How primitive are PNG languages?

During the early colonial period, it was not uncommon for Europeans to talk about Melanesians and their languages as “primitive”. We have to wonder how they could come to such a conclusion, since very few of them ever learned a language of Melanesia. Nevertheless, attitudes such as this have continued into our post-colonial present, so that some parents think it is better to speak English with their children rather than their ancestral languages, because English is somehow “developed” and their own language “primitive”. Someone who speakers three local languages is not thought of as special, but someone who speaks German or Japanese is thought to be extremely skilled. Are there any grounds for thinking that PNG languages are more primitive than the languages of Europe or Asia?

Human languages are made of sounds, grammar, and vocabulary. Let us look at each of these separately.

Humans are able to make a huge number of sounds. Each language community chooses some of these sounds to use and groups them together, some making distinctions that other languages do not. Some Highlands languages, for example, do not make a distinction between “p” and “f” like English does. English, on the other hand, does not differentiate between the strong “p” in “Peter” and the almost silent “p” in “stop” like Korean does.

Languages in PNG differ greatly in the number of sounds they differentiate. Some make many more distinctions in their sound inventories than English, while others make far fewer. At least one, Ma Manda in the Finisterre Mountains of Morobe, has features in its sound system that have not been recorded in any other language in the world (rules for making some consonants nasal in certain environments).

Does a small number of sounds show superiority because it is more efficient? Does having a unique phonological feature make the Ma Manda language superior to all other languages? Does having a very large number of distinct sounds mean that a language is superior to other languages?

PNG languages are certainly very different from one another, with some being more complex than the world’s average, and others less complex, but none has difficulty being a vehicle for human thought.

In terms of grammar, human languages differ greatly in the types of grammatical constructions they have and how they express the relationships between words in a sentence. Tok Pisin, for example, like many other PNG languages, differentiates between two types of “we”: “yumi” when “we” includes the speaker and “mipela” when it does not. English does not make this difference, but English does differentiate between males, females, and non-gendered references with “he”, “she”, and “it”, whereas, like many other PNG languages, Tok Pisin makes do with only one pronoun, “em”.

These examples show that, although we can say that there are significant differences between the grammatical constructions possible in one or another language, we cannot say that overall the grammar of one language is more or less advanced than another. Some of the types of grammatical constructions in non-Austronesian PNG languages are extremely rare among the world’s languages, which is one reason why linguists from around the world come to PNG to study its languages.

Vocabulary is the area that most people think of when they think of a language being primitive or not. They correctly point out that Papua New Guinean languages often lack words for modern technology such as mobile phones and laptops —although I do know of one PNG language that has adopted the local word for “little mischievous jungle spirit” for laptops, because sometimes they are helpful, but sometimes they give us headaches!

It is common in any society to borrow words for new technologies, ideas, or plants along with the new items themselves. English itself has done this when English speakers adopted algebra (from Arabic “al jebr”), baptism (from Greek “baptizein”), and chocolate (from “chocolatl” in the Nahuatl language of Mexico). Indeed, English is still doing this by adopting “bilum”, “kundu”, and “wantok system” from Tok Pisin.

It is possible to talk about almost any idea in any language, but in any one language there will be a word that clearly and concisely wraps up an idea or feeling that requires a whole sentence in another language. The English word “justice”, for example, needs a long explanation to be fully expressed in many PNG languages (“the equitable and transparent delivery of a society’s rewards, punishments, and protections”).

But by the same token, there are words in some PNG languages that need a long explanation in English. The Nalik language of New Ireland for example, has one word that requires a whole phrase in English: “the dawning point of the first moment of the creation of the universe”. It also has two separate words for English “love”, one that means “love given in the full expectation that it will be reciprocated” (such as the love a child expresses to its mother), and one that means “love given without knowing if we can expect it to be reciprocated” (such as the love we have when we are just trying to start a new romance).

From this discussion we can see that languages differ greatly in the number of sounds they use to make words, in the complexity of one or another part of their grammatical system, and in the way certain areas have greater or lesser specific vocabulary. But while we can say that languages differ in the levels of complexity of one or another aspect, we cannot say that overall some are more or less developed or more or less primitive. All languages are complex in certain ways and less complex in others. This includes Papua New Guinean languages, which are certainly not more primitive than languages elsewhere.

Why can’t my child learn to read?

One of the most frustrating things for educated parents to deal with is when their child does not learn to read. When the child is obviously intelligent in other ways, following directions or solving puzzles, but is just unable to learn how to read, the parents may blame the teachers, or get angry with the child for being “lazy”. They might even hit the child for not paying attention in school. 

While it’s true that there are sometimes poor teachers and lazy children, parents should consider if the problem is not caused by dyslexia. Dyslexia is a condition of the nerves and brain that interferes with the decoding of letters into words and sentences. Blaming a child with dyslexia for being unable to read is just as bad as getting angry with a blind child for being unable to see or a deaf child for being unable to hear. 

