, If you ask "la mai lasi?" (Hasn't he come?) and get a reply "Oibe" (yes), that can mean "Yes, he hasn't come yet". If the person has arrived, they will answer, "Lasi, ia mai" meaning (No, he has come). This can be a little tricky at times, so it's best to stray away from negative form questions.


eiava – or

bona – and

bema – if

bena, vadeani – then

a, to – but

badina – because


  • Oi raka naomonamo, oi keta garina. (Walk carefully, lest you fall.)
  • Sinavai dekenai ia lao, haoda totona. (He went to the river (in order) to catch fish.)

"To be and to have"[edit]

When "to be" is used as a connecting word, the parts "na" and "be" can be used, but it is not needed for this case.

For example: 'Ia be mero namona' or 'la na mero namona (He is a good boy)

Note that there is no Hiri Motu verb form of "to have" in the sense of possession, like in the sentence 'I have a dog'

In true Hiri Motu, a local would say "Lau na mai egu sisia" for "I have a dog", (literally, 'I with my dog'.) There are no standards for these expression forms in Hiri Motu.


The numbers 1-5 in Hiri Motu are, respectively, ta, rua, toi, hani, ima. The number system in Hiri Motu goes all the way to 100,000. Many of the numbers in Hiri Motu are polysyllabic, meaning they have many syllables. For example, 99 in Hiri Motu is taurahanita ahui taurahanita. Most Papuans know the English number system and use that instead.


The language has a history long pre-dating European contact; it developed among members of the Hiri trade cycle (mainly in sago and clay pots) between the Motu people and their neighbours on the southeast coast of the island of New Guinea.[8] In early European colonial days, the use of Hiri Motu was spread due to its adoption by the Royal Papuan Constabulary (hence the name "Police Motu"). By the early 1960s, Hiri Motu had probably reached its widest use, being the normal lingua franca of a large part of the country. It was the first language for many people whose parents came from different language groups (typically the children of policemen and other public servants).

Since the early 1970s, if not earlier, the use of Hiri Motu as a day-to-day lingua franca in its old "range" has been gradually declining in favour of English and Tok Pisin. Today its speakers tend to be elderly, and concentrated in Central and Gulf provinces. Reflecting this situation, younger speakers of the "parent language" (Motu proper) tend to be unfamiliar with Hiri Motu, and few of them understand or speak it well, which was certainly not the case a generation or two ago.


(1968) Percy Chatterton, A Grammar Of The Motu Language of Papua.

(1976) Dictionary Working Committee on Hiri Motu, The Dictionary and Grammar of Hiri Motu.


  1. ^ a b Hiri Motu at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Hiri Motu". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Specific legislation proclaiming official languages in Papua New Guinea seems not to exist – but see Constitution of Papua New Guinea: Preamble – Section 2/11 (literacy) – where Hiri Motu is mentioned (with Tok Pisin and English) as languages in which universal literacy is sought – and also section 67 2(c) (and 68 2(h), where conversational ability in Hiri Motu is mentioned (with Tok Pisin or “a vernacular of the country”) as a requirement for citizenship by nationalisation (one of these languages required)
  4. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Hiri Motu Trading Eleman". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
    Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Hiri Motu Trading Koriki". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  5. ^ a b Chatterton 1975
  6. ^ Dutton, Tom E.; Voorhoeve, Clemens L. (1975). Beginning Hiri Motu. Pacific Linguistics Series D, No. 24. Canberra: Australian National University. doi:10.15144/PL-D24. hdl:1885/146613.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  7. ^ a b Wurm & Harris 1963
  8. ^ This is disputed by Dutton.


  • Dutton, Thomas Edward (1985). Police Motu: iena Sivarai. Port Moresby: University of Papua New Guinea Press. hdl:1885/133561.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link) CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  • Wurm, Stephen A.; Harris, J. B. (1963). Police Motu: an introduction to the trade language of Papua (New Guinea) for anthropologists and other fieldworkers. Pacific Linguistics Series B, No. 1. Canberra: Australian National University. doi:10.15144/PL-B1. hdl:1885/146425.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Lister-Turner, R and Clark, J.B. (1931), A Dictionary of the Motu Language of Papua, 2nd Edition (P. Chatterton, ed). Sydney, New South Wales: Government Printer.
  • Brett, Richard; Brown, Raymond; Brown, Ruth and Foreman, Velma. (1962), A Survey of Motu and Police Motu. Ukarumpa, Papua New Guinea: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
  • Chatterton, Percy (1975). Say it in Motu (PDF). Robert Brown & Associates (Qld) Pty Ltd.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

External links[edit]