The fading voices of our ancestors: languages under threat


Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude, 7 January 2015

An entry in the Crocodile Prize
Cleland Family Award for Heritage Writing

“With well over 800 [indigenous types throughout], Papua New Guinea’s languages make up about two-fifths of all those spoken in the world today” (A fact book on modern Papua New Guinea, J Rannells, 1990)

PAPUA New Guinea is a Melanesian country renowned for its vast number of diverse languages.

Linguists divide them into two broad categories: the Austronesian, consisting of approximately 200 languages, and the non-Austronesian (or Papuan), made up of the remaining 600.

While these figures indicate a veritable diversity, there is a grave risk that the majority of these languages may soon die out, as has happened in countries such as South Africa, Ireland, Canada, China, and parts of India and the Americas.

That is to say, with a growing number of the country’s younger population speaking English as their second and or even first language, there is a chance that these indigenous languages may soon be lost.

The 5th Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture was held in Port Moresby last year and has since attracted numerous positive and challenging comments as well as countless discussion, debate and documentation from a cross section of the Papua New Guinean community as well as other Melanesian visitors to the event.

An international photographer who was there suggested was quoted in the PNG Post-Courier as saying that “cultural threat [was undeniably] imminent in Papua New Guinea as well as in other parts of the Melanesian region”.

So let me consider the issue of ‘cultural threat’ in Papua New Guinea by looking at the gradual but alarming decrease in the use of indigenous languages in today’s society by making reference to the people of Oro Province.

Oro Province is a lightly populated area of mountains and plains on the north coast of mainland PNG. Undisturbed by European intrusion for tens of thousands of years, the indigenous inhabitants built up their own civilisation and cultures, and communicated within their own little communities using various distinct languages.

Today, the province has around 33 different indigenous languages. Of these, only two – in the Tufi district – are Austronesian. Nine related languages which come under the Binandere family are the first language of an estimated 53% of the Oro people.

The remaining 47% of people speak other minor local languages, Hiri Motu, Tok Pisin or English.

This alarmingly statistic in Oro Province alone suggests that as more of the country’s younger generation are gradually moving away from the use of their mother-tongue and that these indigenous languages are fading away.

The Orokaivalanguage (a well-known language of the province) once had around 25,000 speakers. This number has declined as more Orokaiva-speaking young people have switched to either Tok Pisinor English.

This decline is making the language increasingly vulnerable to extinction. It is anticipated that by the end of this century there could be less than 40% of people who speak Orokaiva. The fact that a majority of today’s young generation are letting go of their great ancestors’ languages and embracing adopted languages offers a sense of sadness and loss of identity.

According to a report by Payal Sampat, a research associate at the Worldwatch Institute, nearly half of the world’s 6,800 living languages are spoken by much fewer than 2,500 people.

Sampat estimated that, at the current rate of decline, by the end of this century at least half of the world’s languages will have been forgotten and will disappear.

He refers to another expert, Michael Krauss, a linguist at the Alaskan Native Language Centre and an authority on global language loss, who estimates that just over 600 of the world’s languages are safe from extinction. That is, they are still learned by children at an early age.

Therefore, the views of photographer David Kirkland that our country is facing an imminent cultural threat seem to be consonant with expert opinion that we are indeed under attack by an ever-increasing global trend.

The wide diversity of languages in PNG is something to be proud of as a nation, however, unless we are able to mitigate and reduce the risk of extinction, we will lose a part of our identity. The ultimate decision is in the hands of the government.

We need to change our mindsets with regard to educational policies and reintroduce the old system by which children use their indigenous languages in the first few years of their basic education.

We also need to establish effective organisations which work towards conserving and promoting our languages and our rich cultural diversity.


Thanks for all the comments and constructive criticism friends!!

Change is good – I get that. And in this era of ever-advancing technology and rapid globalization I guess languages such as French, Japanese, and English, among others, are a necessity. Even for the average villager selling sago, fish and coconut at Koki Market, or that uncle that just arrived from Afore at Jacksons, knowing a little bit of Motu or Tok Pisin comes in handy.