There are different types and degrees of dyslexia. Perhaps a fifth of all children have at least mild forms of dyslexia, and there is some evidence that boys are affected more than girls. In the most severe cases, the child just doesn’t get the idea of linking writing and sound at all, and the whole idea of reading remains a mystery they cannot understand, even though they show high intelligence in other areas, such as oral comprehension or oral mathematics. In more common and less severe cases, the child will confuse similar letters, such as “b” and “d”, or be unable to combine individual letters into words. Sometimes the child will be unable to read consistently in the same direction, confusing “tap” and “pat”, or understanding a written sentence like “Peter saw Susan buying the rice” as “Susan buys Peter seeing rice”.

Dyslexia exists in all societies, but the writing systems of some languages make the problem more difficult in some languages than others. It seems that because the problem is linked to a confusion of sound and letter correspondence, and because dyslexic children do not have problems drawing pictures, languages such as Chinese, where the characters stand for words and ideas rather than individual sounds, are easier for dyslexic children to learn to read than languages such as English, where the written symbols represent sounds and are not linked to any kind of a picture. Evidence for this comes from the experience of dyslexic children in Japan. Japanese has three different writing systems. One system is derived from Chinese, where a character is a little drawing that stands for an idea and not necessarily a sound. It is like drawing a little abstract picture for each word. Dyslexic children can usually learn these. They have much more difficulty with the other two systems, which are based on abstract symbols representing the sounds of syllables, and have the most trouble with the European alphabet, where each letter stands for an individual sound. 

There are therefore relatively few dyslexic children in China and Japan compared to Western countries, which use an alphabet system of writing with letters representing individual sounds, which are joined to form words. In some Western countries, dyslexia is recognised as a physical handicap, like blindness or deafness. Because dyslexic people are often very intelligent and with good memories, they can learn well by listening and speaking if they are given the right kind of support. In these countries, the government provides dyslexic children with interpreters, who read their school books to them and write down what they want to say. In the United States, one dyslexic man even studied law and became a lawyer in this way, even though he needed an interpreter to read to him and to write down the university essays and reports he dictated orally.

While we still do not know exactly what the causes of dyslexia are, specialists have developed diagnostic tests to identify children at an early age so that their education can be geared towards their special needs. There are even tests online for parents to use when their children are having reading problems to see if they are caused by dyslexia.

In Papua New Guinea, where most children learn to read in English, a language they don’t speak at home, a heavy emphasis on reading before they become completely fluent in English means dyslexic children are taught using techniques that will never help them to develop fluency. It also means that the tools that have been developed for diagnosing dyslexia in countries where English is the native language cannot be used to diagnose Papua New Guinean children who do not yet speak English fluently. 

In this country, children who are suspected of having dyslexia can be helped by developing oral fluency in English as soon as possible without relying on books or writing. Once their English is fluent, they can be tested for dyslexia and diagnosed using the same tools that are used in English-speaking countries.

Another useful tool can be teaching them to read in their own language. While this will not help children with strong cases of dyslexia, for children with mild dyslexia, separating the issue of linking sounds to letters from the issue of learning a foreign language can sometimes be enough to develop literacy in their own language that can be transferred to English later on. 

In either situation, it is important to try to use dyslexic children’s natural eagerness to learn and ability to follow oral instruction to educate them using techniques suited to their abilities. It is important never to blame the children for a situation that is not their fault. Reading can be very stressful for dyslexic children, so it is important to lessen the stress related to reading as much as possible.

Where do Tok Pisin words come from?


The historical connection between English and Tok Pisin is obvious. This is why we often call Tok Pisin “Pidgin English”. But where do all the non-English words come from and why are even many English words used differently in Tok Pisin than in English?


The vast majority of Tok Pisin words come from English, although often their meaning has changed. Sometimes the change is the softening of an English swear word. The first English speakers Pacific Islanders encountered were sailors, who were not hesitant to use swear words. The Pacific Islanders who met them could not tell a swear word from a harmless word, so they ended up using expressions such as “mi bagarap” (from English “buggered” or “buggery”, an old rude word for “sodomy”) and “sit bilong paia” (literally, the “shit of the fire”) for “ashes”.


Some English expressions were drastically shortened Perhaps the best example of this is “olsem” (“like”, “similar”), which is how early Pacific Islanders heard “all the same”. The English language has changed since the 1800s, so some English words used then which made their way into Tok Pisin are no longer used in modern English. We no longer use “gammon”, for example, which became Tok Pisin “giaman”, or “by and by”, which first became the marker of future action “baimbai”,later shortened to “bai” and today even “ba”.
Other English words were used by Melanesians with meanings from their own languages. In many languages, the word for “brother” means “a sibling of the same sex” and the word for “sister” means “a sibling of the opposite sex”. Early Tok Pisin speakers used the same meanings, so that a woman would speak of “brata bilong mi, Maria” and “susa bilong mi, Adam”. Similarly, in many areas we speak of “ai bilong haus” (literally “eye of the house”) for “the front door” or “front yard”, a literal translation from Austronesian languages. Pacific wordings such as this show that Tok Pisin was a creation by Pacific Islanders and not, as some people still believe, something consciously taught or introduced by Germans or other Europeans.


Even though the Portuguese never colonised Melanesia, Tok Pisin has several words from Portuguese, such as “save” (Portuguese “saber” / “know”), “pikinini” (Portuguese “pequeno” / “small”). These are common to pidgin and creole languages around the world and reflect the early pidgin Portuguese varieties that developed wherever the Portuguese settled in Asia. In later years, English-speaking sailors came in contact with these varieties and tried to use these words whenever they came across people with whom they could not communicate. The first Melanesians they encountered could not, of course, tell the difference between the Portuguese and English words they heard from the sailors’ mouths and so took up save and pikinini along with English words.


