Most Languages in One Country

Which country has the highest number of different languages within its borders? Surprisingly, the answer is not China, India or any other large country.

Tiny Papua New Guinea is all of 462,840 square kilometres in size, about as big as the state of California. Despite its small size, it is the most linguistically diverse country on the planet. According to the Ethnologue website, there are approximately 6,912 known living languages in the world today. The exact number is subject to change as new languages are discovered and other languages become extinct. Of those 6,912 languages, 820 of them are spoken in Papua New Guinea.

Can you imagine 820 languages being spoken in one country?

Why so Many?

There are a couple of reasons that New Guinea has so many different languages. For one thing, the island has been occupied by human beings for a long time-at least 40,000 years!

This means that there has been plenty of time for the language or languages spoken by the original settlers to change and mutate. In fact, even though the same group of people populated New Guinea and Australia, after 40,000 years there are very few similarities between native Australian languages and native New Guinea languages. Over the millennia, they have grown so far apart that they are not even considered part of the same language family.

Mountain-Bridge-Papua-New-Guinea-HighlandsThe territory of New Guinea is also extremely fragmented. New Guinea villages are cut off from their neighbours by a variety of obstacles, including steep mountains, dense forests, rivers and treacherous swamps. Because of this fragmentation, New Guinea has many small indigenous groups with vastly different lifestyles, all having lived in relative isolation from each other for thousands and thousands of years.

Small tribes of people live by fishing on the coasts, by farming at higher elevations, and by gathering sago palms for food in the lowland swamps. Over many centuries, each of these tiny groups has developed its own culture and in many cases its own language.

In New Guinea, most languages have a relatively small number of native speakers. The native New Guinea language with the highest number of speakers is Enga, spoken by approximately 165,000 members of a nomadic tribe called the Maramuni. In so many cases, countries are only held together by a common language. In New Guinea, shared land and a shared history as an Australian colony create a tenuous bond between the citizens.

Still, how do they communicate?

New Guinea has 3 official languages: Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu, and English.

Tok Pisin is an English-based Creole, a language that started out as a combination of two different languages and evolved into a distinct language of its own. In New Guinea, around 121,000 people grew up speaking Tok Pisin as a first language, but 4 million of the country’s residents are fluent in it.

If you need to be able to communicate in New Guinea, Tok Pisin is probably the best language to learn. Hiri Motu is a pidgin, a combination of the Motu language with English, Tok Pisin and various other regional languages. Very few people grow up speaking Hiri Motu, but approximately 120,000 New Guineans understand it as a second language. Because it is not spoken as a first language, it cannot be considered a Creole language at this time.

According to the New York Times, one of the world’s languages is lost forever every two weeks. New Guinea’s linguistic diversity has so far been protected by the inaccessibility of much of the country, as well as the fact that many people in New Guinea think of themselves as members of their tribe first and their nation second.

Hopefully, as New Guinea becomes more and more modern in the years to come, its rich linguistic heritage will remain intact. If you need your documents translated into any language, including ones from Papua New Guinea, talk to our specialists!

Top Travel Tip from the New York Times Frugal Traveler: Learn Another Language

If Seth Kugel, the reporter who writes the Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times, were to speak at a high school graduation ceremony, his most important piece of advice would be this: if your plans for adulthood include international travel, learn another language.

In his column, Kugel described how knowing Spanish and Portuguese has made his summer trip across South America much more memorable:

Sure, I could have survived this summer without using Spanish or Portuguese. English speakers are almost everywhere these days, and when they’re not, communicating through gestures and drawings still works (which is why we have charades and Pictionary). But my trip has been made immeasurably more enjoyable, and measurably cheaper, because I’m multilingual….Somewhere down the line, if you can get to even a moderate level of fluency and get yourself overseas, you’ll be allowed into strange and fascinating worlds that you’d otherwise never be able to access.

He’s right, of course. Sure, speaking English means that you can get by as a tourist in almost any part of the world. But knowing the language of the place you are traveling to, even just some of it, is your ticket off the beaten path. Kugel describes some awesome travel experiences that were made possible by being multilingual, such as talking to a Mayan priest in Guatemala and knowing exactly the right obscenities to scream at a greedy cab driver.

On  a more practical level, however, knowing how to speak another language can also help prevent travel headaches and disasters. For example,  during my honeymoon in Italy, knowing some Italian meant that I could call a cab when we the promised transportation from the train station to our vacation rental didn’t materialize. It also meant that once we got to the little town where we’d rented a villa, we could ask for the owner. There’s no doubt about it-travel is better when you can understand what everyone is saying!

