Preserving Papua New Guinea’s 850 Languages

By Noah Sheidlower – Borgen Magazine

TACOMA, Washington — Papua New Guinea is considered the most linguistically diverse place on the planet with around 850 different languages spoken throughout the country. While English is understood by most of the population, the country has two other official languages. One language is Tok Pisin, a Creole language based on English, the other is Hiri Motu, a pidgin variety of the Austronesian language Motu.

Linguistic Diversity and Poverty

The success of Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu has threatened Papua New Guinea’s linguistic diversity as more indigenous languages risk extinction when younger populations do not learn to speak them. Considered one of the poorest countries in the Pacific, Papua New Guinea faces high rural poverty, run-down health care systems and a slow economy. In Papua New Guinea, 37.5% of the population live below the poverty line, and from this statistic, 21.8% live on less than $1.90 per day.

To escape poverty, younger populations have had to learn the country’s national languages, often in place of indigenous languages, and particularly when there is little investment in schools or universal literacy. Language politics has exacerbated poverty in the country for centuries, yet efforts are now being taken to address the significance of language in both cultural preservation and poverty eradication.

Papua New Guinea’s Linguistic Diversity

The country’s oldest group of languages, the Papuan languages, were first introduced more than 40,000 years ago. Due to the country’s topography, from mountains to swamps to jungles, many of these indigenous languages still survive along with many Austronesian languages that arrived 3,500 years ago. Many of these languages have changed over time through language contact and phonetic and lexical changes. Over thousands of years, many of these original languages have since broken into multiple variations. As a result of tribal divisions, different cultural groups took pride in their languages and cultural practices.

With the arrival of European colonists in the 19th century, English became widely spoken as well as the two other official languages. Tok Pisin arose when plantation workers in the Pacific began developing a pidgin that drew heavily from English but also took linguistic features from German, Malay, Portuguese and Austronesian languages like Tolai. Tok Pisin gained popularity over the last two decades since it is easily accessible to less-educated residents. Today about four million people speak it in Papua New Guinea. However, with the growing popularity of Tok Pisin other indigenous languages are struggling to stay alive. According to The Economist, a dozen languages have already gone extinct due to Tok Pisin’s growth.

Since Papua New Guinea only gained independence from Australia in 1975, English also remains a great threat to other indigenous languages as most higher educational and professional opportunities in the country require English proficiency. The late linguist Angela M. Gilliam wrote that “what is presumed to be academic potential actually represents the degree of cultural Australianization in this neo-colonial society.” Those in the rural labor force who speak regional languages have little access to elite communication power, and thus, feel like foreigners in their own country. They lack participation in national or economic power. Hence, the power of English in government and the national elite has led to class struggle and the ultimate abandonment of indigenous languages.

Documenting and Preserving Papua New Guinea’s Indigenous Languages

Surprisingly, tribal conflicts and divisions have helped retain many of these languages as their speakers have tried to uphold cultural values to distinguish themselves from neighbors. But, given Papua New Guinea’s history of language politics, linguists and community members have been documenting and preserving the country’s lesser-known languages to retain cultural diversity and attempt to eradicate poverty among rural populations. They are making efforts to preserve endangered languages such as Arawum, which only has 60 speakers, and Karawa, with only 63 speakers.

Linguists Arden and Joy Sanders have led language documentation efforts in East Sepik province to preserve Kamasau. While living in the village of Tring, they learned the Kamasau language but also spoke Tok Pisin, which was used in government meetings and church services. When a two-year pre-school was set up in the Kamasau language, nearly all who attended went on to further education, as opposed to the previous rate of only one in 30 students. With such linguistic complexity, Kamasau allows people to talk about the diverse types of flora and fauna in the area and also prepare them for better job opportunities. A proposed school in the area would teach Kamasau for the first two years and then transition to English afterward. This helped students to learn about their culture while also gaining more marketable skills.

Using Technology to Preserve Papua New Guinea’s Indigenous Languages

In 2009, National Geographic’s Enduring Voices team led an expedition to Papua New Guinea to record interviews with speakers of 11 of the country’s endangered languages. The project attempted to assess the current state of vitality and endangerment of these languages. It discussed with local activists about language revitalization and raise awareness of Papua New Guinea’s linguistic diversity. Following these interviews, the team identified the communities of Yokoim and Matugar as places to assist in language revitalization through dictionaries, grammatical materials and new technology.

These two communities and others across the country have used online technology like talking dictionaries to preserve endangered languages and centuries of culture. These talking dictionaries may lead younger generations to accept their language as pertinent to the modern world, making them more inclined to learn it and apply it to employment opportunities. In the case of Matugar, one of its representatives, Rudolf Raward, published the first book in the language. The book incorporates aspects of photography and videography, digital storytelling and desktop publishing.

Technology has also been essential in preserving recently deceased languages like Arapesh, which was originally spoken by 25,000 people but died out due to the emergence of Tok Pisin. Using a digital archive of transcribed audio recordings and a lexicon, linguists have tried to revive Arapesh and help indigenous populations learn about their history.

Looking Ahead

Preserving Papua New Guinea’s 850 languages is essential in eradicating rural poverty, empowering indigenous voices and maintaining cultural and linguistic diversity. The country is receiving international and national support in preserving its endangered languages, but there is still much to do to revive recently deceased languages and ensure younger generations can speak their indigenous languages. However, recent online technology efforts like the talking dictionaries inspire hope that the youth will be able to take on the task of preserving Papua New Guinea’s many and richly diverse languages.

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.

One thought on “Preserving Papua New Guinea’s 850 Languages

  1. I come from an island not so far from the main town Wewak.We speak the “Leing Tau”.Its amazing young kids speak our “tok ples”at a tender age and am worried we may be losing it in the near future.Youve mentioned technologies that can help keep our local vernacular.I am excited and keen to learn more so I can contribute to this initiative


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