The first speakers of Tok Pisin were Austronesian speakers who found that they could use words that were common in Austronesian languages when speaking to speakers of other Austronesian speakers in Tok Pisin. This is how words common across many Austronesian languages, including Malay, such as “susu” (“milk”, “breast”) entered the language. When Malay-speaking workers were brought to the Gazelle Peninsula and plantations in Madang, they also brought other Malay words, such as “binatang”, which means “animal” in Malay, but “insect” in Tok Pisin. Perhaps this was because they thought New Guinea insects were as fierce as the tigers and elephants back home?


New Guinea was colonised by Germany, with the colonial capital in Kokopo. It is therefore not surprising that early Tok Pisin has many German and Kuanua (Tolai) words. At one time most of the words for tools and household items came from German. Later as generations of Papua New Guineans have had education in English, most words adapted from German, such as “srang” (closet, cupboard) and “hebel” (lever) have been replaced by English words. Nevertheless, there are still a number of German-derived words in Tok Pisin, such as “tabak” (tobacco) and, in some areas, “beten” (pray).


As the centre of Tok Pisin has moved away from the Gazelle Peninsula, many words of Tolai origin, such as “limlimbur” have been replaced by words from English (“wokabaut”). Many words from Kuanua and New Ireland languages related to it do remain, however, especially those such as masalai (spirit) and “kulau” (young coconut) that describe things that are particularly Melanesian and not European.


Christianity was introduced to Melanesia around the same time that Melanesians were developing Tok Pisin to speak to each other. The languages of the early missionaries brought a number of words still used in church circles today. German beten has already been mentioned. Other words include “bogen” (arch) from German, “pater” (priest) from Latin, as well as “lotu” (religion) and “talatala” (preacher) from Polynesian languages.


The origins of two common words, “maski” (never mind) and “sanguma” (sorcerer, sorcery) have long been difficult to ascertain. Dr Karl Franklin of SIL has found evidence that “maski” comes from an expression in a southern Chinese language that made its way into the pidgin Portuguese of Macau and later the pidgin English of Hong Kong. Sailors stopping at those ports picked up the expression and used it on the first ships that came to Melanesia.


“Sanguma” is still a mystery. An almost identical word with the same meaning, “sangoma”, is commonly used in southern Africa today. It is quite possible that German colonial workers travelling between German Southwest Africa (today Namibia) and German New Guinea carried the word from one of their colonies to the other, but there is no evidence to back up this hypothesis.

As we have seen, while English has been the basis for Tok Pisin vocabulary, Tok Pisin speakers have adapted these words to fit their way of speaking and thinking, while at the same time also adopting words from other languages that they spoke or encountered. Tok Pisin is very much a Melanesian creation, but it can trace the roots of its vocabulary to languages from around the world.

What is the language situation in Indonesia?

Anyone reading this will be aware that Papua New Guinea has more languages than any other country. But not everyone may know which country has the second-largest number of languages: Indonesia. SIL’s Ethnologue listing of languages records 707 living languages in Indonesia (compared to PNG with 853 and number three Nigeria with 526 languages). Of these roughly half are in the Melanesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.


Most parts of Papua New Guinea are united linguistically by Tok Pisin. Similarly, Indonesia has a common language that is spoken by a majority of its citizenship. In English we call this language “Indonesian”. Indonesians call it “Bahasa Indonesia”. In PNG some people call it “Bahasa”, but in Indonesian itself “bahasa” just means “language” (like “tok” in “Tok Pisin”), so “Bahasa Indonesia” means “the Indonesian language”.


But while Papua New Guineans continue to use the colonial language, English, for education and government administration, when Indonesia attained independence it immediately dropped the language of its Dutch colonial masters. This was a reaction against the brutality and racism of centuries of Dutch colonial rule and of the fighting against the Dutch who tried to block Indonesian independence after World War II. For many years the government even made it illegal to use Dutch in radio, publications, or schools.
Indonesian is based on Malay, which was used as a common language by traders and Muslim and Christian missionaries before and during the long Dutch colonial period. It is written with the European alphabet, with the government setting the official spellings of words. Indonesian is basically the same language as Malaysian Malay, and in 1972 the Indonesian and Malaysian governments agreed on a common spelling to make books written in either Indonesian or Malaysian Malay accessible to readers in both countries.


Indonesian is the language of public education, so it is spoken by people in all areas of the country, including Papua and West Papua, where it is even used as the common language of groups such as the OPM who are campaigning for a Papua that is independent of Indonesia. Just as an increasing number of Papua New Guinean families with mixed backgrounds or who live in urban areas use Tok Pisin as a home language, around a fifth of all households in Indonesia now use Indonesian rather than a local language at home.


