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Languages in New Guinea

Languages in New Guinea

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.

The 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?

Map of Papau New Guinea

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

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.

New Guinea’s Languages Fall Silent

The tiny island of New Guinea is a hotbed of linguistic diversity. Though the island is only 462,840 square kilometres in size, approximately one sixth of the world’s languages are spoken here. More than 1,000 languages have been counted on: around 800 in Papua New Guinea and 200 on the side of the island controlled by Indonesia.

Still, language death is a problem even here. According to China Daily, many New Guinea languages are in danger of going extinct, especially those spoken by smaller tribes. For example, anthropologist Yoseph Wally told China Daily that based on his experience, on the Indonesian side of the island:

“It’s Indonesian more and more. Only the oldest people still speak in the local dialect,” he said. Certain languages disappeared very quickly, like Muris, which was spoken in an area near here until about 15 years ago.”

In fact, the same factors that created New Guinea’s linguistic diversity are what make many of its languages so vulnerable. Steep mountains and almost impassable terrain kept tribes isolated from each other, encouraging each to develop their own unique language. However, that means that many of New Guinea’s languages were spoken only by small groups to begin with, and when it comes to keeping a language alive, there really is strength in numbers. Read more