Anyway, all I’m saying is that it would be sad if years and years from now these languages were the only ones being spoken; and those spoken by our grandparents and their grandparents were long forgotten or barely understood by our grandchildren and their grandchildren. I’m not saying its wrong to embrace the English language, I’m saying embrace it but hold on to your native tongue and teach your children!
Thanks for your valid opinion Chris Overland; and no, it would be impossible to literally save every last one of these languages, I understand.

Either way its just my opinion guys – Freedom of Speech.
You’re entitled to have yours.


Posted by: Dale Digori | 15 January 2015 at 10:27 AM

The classic futuristic language is contained in Clockwork Orange (the book not the film) by Anthony Burgess. Takes a while to get the hang of it but well worth the effort.

Not a bad film either.

Posted by: Phil Fitzpatrick | 12 January 2015 at 12:30 PM

Phil – a time traveller from the 16th century would not understand half the words they heard today, or the pronunciation. Even Poms in Sydney have problems with strine. And Rose’s Auntie who came to Australia 30 years ago has trouble understanding modern Pisin.

For a great attempt to predict how English may evolve in the future I recommend Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. It’s as difficult to read as Chaucer, but well worth it. Here’s a quote.

“What Goodparley calls Eusas head which it ben a girt box of knowing and you hook up peopl to it thats what a puter ben. We ben the Puter Leat we had the woal worl in our mynd and we had worls beyont this in our mynd we programmit pas the sarvering gallack seas.”

Clue – “Puter Leat” = computer elite.

Some of his predicted language was used in Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome.

Posted by: Peter Kranz | 12 January 2015 at 09:55 AM

Tok Pisin is an evolving language, just like English. As the need arises it incorporates new words, mostly from English and mostly from “new” English.

It also modifies these new words and spells them phonetically.

It is also streamlining the old words to the point where they don’t resemble the originals.

Anyone who learnt Tok Pisin before independence would be surprised at the changes. Pre-independence Tok Pisin is sometimes referred to as “classic” Tok Pisin with an archaic status similar to “old” English.

I’m no expert but I suspect that Tok Ples is also being modified to suit the changing times.

All languages evolve like this and it is unstoppable.

The best way to preserve local languages is to write them down. Our local Butchulla people on the Fraser Coast in Queensland are now reviving their lost language using written records. Some of them are quite fluent and can sing songs in their old language.

How much it resembles the original is hard to tell because they had to use several disparate sources, including the languages of their near neighbours, to revive it.

Posted by: Phil Fitzpatrick | 12 January 2015 at 07:51 AM

I agree with you about English, Chris, except for one aspect that PNG could teach the English speaking world.

That aspect is to phonetically spell what you are speaking as in Tok Pisin for example.

Returning to Australia from living and working in PNG, this anachronistic hangover stood out like the proverbial country dunny as something that needs to be reviewed, especially for those learning English for the first time.

However try raising that suggestion with the bastions of the English language and you’ll get much the same reaction as those purists who want to keep the French language in a time warp. They can’t imagine Shakespeare for example, translated into phonetic English, yet it easily could be.

Posted by: Paul Oates | 12 January 2015 at 07:11 AM

At one level I can understand the concerns being expressed by Dale Gigori. To some extent at least, our “native tongue”, whatever it is, defines who we are and its gradual loss is bound to be a source of unease.

In France, determined attempts are made to preserve and protect the “purity” of the French language, with the vastly prestigious Academie Francaise being the supposed final arbiter about what is or is not “proper” French.

Alas for France, those beastly “roast beefs” from across the English Channel or the more distant “Yankees” are continuing to pollute French with words like “hamburger” or, worse still, “Le Big Mac”.

In the case of English, which cheerfully both invents and adopts foreign words with equal ease, the writers of dictionaries have long since accepted that the English language is a constantly evolving thing.

This has been the case for at least two millennia now.

Thus, the diverse Celtic dialects of the Britons gradually became Old English (via an inclusion of words from ancient Norse and Roman Latin) which then became Middle English (which included many French words courtesy of the Normans) which, around 1500, became recognisable if not fully understandable as Modern English.

Trying to stop this process is quite futile.

The general population take no notice whatsoever when language “purists” like me complain that yet another innocent noun has been converted into a verb (through a process called, without apparent irony, “verbing”) or some new “techno-babble” word like “app” suddenly becomes ubiquitous.

It seems to me to be a mistake to believe that we can or should preserve literally every language current spoken on this planet.