These local languages have very different histories and levels of social importance. The language spoken by the largest number of people is Javanese, with more than 68 million speakers. Three other local languages (Sundanese, Malay, and Madurese) each have more speakers than the entire population of PNG. These large numbers of speakers contrast with the small number of speakers of many other local languages such as Skou (700), spoken in the border area near Vanimo, or Amahai (50), spoken in the Moluccan Islands. Some languages, such as Balinese, Sundanese, or Javanese, have long histories of written literature with their own alphabets, while some smaller languages, especially those in Papua, still have no formal system of writing.


In contrast to the Papua New Guinean government, the Indonesian national and regional governments give recognition and support for local languages. While documents and signs from the national government are in Indonesian, signs from local governments, such as road signs or signs outside provincial or municipal offices, are often bilingual. This is especially common in Bali and Java, where the languages are written in their own alphabets.


While the language of education in all public schools is Indonesian, in theory schools should teach students the language of the area where they live for several hours a week. In a few areas, local languages are taught from grade one until the end of high school, while in many areas this is done only in the first three years of schooling. In some areas, however, where language groups tend to be small and without written literature, especially in Papua and other areas of eastern Indonesia, schools still have not implemented local language classes. 

The local language used in schools is chosen because it is the original language of the area. This means that in ethnically mixed urban centres, where many or even most students come from other areas, children often learn a language that is not the language spoken at home. Recently this has become a matter for community discussion when the local language of Jayapura was chosen for introduction as a primary school subject, even though most residents of Jayapura are not even Melanesian at all.


In contrast to PNG, the Indonesian government plays an important part in the development and documentation of both Indonesian and local languages. In PNG, the only dictionaries of Tok Pisin are those released by overseas publishers. In Indonesia, not only does the government itself publish dictionaries of Indonesian, it has a language centre with linguists whose work it is to regulate spelling and coin new Indonesian words for new technology and institutions. Directly through this centre and local governments, and indirectly through grants to universities, it also supports the compilation of dictionaries of local languages and the production of textbooks in local languages. In PNG these tasks are carried out by missionary translators or scholars from foreign countries. It is ironic that the Indonesian government has actually done more to document the languages of Indonesian Papua than the government of independent PNG has for the languages spoken here.


What the PNG government does do more energetically than the Indonesian government is to support English education. In Indonesia, English education is compulsory in public schools for only several hours a week in the last three years of high school, and is offered as an optional subject in only some primary schools. Many highly educated Indonesians cannot communicate in English; I have found that even in meetings with university professors and administrators in Indonesia, I often need an interpreter. Persons in Jayapura have told me how they envy the high level of English that they see when they go across the border to Vanimo.


It is interesting to see how history and national ideology have resulted in two very different approaches to language use and language planning in the two most multilingual countries in the world. While Indonesia has emphasised local languages and the national lingua franca, PNG has emphasised English, the most widely spoken international language and the language of its colonial master. There is much that each country can learn from the other.

Why do some languages like Enga have many speakers while others have only a few speakers?

Of all the roughly 850 languages in Papua New Guinea, more people speak Enga than any other indigenous language. With around 250,000 native speakers, it has more than the 8,200 speakers a PNG language has on average, and far more than the 350 speakers Fembe in Western Province or the 7 speakers Kamasa in Morobe Province has. A pidginised form of Enga is even used as a common second language among speakers of the various Arafundi languages in the upper Sepik River system. Enga is spread over such a large area that Enga Province is the closest that any PNG province gets to being monolingual. What makes a language such as Enga have so many speakers, while other languages have so few speakers?

Many factors help a language to gain speakers. The most obvious is population growth fuelled by efficient gardening. It is not a coincidence that the largest language groups in the country are found in areas where the soil is fertile and gardening is strong, such as in the Highlands or the Gazelle Peninsula. Good agricultural practices means more children grow to adulthood who need more space for more gardens. Engans are famous for being good gardeners and they live in a relatively cool climate, enabling their growing families to survive better than their neighbours who may not have had such efficient gardening techniques in the past.

Growing families need more land for their gardens. This leads to another reason why language groups such as Enga expand: in the past speakers of these languages were successful in warfare. Whether because of population pressure or just a desire to dominate, members of groups who kill or subjugate other groups will expand the territory and number of speakers of their language. Even if they do not kill the speakers of the area they conquer, the people they rule find it useful to learn their language. Power politics determine that it is far more common for subordinate people to learn their rulers’ language than the other way around.

But contact between groups does not always need to involve warfare or conflict. Another reason why languages spread is because other groups want access to the advanced technology or perceived cultural influence of their speakers. People in other groups learn the languages of groups with advanced technology or whose culture they admire. Often these bilingual members marry into the group or gradually start speaking the new language instead of their own. Their own language dies out, at least in that area, and the number of native speakers of the new language grows. 

All people have taboos about marrying people who are close relatives. When a language group becomes too small, there might not be any people of the opposite sex and of the right age to marry–or at least no one attractive enough! In that case it is natural to marry outside the group. In such families, the children will normally speak the language of the parent from the larger group better than the language of the parent from the smaller language. The grandchildren may end up not speaking the smaller language at all. We can assume that many of the smaller languages spoken near Enga have died out for this reason.

What all this means is that not all speakers of a language are necessarily descended from the first people who spoke the language. Many times they may be mixed descendants or the descendants of other groups who changed their language for one reason or another. As the language group becomes larger and gains more prestige, this process becomes more and more accelerated.

