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.

9 replies
  1. Sam
    Sam says:

    This would mean Port Moresby is the most multilingual city in the world. 850 local languages plus another500 plus coming from outside

  2. Maxwell Norris
    Maxwell Norris says:

    Hiri Motu is definately a Pidgin language, but not a language derived from a combination of Motu, English, Tok Pisin and various other languages as you have stated.

    Hiri Motu is spoken by people from the southern part of PNG and it is derived solely from Pure Motu, which is the language spoken by the indiginous people called Motuans who’s villages are situated along the coastline of Port Moresby.

    Hiri Motu came into existance during the Hiri Trade when the Motuan People travelled to the south-west of PNG to trade with the people of the Gulf Province who for your information have there own native language.

    Just thought I make the clarification.
    Proud Motuan.

  3. Minu
    Minu says:

    According to the most recent census of 2001, there are 1365 rationalised mother tongues, 234 identifiable mother-tongues and 122 major languages. Of these, 29 languages have more than a million native speakers, 60 have more than 100,000 and 122 have more than 10,000 native speakers. There are a few languages like Kodava and Tulu that do not have a script but have a group of native speakers in Coorg (Kodagu) and Dakshina Kannada

  4. Colin Richardson
    Colin Richardson says:

    Maxwell is nearly correct. It is a popular story that Hiri Motu derived from the Hiri trading voyages to the Gulf. Hence the name, rebadged from “Police Motu”. However, as Tom Dutton points out in his book, “Police Motu Iena Sivarai”, it does not include words borrowed from Gulf languages, as would be expected, and very little from the more local Koitabu. It is in fact almost all Motu, but with a hugely simplified grammar and more limited vocabulary. It would seem to have developed for more local communication, and was spread throughout Papua by the Australian admin in the late 1800s onwards as the Lingua Franca of the police, and was taken up by the populations for convenience. Tok Pisin made little inroads into the southern (Papuan) regions until after independence, with large migrations to urban areas by northerners and highlanders. Certainly when I was a kid in Papua in the 1960s Tok Pisin was little used. We only used what us now called Hiri Motu.
    Regarding Tok Pisin, it is NOT a mix of two languages. It has words deriving from English, of course, but many words deriving from Tolai, German and other PNG languages, as well as English, with other borrowings from more international pidgins whose words derived from many languages. “Save” (Savvy) is derived from Portuguese, as is Pikinini (“pequeno nino).
    What is interesting is that PNG languages are commonly divided into Austronesian and non-Austronesian. The latter is just a grab bag for everything else. Many of the latter are not related to each other, and can be as distinct as, for example, as Arabic is from Zulu! For example, Motu has an extensive 10-base counting system, while Oriomo (Western Province) has a limited 5- base counting system.
    Anyway, a fascinating topic. Amamas tumas painim dispels toktok! Moale bada herea inai sivarai lau davaria.
    Gulf ena mero – manggi bilong Gulf

  5. Big Tony
    Big Tony says:

    Sadly tok ples (vernacular languages) are rapidly being displaced and forgotten by both Tok Pisin and English. Even in the remotest corners of the country it is increasingly common for children to use Tok Pisin and English instead of their Tok Ples in everyday parlance, a process motivated and sustained by the continuing incursion of national and global cultural forms into these areas such as Christianity, modern pop music, American films, late capitalist enterprises, and so forth. While the languages continue to be known, their richness and their complex idiomatic structures are now largely lost, known only by a handful of elders.

  6. James S
    James S says:

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