New Guinea’s Languages Fall Silent

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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.

Nico, the curator of the museum at  Cendrawasih University, explained that:

“Every time someone dies, a little part of the language dies too because only the oldest people still use it.”

What are the younger people speaking? As mentioned earlier, it’s Indonesian on the Indonesian side of the island. In Papua New Guinea, on the other hand, it’s English.

Still, Mr. Wally told China Daily he sees a glimmer of hope, in that indigenous languages are still used during traditional celebrations, so young people

“will want to discover the language to understand the meaning of the songs”.