This is a process that applies to introduced languages as well as indigenous languages. We can see this with English in PNG, for example. Two hundred years ago there were no English speakers in PNG, but today many people learn English in or out of school, and a small but growing number of Papua New Guineans now have English as their first language. English-speakers first came to PNG looking for natural resources to exploit. A small number of them stayed, with their descendants among those Papua New Guineans who have English as a first language. But a larger group of people use English today because their parents or grandparents wanted access to the technology or culture of the newcomers. As they used English more and more, it became a household language, with children growing up speaking it as their first language. Just as the Enga language spread in the past, the English language is spreading today.

The reasons for the growth of one language over another may vary, but what they all have in common is the relative stronger power of the speakers of one language over the lesser power of the speakers of another language. When we see a language such as Enga spread over such a large area and with so many speakers, we know that at some point in its recent or distant past, factors such as warfare, superior technology, perceived cultural superiority, or contact with much smaller language groups have helped the language to grow and acquire more speakers. 

How do we know if two languages are related?

People sometimes ask me how they can tell if their language is “related” to another language. This is something we can measure and test using long established linguistic principles. But what exactly do we mean by languages being related?

It helps to think of languages and their relationships as being similar to human beings and their relationships. Think about your relationship with your brothers and sisters, cousins, and neighbours. You are very closely related to your brothers and sisters because you share the same parents and therefore almost all the same DNA. You also share a lot of shared history because you grew up with the same household rules, food, and behaviour. Your relationship with your cousins is also close, even though it is less strong than your relationship with your siblings. You share DNA (although less than with your siblings), family history (although at the grandparent, and not parent, level), and many of the same family rules and behaviour. Your relation with your neighbours is different. You probably don’t share any close DNA or family history with them, but your family and they may have traded tools or dinner recipes and spent so much time together that you think of them as relatives even if they are not.

Languages have the same relationships. Languages are in constant change. When people are in close proximity and feel they are members of the same group, their speech tends to change all in the same direction, and they remain one language community. But when groups of people split up and live in isolation from one another, their speech changes in different ways, eventually becoming different languages.

Some languages have a common ancestor from the near past, so we call them sister languages. The Kuanua language of the Gazelle Peninsula of East New Britain and the Ramoaaina language of the Duke of York Islands, for example, separated from each other only a relatively short time ago, so these sister languages share many similarities. They are both related to the languages of southern New Ireland, where the ancestors of their current speakers came from, but while this relationship is noticeable, it is less close than the one between Kuanua and Ramoaaina. Kuanua and Ramoaaina are like sisters, while the southern New Ireland languages are like their cousins.

Tolais and Bainings have lived next to each other ever since the ancestors of the Tolais migrated to New Britain, so it is not surprising that they have shared words back and forth. But this relationship is weak and not a genetic one. They are neighbouring, but unrelated, languages.

Linguists look at vocabulary more than grammar to establish how languages are genetically related, because grammar gets borrowed much more easily than vocabulary. The Austronesian languages, for example, historically have a subject-verb-direct object word order. But when the ancestors of the Motu people migrated to their present home and came in contact with languages there where the word order has the verb at the end of the sentence, they gradually changed their grammar to subject-direct object-verb. This is just like a Highlander learning how to make aigir from her Tolai neighbour. She might learn Tolai cooking techniques, but she remains a Highlander and is not suddenly a member of her Tolai neighbour’s family.

Some types of vocabulary change more easily than others and are more resistant to borrowing. The more intimate the item–family, body parts, or basic words for the environment–the less likely the word is to change or be borrowed completely from another language. For example, if your language has a word for “father” similar to “tama”, a word similar for “breast” similar to “susu”, or a word for “five” and/or “hand” similar to “lima”,  your language is probably a member of the widespread Austronesian language family. These common words have remained little changed over thousands of years, even though speakers of Austronesian languages have migrated to cover half the southern hemisphere from Madagascar to Tahiti.

Linguists compare 100 to 200 common words using lists such as the one developed by the American linguist Morris Swadesh in the 1950s to look for similarities and patterns between languages. Sometimes the similarities are there, but not immediately obvious. For example, when the ancestor of the languages of northeastern Europe became isolated from their neighbours, they gradually changed a “p” sound at the beginning of a word to an “f” sound. Thus we have English speakers in northern Europe saying “father” and “fish”, but Latin speakers in southern Europe saying “pater” and “piscis”. Linguists look for these kinds of regular sound shift patterns to see how closely or distant related languages are.

Of course, just as some unfortunate people are orphans without any living relatives, some languages have no known living languages with which they share a common ancestor. These are called language isolates. This may be because for one reason or another, any related languages have died out, or it may be because these languages have been separate for so long that it is no longer possible to find connections with other languages.

A good place to see the current stage of linguistic research into the relationship your language has with other languages is to look up your language at http://www.ethnologue.com or Wikipedia (which has results usually gleaned from the http://www.ethnologue.com website). There you will find diagrams and explanations listing the languages that are known to be closely related to yours as well as the larger language family to which your language belongs.

If you have friends who speak different languages, you and your friends can also conduct your own linguistic research by comparing words from languages you speak using a version of the Swadesh list that you can find at http://ielex.mpi.nl./wordlist/all/. How many words are similar? Are you and your friends linguistic siblings, linguistic cousins, or just neighbours?

