The Independent State of Papua New Guinea, located in Oceania, is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. The state, which forms the eastern half of New Guinea, is connected to the provinces of West Papua and Papua of Indonesia.
It is home to about 8.1 million people according to the preliminary census done in 2016. As one of the world’s most rural countries, only about 18% of the population is located in the urban centers of the independent state.
But one of the distinguishing characteristics of the state is its linguistic diversity. It’s known to have about 852 living languages although 12 of them have no known living speakers. Many of the inhabitants live in their own communities. The communities in Papua New Guinea are also known to be quite diverse.
It seems that this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg because the state up until now has not been fully explored, geographically and culturally. So many more people have no contact with the outside world, and like the communities and the languages, it is believed that many more species of animals and plants in the interior of Papua New Guinea are still undiscovered.
Why are there so many languages?
It is astonishing that a state which is only 462,840 square kilometers (178,700 square miles) with 8 million inhabitants can have that many living languages. Compare this to India that has 1.3 billion people living in a land that is 3,287,263 square kilometers (1,269,219 square miles), which officially recognizes 22 languages. However, it is to be noted that hundreds of languages are also spoken although unofficially recognized, while some are not native to India.
The oldest groups
The “Papuan” languages are the oldest group among the hundreds of languages. The first human settlers introduced languages to the area some 400,000 years ago. Although they were placed under the umbrella of Papuan languages, they do not have similar roots. The languages were divided into different families that are not related and most of them are language isolates.
About 3,500 years ago, the Austronesian languages were introduced to the state. It is probable that only one Taiwanese source was the origin of these languages. In the 1800s, German- and English-speaking settlers arrived in Papua New Guinea, which added to the number of languages already spoken in the state.
The topography of Papua New Guinea has something to do with the survival of many of the state’s languages. The area has many swamps, jungles and mountains that isolated the villagers and effectively preserved their own languages.
The rural population of Papua New Guinea is sizable, as urban dwellers comprise only about 13% of the inhabitants. To this day, many of them still do not have any contact with other people. Tribal conflicts and divisions are still common, and they help in language preservation.
Time is another factor in preserving a language. Nearly a thousand years are needed for to split a single language, according to American linguist William A. Foley, who is a University of Sydney professor and specialist in Austronesian and Papuan languages. Papua New Guinea’s languages have been evolving for 40,000 years, so the changes in the languages are more natural.
Discussing the linguistic diversification of the languages in Papua New Guinea in one of his books, Professor Foley conservatively estimated that around 1,012 unique languages would result from the division of a single language every one thousand years. The estimate does not include the mixing of languages, language contact and the extinction of other languages.
Papua New Guinea has a tribal society, and this is another reason why languages survive in the state. In each tribe, their unique identity is signified by the language they speak. Each tribe is proud of their own language.
Dominant languages in Papua New Guinea
The number of languages in Papua New Guinea represents 12% of the total languages in the world. According to Ethnologue, 853 individual languages are listed for the state. Twelve are already extinct, leaving 841 living languages, 840 of which are indigenous languages. Chinese is an immigrant language. Forty languages are already dying and 124 are endangered.
Two major groups
Papuan indigenous languages are classified into two major groups, the Papuan languages and the Austronesian languages.
The big number of Papuan languages is used in various islands in and around New Guinea. Some of the areas include Alor archipelago, Timor, Halmahea, Solomon Islands, Bougainville Island and Bismarck Archipelago. Meriam Mir, a Papuan language is spoken in the eastern part of the Torres Strait in Australia. The Papuan languages spoken in East Timor enjoy official recognition.
The Austronesian languages are widely in the islands in the South Pacific, Madagascar and Southeast Asia. Included in the Austronesian languages are Filipino, Javanese and Malay. Hiri Motu is an Austronesian language belonging to the group that also includes Filipino, Fijian, Gilbertese, Formosan, Malay, Malagasy, Māori, Tuvaluan, Tetum, Samoan, Tongan, Palauan, Nauruan and Marshallese, which have official status in sovereign countries.
When it became independent in 1949, the government of Papua New Guinea chose three languages for official use – English, Tok Pisin (creole) and Hiri Motu (simplified form of the Austronesian language, Motu). Despite the official languages, the other languages were not nullified. Speakers were allowed to use their own languages. There are languages that are spoken by thousands of people while others only have dozens of speakers.
From a pidgin language used by 19th century traders, Tok Pisin (translates to ”talk pidgin”), evolved into a creole with English as its base, mixed with Portuguese, German and other languages native to the state. Today it is the main language and popularly used in churches, spoken as a first language by about 122,000 Papuans. Wantok, a local newspaper, is published exclusively in Tok Pisin.
Its success stems from its easy vocabulary. However, this popularity is detrimental to the growth of the other languages. A few dozen languages are already gone. Ancient languages are at risk of extinction, as a modern language in Papua New Guinea takes over.
Although English is an official language, it is not widely spoken. It is the language used by the Papuan government and it the medium of instruction in school.
While Hiri Motu is also an official language, very few speak it as their first language. About 120,000 speak Hiri Motu as their second language. It was a lingua franca in the 1970s but was gradually taken over by Tok Pisin and English. Although it originated from Motu, speakers of Hiri Motu do not necessarily understand Motu and vice versa.
Popular indigenous languages
Among the hundreds of indigenous Papuan languages, Enga is the most widely spoken. It’s also called Tsaga, Tchaga or Caga, and has about 230,000 total speakers.
Enga is followed by Huli, with 150,000 speakers and Melpa, which is spoken by 130,000 Papuans.
Rabaul Creole German or Unserdeutsch still manages to survive, although the number of native speakers is now down to 100. The original speakers were children who were living in a German orphanage, using German words mixed with the grammar of Tok Pisin. Most of the speakers of Unserdeutsch now live in Australia.
A number of indigenous Papuan languages have less than 1,000 speakers and there are other languages that are spoken by less than 100 people. Other languages are more promising because the number of speakers is increasing.
Here are some of the languages that are in grave danger.
Some of the threatened and extremely endangered languages have become extinct. However, quite a number of Papuan languages are increasing their number of speakers, which is hopeful, according to the latest edition of Ethnologue. Noticeable is that all the letters of the alphabet are represented in the names of Papuan languages
Examples of developing languages include: Mussau-Emira, Notsi, Olo, Orokaiva, Patpatar, Qaqet, Rawa, Suena, Suki, Tokano, Tungag, Uri, Usan, Wiru, Wogeo, Yongkom, Yopno, Zia, Zimakani, Agarabi, Adzera, Aekyo, Abau, Lote, Lihir, Kyaka, Kutong, Kerewo, Jilim, Iyo, Iwal, Imbongu, Hunjara-Kaina Ke, Hula, Gumawana, Gedaged, Gapapaiwa, Fuyug, Fore, Foi, Fasu, Erave, Edolo, Duna, Doromu-koki, Dadawa, Bwanabwana, and Bwaidoka.
Status of some of the languages
The tiny languages do not have a chance of survival, with some of them already extremely endangered while a few are already extinct. Many of the languages that are spoken by older people and grandparents are understood by the parent generation. However, in many cases, they do not speak their language among themselves or to their children. Many of the severely and critically endangered languages are only spoken by the elderly.
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