Playboy Publishes New English Translation of Madame Bovary

The 154-year-old heroine of Flaubert’s classic French novel Madame Bovary has just been reincarnated as a Playboy Bunny. Yes, that’s right: in October, all of you gentlemen who read Playboy “for the articles” can say you’re reading it “for the classic French literature” instead. According to The Independent, the magazine is publishing a chapter from the latest English translation of the novel, along with a Madame-Bovary-inspired “Playmate of the Month” photo spread.

To help get modern Playboy readers interested in a French novel that’s over a century old, Playboy is hyping the book as “the most scandalous novel” ever published.” Of course, to call that headline an exaggeration would be putting it mildly, as Flaubert scholar  Professor Yvan Leclerc pointed out in the Independent:

“Personally, I am amused, and delighted, that Madame Bovary should appear in Playboy. As far as I am concerned, the more people that read Flaubert the better. However, I was a little startled to see that Playboy, no doubt for commercial reasons, advertises Madame Bovary on its cover as the ‘most scandalous novel of all time’ More scandalous than the Marquis de Sade? Or a thousand works of extreme modern erotica? Hardly.”

Well, it may not be the most scandalous novel of all time, but if you enjoy literature, there are good reasons to get excited about the new translation. This latest version was translated by American novelist Lydia Davis, a well-regarded writer in her own right who is also known for her translation of Proust. When preparing this translation, Ms. Davis explains that, unlike earlier translations, she tried to stay as close to the original novel as possible while still capturing the beauty of Flaubert’s prose:

“I’ve found the ones that are written with some flair and some life to them are not all that close to the original. The ones that are more faithful may be kind of clunky. So what I’m trying to do is what I think hasn’t been done, which is to create a well-written translation that’s also very close, very faithful to the French.”

How Language Affects Thought

There was an interesting article by Guy Deutscher in the New York Times last week about how the language we grow up speaking affects the way we think and the way we perceive the world around us. Linguists used to believe that our thoughts were constricted by the limits of our native tongue-for example, it was believed that people who spoke languages without a future tense for verbs could not understand the concept of the future.  That’s simply not true; the human brain is amazingly capable of learning new concepts and processing new information.

But according to Deutscher, language does shape how we see the world by shaping the way we think about and interact with our environment and the things in it.  For example, English speakers for the most part don’t think about whether an inanimate object is “male” or “female.” However, people who speak languages like French and Spanish have to think about inanimate objects as having a gender, and this consequently influences how they describe these objects.

Another example: in some languages, instead of using directions like “right” and “left,” all directions are given as cardinal directions, like north, south, east or west. Native speakers of these languages develop a keen sense of direction, one that seems almost supernatural to people who are used to saying “to your right” or “to your left.” In order to accurately describe their world, they have to.

What does all of this mean? According to Deutscher, looking at how language shapes the way we think about and experience the world can help us better understand each other:

“We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.”

That Chinese Tattoo: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Chinese characters are so much more beautiful, so much more elegant than the boring old Latin alphabet. Or at least that seems to be the train of thought behind the ubiquitous Chinese tattoos that have been popping up on the bodies of young, English-speaking Westerners over the past few years.

Granted, Chinese characters are a lot more classy than, say, a buxom half-naked lady or a dragon fighting a wizard for the Ring of Power.  The main problem is that the people requesting the tattoos can’t read Chinese. Sometimes, even the tattoo artist can’t read Chinese. So, people end up branding themselves with symbols that don’t express the meanings they were intended to.

In fact, this is such a common problem that there is actually a blog devoted to translating Chinese tattoos. Hanzi Smatter is “dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture.” Simply send the writer a picture of your tat, and he’ll provide you with the proper translation. Reading through the entries, it’s clear that there is a lot of misbegotten Chinese skin art floating around out there. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

To a young woman who thought she had the Chinese symbol for “beauty” tattooed on her arm:
“災 means “calamity, disaster, catastrophe”, and definitely not “beauty”, which is 美.” Whoops!

To another reader who unfortunately didn’t begin to wonder if her tattoo artist knew what he was talking about until after the fact:
“Carla is another person with gibberish faux Chinese tattooed on her back.”

To a reader who tattooed himself while apprenticing at a tattoo parlor:
“First of all, the top character 苦 is upside down. Bottom characters 阿呆 means “fool, idiot”. The tattoo is very fitting & means “bitter [or suffering] idiot”.

To the friend of a gentleman who got a tattoo while drunk and woke up wondering what the symbols etched on his arm meant:
“Why would anyone be proud of tattoo that says: “to commit any imaginable evil”?”

The moral of these sad stories? Do your research before getting a tattoo and use a professional Chinese or Japanese translation, or risk being branded an idiot for life!

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