What are PNG church lingua francas?

Reader Solange Metta wrote recently to talk about her surprise when recording songs at her home in Moveave Village in Gulf that some songs contained words that were not in her native Toaripi language. Investigating further into oral history, Solange learned that originally people in that area had spoken a different language, which they called Tati Siravi, but London Missionary Society (LMS) missionaries encouraged people to favour Toaripi over their own language. Solange wrote to ask if I could explain why and how this happened.

The use of one language to the exclusion of others was not limited to the LMS missionaries. The same practice was found throughout the country during the colonial period. Before missionaries came to PNG, they had had much experience in Latin America, Africa, and Polynesia. Those areas tended to have large political units where one language was already established as the official language. Often it was also the native language of all or most people. Melanesia with its incredible diversity of languages was a completely different linguistic environment. As one German missionary said, “This is the Tower of Babel on earth”.


At first the missionaries did what they had done elsewhere, learning the local language, preparing a writing system for it, and starting to translate Christian scriptures into it. But they soon found out they just didn’t have the human resources to do this for all the hundreds of languages they were encountering. They did realise that Melanesians grow up acquiring good language learning skills and that many of the languages were related to each other. It was obviously easier for Melanesians to learn one of their own languages than for foreign missionaries to learn all the hundreds of languages Melanesians spoke. With this in mind, they decided in many areas that the new converts would learn one local language that would also be learned by the overseas missionaries. The missionaries would devote their energy to producing written materials and schools in that one language to the exclusion of other languages in the area.


In this way the LMS missionaries worked with Motu and Toaripi in the central Papuan region, and Dobu in certain island and coastal areas of Milne Bay. In the mainland areas of German New Guinea, Lutheran missionaries chose Yabêm as a common language for church activities in areas where Austronesian languages were spoken, and Kâte in the much more widespread areas where non-Austronesian (“Papuan”) languages were spoken. Both Catholic and Methodist missionaries chose the Kuanua language of the Tolais for their work in the New Guinea Islands.

In a way this was a repetition of what had been done in Europe itself when Christianity was first establishing itself there. Rather than producing literature in the many languages spoken in Europe, for centuries the Latin language was learned everywhere in Europe as a common language for church use and by educated persons speaking different languages. Arabic served a similar purpose in Muslim areas from Spain to India.

Today we call these languages “church lingua franca”. A lingua franca is a language that is a common language for speakers of many languages. They are “church lingua franca” because they were favoured and spread by missionaries moving into new areas.

These languages remain among the best documented languages in Papua New Guinea. The early missionaries developed dictionaries and grammars for their overseas missionaries to use, and both religious and secular texts to use in worship and schools. They also developed specialised vocabulary in these languages to express central ideas of Christian theology that they wanted their converts to understand. Often these words or translations based on these words found their way into many of the surrounding languages. In particular, the word for “God” (in a Christian sense) in many local languages comes from the word that was adopted for use in these church lingua franca.
Of course, once people mixed, and communication between groups was firmly established, people who learned these languages for religious purposes used them for other fields as well, such as in markets, when dealing with government officials, or after moving to new areas for plantation or other employment. Most important of all for historians, the first writing by Papua New Guineans is often in these languages.


Perhaps the language that was most widely used for these purposes was Kâte. Originally spoken by only a few people along the coast, it was spread by Lutheran missionaries throughout the many areas of the Highlands where they established missionary stations. The German Lutherans developed an extensive system of schools using Kâte, which strengthened its use as a vehicle over a wide area for modernisation and inter-ethnic communication as well as church activities.

Eventually as Tok Pisin and Police Motu spread and government authority followed missionary expansion, Tok Pisin and Police Motu became languages that people could use even further beyond their own regions. People realised the greater practical value of these lingua franca and gradually used these languages more than the church lingua franca, whose use was limited geographically. Eventually Tok Pisin and English as well as, to a lesser extent, Police Motu, became used in churches as well so that the use of church lingua franca died out even in purely church situations.

The legacy of these church lingua franca remains today, however. In some areas, as Solange Metta learned, the use of church lingua franca was so powerful that some people in small language groups stopped using their own languages completely and adopted the church lingua franca  to use at home instead. In other areas, hymns and parts of the worship service remained in the church lingua franca long after the languages themselves were no longer in general use. In New Ireland, for example, Methodist/ United Church hymns continued to be sung mainly in Kuanua until just a few years ago.

For people interested in what Papua New Guineans thought during the early colonial era, the writings of the few literate people of a hundred years ago area are usually found in these church lingua franca. Although sometimes edited and censored by foreign missionaries, their writings provide a glimpse into indigenous thought at a time when Melanesian society was changing rapidly in many ways. While no longer widely spoken today, these lingua franca were instrumental in the formation of modern Papua New Guinean society.

What languages do you need to work at the UN?

Some years ago I was advising a very talented Papua New Guinean student who had studied in Japan and wanted to work at the United Nations headquarters in New York. She had worked hard to become fluent in Japanese and assumed this would help her application. She was dismayed to learn that it didn’t, and that she would have to learn yet another language to apply to be a United Nations public servant.