For a modern Papua New Guinean, the ability to speak ples tok is of little consequence if he or she is serious about getting on in the world. Better by far to master Pidgin or Hiri Motu or, better still, English.

By a quirk of history, many Papua New Guineans have learned to speak, read and write English at a time when this language is rapidly becoming the world’s lingua franca for political, scientific, technological and other reasons.

No-one planned this. It is just a by product of the British Empire and the fact that English is relatively easy to learn and easily assimilates new words to cover any gaps in the lexicon.

So, by all means respect and honour PNG’s cultural and linguistic diversity, but educate the country’s children to engage with the world they actually live in through mastery of one or more international languages.

Posted by: Chris Overland | 11 January 2015 at 11:13 PM

The threat of the world’s languages fading away and dying is an age-old reality. It is not unique to the 21st century.

This fate will befall hundreds of Papua New Guinea’s languages. History tells us of the deliberate methods crafted to destroy many indigenous languages and cultures – leading to the domination of nations. Perhaps the conditions and attitudes of those times could not prevent that.

Today, however, we have the assistance of institutions like the Wycliffe Global Alliance (founded in 1942 and with a footprint in 60 countries), whose desire is to see the Bible translated for every language group that needs it.

One of its partner organisation, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) – has been situated at Ukarumpa near Kainantu in Eastern Highlands Province since 1956.

As of November 2012, translations of the Bible (66 Books), portions of it and the New Testament existed in more than 2,800 of the 6,877 languages on Earth.

In PNG, research has been conducted into nearly 400 languages and at this time there are 316 SIL members working on projects in 190 different language. Like my own Enga tokples Bible, the entire Bible has already been translated into the Orokaiva language.

I wonder how many local pastors are using this work to preach, teach and instruct the youngsters. The values, principles and nuances enshrined in the Bible are universal, irrespective of the emphasis that each culture and language group places on them.

Educated Papua New Guineans have a grandparent, an aunt or a cousin who speaks their traditional language. We can use these people as resources to reinforce important values, principles and history in traditional languages so we can preserve them.

I speak my own tokples at home and in other appropriate settings. Education and living away from the village did not diminish it or wipe it away from me. The same should be reflected in the lives of many of us who started school in our villages and towns.

The idea of tokples education in primary education and pre-schools has been given a 15-plus year chance. We have seen its results. Of course, how it has been prepared, funded and implemented in PNG is another story.

What is clear today is that, there has been a double blow to the self-esteem, confidence and thinking ability of our youngsters.

The bulk of them who were educated in the Outcome-Based Education (OBE) experiment are not able to hold a coherent conversation or discussion in Pidgin, or even in English.

So the cultural and language pride we had hoped to usher in has been correctly labelled a failure. We cannot and must not afford to waste another decade in such misguided experiments.

One has to agree with Pope Benedict that, “the Internet is a gift from God”. Information is becoming available to the masses. We must make it our own business to educate ourselves – unlearn dogmas, prejudices and bigotry and begin to embrace the truly noble ideas and philosophies of respect. honesty and truth.

The diffusion of knowledge, ideas and skill-sets is happening now. We must not lament past sins and hold ourselves in bondage.

Some things need to go and must go. They need to be forgotten and left behind. Those who continue to peddle them must be exposed.

We can only do this through widely understood and communicable languages. The English language happens to be one of them. Mandarin, Hindu, Russian, French or Bahasa appear to have geographical limitations.

Globalization and business agendas will continue to play a leading role in driving people to become multi-linguists .
The schemes and tactics that have been engineered for wealth concentration and property ownership are now commonplace. They are taught in business and political science classes the world over.

We must take it upon ourselves to educate ourselves fully of such history and be bold and confident in how we exert our influence in the digital era.

Globalisation is a reality, however the plots, tactics, schemes, pacts and protocols crafted today follow the same paths as before.
Therefore, we must learn to take pride in our own strengths (small population, pristine environment, terrestrial and marine resources) to articulate and express ourselves confidently and intelligently in the global multicultural setting.

Let’s embrace the English language, teach our own children our own native languages (and not in classrooms) and learn a third language like Mandarin but quit eulogising dubious ideas like OBE and its many ills.

Posted by: Corney Korokan Alone | 11 January 2015 at 05:28 PM

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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