Linguistic diversity and language endangerment in Papua New Guinea

Jul 24, 2011 by

Papua New Guinea has what is probably the highest language density on the planet, with 830 languages in a land area of 462,840 sq. km (or about 178,700 sq. miles). In other words, there is one language every 558 sq. km (215 sq. miles)! And in some areas the density is even greater than that, with as much as one language per 200 sq. km. This language density is unparalleled anywhere else in the world! But why such a plethora of languages in Papua New Guinea, of all places?

Three major factors have been postulated for the extreme linguistic diversity in Papua New Guinea. The first factor is time. Papuans have inhabited this area for some 40,000 years, which allows ample time for the natural processes of language change and diversification. Consider Foley’s (1986: 8-9) model of linguistic diversification of Papuan languages. Let’s assume the initial situation with a single community speaking a single language and a language splitting into two every 1,000 years (both conservative assumptions). According to Foley, “this alone would result in 1012 languages in 40,000 years”, and this is not taking into account language contact, language mixing and language extinction.

The second major cause for linguistic diversity in Papua New Guinea, as elsewhere, is the topography. For example, mountains have long been correlated with a higher degree of language diversity and density. Thus, other areas of high language density include Nepal and the Caucasus. Other topographic features that pose genuine barriers to social interaction and therefore favor linguistic diversity are islands, rugged coastline, swampland and tropical forests -– and Papua New Guinea has it all! Most of its territory is

“steep, forest-covered mountains with precipitous drops, swirling rivers, dense, nearly impenetrable rainforests and endless tracts of swampland” (Foley 1986: 9).

But it is not just time and physical geography that determine the degree of language density. There is also a correlation between the social structure, cultural attitudes and language diversity. For example, the existence of a large national state typically correlates with a smaller number of dialects/languages, while a tribal system supports the existence of many smaller languages. We can find traces of this correlation even in Europe: for example, in France, which was unified under one monarchy relatively early, few local dialects (or even separate languages, such as Corsican or Occitan) survive, while in Italy and Germany, which were unified relatively recently, many local dialects thrive to this day.

In Papua New Guinea language is often perceived as a badge of a community’s unique identity, as that which defines each tribe in relation to the others, so that tribal system together with cultural attitudes towards language promote linguistic diversification.

So it is after all, unsurprising that there are so many distinct languages in Papua New Guinea. It has got it all: difficult terrain, tribal societies and lots of time to accumulate differences in speech.

Nor is it surprising that a lot of these languages are very small and many of them are endangered. The most widely-spoken language in PNG is Enga, with around 165,000 speakers in the highlands of central PNG, followed by Melpa (130,000 speakers in the Western Highlands Province) and Huli (70,000 speakers, most in the Southern Highlands Province). On the other end of the spectrum, most of Papua New Guinea’s 830 languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers, often centered around a village or a few hamlets, and some have less than a hundred speakers left. Among those tiniest languages are (figures are from the Ethnologue):

  • Bo with 85 speakers, Ak with 75 speakers and Karawa with 63 speakers (in the Sandaun Province);
  • Likum with 80 speakers (in the Manus Province);
  • Hoia Hoia with 80 speakers, Ari with 50 speakers and Abom with just 15 speakers (in the Western Province)
  • Arawum and Atemble with 60 speakers each, Bagupi and Bepour with 50 speakers each and Bilakura with 30 speakers (in the Madang Province);
  • Gweda with 26 speakers (in the Milne Bay Province);
  • Gorovu with 15 speakers (in the East Sepik Province);
  • Kawacha with 12 speakers, Kamasa with 7 speakers (in the Morobe Province);
  • Abaga with 5 speakers (in the Eastern Highlands Province);
  • Guramalum with a mere 3 speakers (in the New Ireland Province);
  • Laua with just 1 speaker (in the Central Province)!

The fate of these tiniest languages is not very hopeful. For example, Likum, Atemble and Bagupi are listed as “definitely endangered” (i.e., “children no longer learn the language as a ‘mother tongue’ in the home”), Bepour and Gorovu — as “severely endangered” (i.e., “language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves”), Bilakura, Kamasa, Abaga and Laua — as “critically endangered” (i.e., “the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently”).

Foley, William A. (1986) The Papuan languages of New Guinea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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