What then are the official languages of the United Nations, and why isn’t Japanese, the language of such a rich and powerful country, not one of them? To answer this question we need to look at the history of the UN and the circumstances that led to its creation. It was started as a group of allied countries working together to defeat the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II. When the UN was officially organised, the languages of the three enemy nations were, of course, not thought to be important. Instead, the national languages of the major allied countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and China) were chosen, together with Spanish, the dominant language in the Americas. In this way English, French, Russian, Chinese, and Spanish became the five official languages of the major UN bodies after World War II. Two decades later, as the number of independent Arab countries increased, and oil wealth increased the influence these countries have in the world, they asked that Arabic be added to this list. The UN agreed to this, but on the condition that Arabic-speaking countries themselves pay for setting up the new interpreting and translation services required.

Any of these six languages can be used to give speeches or submit documents, and it is expected that any diplomat at the UN will be able to understand and use at least one of these languages. During deliberations, highly trained interpreters give simultaneous interpretations between these languages, which the delegates can listen to on headsets next to each seat. Persons such as visiting heads of state, who cannot use these languages must provide their own interpreters into one of the six official languages. All important documents are translated into these six languages. The day-to-day working languages are, however, English and French, so routine matters and public signage at UN headquarters are normally in these two languages only.

People working as permanent public servants at the UN must know two of the six official languages well enough to conduct official work in them. In actual fact, at least one of the two languages they know is almost always English or French. Many UN bureaucrats speak English, French, and one other official language of the UN General Assembly. The secretaries-general of the UN have always had a working knowledge of at least English and French. This is the case for the current United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres from Portugal, who easily switches between French, English, and his native Portuguese.

There are always UN positions in various parts of the world that hire on a contract basis and do not have this requirement. Someone working for a UN agency in Port Moresby can usually be hired knowing only English, and someone working on a UN development project in Angola might be required to know Portuguese, for example. But permanently hired UN public servants, especially those at the New York or Geneva headquarters, must meet these bilingual requirements inattentive least two of the six official UN languages.

The Papua New Guinean student I was counselling was going to have to do quite a bit of language study if she was going to be successful in her goal of obtaining a UN position. Her Japanese didn’t count, and her English fluency fit only one half of the language requirements.

Even though Papua New Guineans tend to learn languages quickly, there are almost no places in the country where they can formally learn a foreign language, especially one of the official UN languages other than English. This means that while a certain number of UN public service positions are set aside for each nationality, the PNG quota is not met because very few Papua New Guineans have the opportunity to learn French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, or Arabic.

This is not the case in many other developing countries with educational challenges similar to those in PNG. Students in those countries can learn foreign languages in high school or university and prepare themselves to become international bureaucrats.  Educational planners in those countries realise that to work in an international bureaucracy, persons must have qualifications of an international standard, and that one of those is the ability to be bilingual in international languages, not only English. Until the Papua New Guinean education system meets this challenge in the same way that schools and universities in other developing countries do, Papua New Guineans will not be able to participate as fully on the world stage as they should. Papua New Guineans will continue to miss out and others will take the places set aside for them in the UN bureaucracy.

Should I write “colour” or “color”?

English spelling can be very confusing and it is often difficult to remember just how to spell words. What can make it even more confusing is that sometimes we see certain words spelled one way in some books or websites and in another way elsewhere. How are we supposed to know, for example, if we should write “colour” or “color”? To answer this question, we need to look at both the history of the English language and the many nations that use it, and at some ways that the social and political ecology of English is different from many other languages.

Most languages are closely identified with one group of people and place. Engan, for example, is the language of the Engan people, centred in Enga Province, and Chinese is the language of the Chinese people, centred in China itself. English, however, has become a language that is no longer “owned” by one group of people. English has its origins in England, of course, but today the largest group of native English speakers is in the United States, where only a minority of people are descendants of English immigrants. The largest number of speakers is in India, most of whom speak it as a second, not home, language, and almost none of whom are of English descent. English has become a world language, used daily more by people for whom, as for Indians and Papua New Guineans, it is not their first language than for people such as Americans and Australians for whom it their native language.

There are other languages such as French, Spanish, and Portuguese, that have also spread around the world because of colonialism. But unlike English, these still tend to be closely identified with the country where the language originated. More importantly, they have international academies that regulate the accepted grammar, spelling, and vocabulary of the languages.

English has nothing like this. There is no national language institute in any country that regulates the language and no international body that controls how the language is used. The closest that English has to any kind of regulating authority are important dictionaries, such as the Oxford University Dictionary, Websters Dictionary, or the Macquarie Dictionary, but these are nationally based and are produced by private companies. Unlike the international or national language academies of languages such as Spanish, French, and Indonesian, these dictionaries have absolutely no legal authority and, in fact, are often in competition with one another.

One main reason that English is like this is because it became a world language because of the colonial expansion of two separate powerful countries, Great Britain and the United States. Each views itself as a cultural centre and sees the English language as something belonging to it.

This separation began in the 1700s, when the United States became independent from Great Britain after a bitter revolutionary war. The new country wanted to show its independence by getting rid of as much as possible that connected them with their former colonial master. One American scholar, Noah Webster, thought this would be a good time to tidy up English spelling, which has many illogical spellings. In a dictionary of what he called “the American language”, he wrote some words without unnecessary letters, such as the “u” in “colour” and wrote other words according to how they were pronounced, such as “center” instead of “centre”.

