Monday, November 9, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Papua New Guinea

After dedicating months and months to learning about the linguistic landscapes of countries all over the world, we've finally reached what is undoubtedly the most linguistically diverse country in the world: Papua New Guinea.

According to the Ethnologue, Papua New Guinea is home to 839 living languages, which equals approximately 12% of the total number of languages in the world! It would obviously take us ages to write about each and every one of them, so we'll just have to do our best with a brief overview.

The Garbuna Group, three volcanic peaks in Papua New Guinea.
The Official Languages

Papua New Guinea has three official languages: Tok Pisin, English, and Hiri Motu. Tok Pisin, an English creole, is the most widely used language in the country. Its name is derived from the English words "talk" and "pidgin". Its vocabulary primarily comes from English and various indigenous languages that belong to the Austronesian language family.

English, on the other hand, has been used throughout Papua New Guinea since the 1800s, when the southern half of the country was colonized by Britain. Soon after, it became part of Australia, and eventually gained its independence in 1975.

Hiri Motu, the third and final official language, is a simplified version of Motu, an Austronesian language. It has been used as lingua franca since before European colonization and continued to gain popularity throughout the country through the mid-1900s. However, it has been in decline since the 1970s as people shifted to using Tok Pisin and English, and is now primarily spoken by elderly people.

One of the most fascinating things about Papua New Guinea is that none of these official languages are widely used as native languages. While the country's population is over 7 million, there are only about 150,000 native English speakers and 120,000 native speakers of Tok Pisin.

That said, all three of these languages have something important in common: they're all used as lingua franca that facilitate communication between speakers of over 800 languages. About 4 million Papua New Guineans speak Tok Pisin as a second language, while around 3 million speak English. There are also around 120,000 people who speak Hiri Motu as a second language.

Ulawun, one of the most active volcanoes in
Papua New Guinea, as seen from space.
Other Languages

So what about those 836 other languages? Overall they're pretty tricky to classify, so they're generally referred to as the Papuan languages. Linguists are still hard at work studying these languages and how they're related to each other and other world languages, but there are thought to be up to 60 different language families that are represented within the Papuan langauges, as well as many language isolates. Most of these languages are used by hundreds or thousands of speakers in small rural communities, but none exceed 100,000 native speakers.

Since there's very little information on most of these languages, there's not much we can say about them. However, if you're interested in looking at all 839 languages, the number of speakers they have, and any other linguistic information available, we recommend looking at this comprehensive list of Papua New Guinea's languages from the Ethnologue. If you learn anything interesting, feel free to share it with us in the comments below!