His dictionary and the textbooks based on it were used throughout the United States for many years and the spellings they introduced became the commonly used standard in the United States. Eventually these American spellings became the more accepted spellings not only in the United States and its colonies (such as the Philippines), but in those countries where American influence is especially strong such as Latin America and East Asia.

In the British Empire (today the Commonwealth of Nations), the British spellings of the former British colonial masters remained the norm. This is why today in the Pacific, Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji usually use British spellings (“colour”, “centre”, and “tyre”) while the northern Pacific countries (such as Micronesia and the Philippines) use American spellings (“color”, “center”, and “tire”).

Because Papua New Guinea was colonised by Australia, which in turn had been colonised by Great Britain, British spellings were set down as “correct” by the Department of Education in the colonial era. Today there are PNG dictionaries that use British spellings, so most publications in the country, such as this newspaper, use these spellings as well. But the same time, PNG receives many books and much internet content from the United States and East Asia, usually with American spellings. Most notably, most computers come equipped with spellcheck programs using American, not British or Australian, spellings. Each individual ends up choosing which spelling to use, with most Papua New Guineans following the British/Australian spellings they learned at school.

It is important to remember that while some teachers in Britain say American spellings and vocabulary are “wrong”, just as their American counterparts say British spellings and vocabulary are “foreign”, in reality neither system is more or less correct than the other. Each is the product of divergent histories of the English language and the people that use it. The fact that the English language today belongs to no one people and to no one nation is its greatest strength. The diversity of spellings reflects this.

Why does PNG have so many languages?

It has become a cliché to say that Papua New Guinea has more languages than any other country on earth. With its more than 830 different languages, PNG has many more different languages than countries with far greater populations. PNG is not unique in its linguistic diversity. All of its Melanesian neighbours have large numbers of languages spoken by small groups of people. Like PNG, no Melanesian country has one local language that is spoken as a home language by a majority of its citizens. This is perhaps the greatest cultural difference between Melanesia and Polynesia, such as Samoa, Tonga, and before colonialism Hawai’i and Aotearoa (New Zealand). In each of those Polynesian countries, only one language is spoken. Why is there this vast difference?

A number of scholars have observed that tropical areas with great biodiversity also tend to have a lot of linguistic diversity. This is the case in Melanesia, the Amazon, and central Africa, where there is both great biological and linguistic diversity. There is much less biological diversity in the monolingual countries of Polynesia. But just because there is a correlation does not prove that there is cause and effect. These two types of diversity might just be two unrelated phenomena happening in the same place caused by the kind of geographic barriers we find in rugged tropical continental regions.

One important factor is the time that humans have lived in Melanesia. Melanesia was one of the first areas outside Africa to be settled by modern humans. Because people have lived in this one area for such a long time, their languages have had a long time to become different. Humans have been living in Melanesia for 40,000 to 60,000 years, whereas some areas of Polynesia have not even been settled for 2,000 years, not long enough for languages there to separate into small language communities like they have in Melanesia.

Could it also be that there are psychological or social differences between Melanesia and Polynesia? The late Professor George Grace of the University of Hawai’i thought so. He noted that in Polynesia, there were large kingdoms covering entire island groups, with a strong national identity focussed on a king. In such societies, people would grow up identifying with a large political and cultural unit. With this kind of social environment, there would be travel between different islands and there would be a tendency to try to speak the same way as the king and his advisors. Linguistic and other diversity would not be valued or encouraged.

In Melanesia, on the other hand, pre-colonial political units were small, usually no more than a couple villages or “haus lain”. Grace noted that Melanesian people traditionally preferred to emphasise differences rather than commonalities. We see this today in the comment that neighbouring villages “change the language”, even when the differences are small and do not really make it difficult to communicate. In such a social environment, especially one with natural mountain, river, and swamp barriers between groups of people, language differentiation would progress at a rapid rate, and people would not feel a need to try to speak like anyone outside their village.

Some linguists think that in the distant past, the linguistic situation in Melanesia was the norm, rather than the exception, everywhere in the world. They think that in the past all humans lived in small social groups like Melanesians, speaking a large number of distinct languages. With the development of cities and the growth of large political units in Europe and Asia, certain languages became prestigious and either through war, conquest, or just cultural strength, these languages came to be spoken by large numbers of people, and other languages became extinct. Even where political units did not emphasise large regions, there were often waves of massive migration, such as with the speakers of the Bantu languages who spread throughout from central to most areas of eastern and southern Africa.

If this theory is correct, the linguistic diversity of Melanesia reflects an earlier time in human development. Melanesia has retained its diversity because of a lack of nations or empires that brought many groups under the control of one language group. Geographic barriers and rising water levels after the first migrations into the region meant that language families from other areas could not have spread into Melanesia until the arrival of European colonists.

Whatever the cause, Melanesia has ended up with a multitude of languages unmatched anywhere else in the world. One quarter of all languages are spoken by the relatively small number of people living in this region. Let us hope that the people and governments of our region will prove to be good stewards of this rich cultural treasure.