PNG languages dying with each generation

By AAP and AG staff 25 July 2011
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Indigenous PNG languages are dying with each generation, and may only survive in ceremonies, experts say.

WHO WILL SPEAK INIAI in 2050? Or Faiwol? Moskona? Wahgi? Probably no one, as the languages of New Guinea – the world’s greatest linguistic reservoir – are disappearing in a tide of indifference.

Yoseph Wally, an anthropologist at Cendrawasih University in Jayapura in Papua keeps his ears open when he visits villages to hear what language the locals are speaking.

“It’s Indonesian more and more. Only the oldest people still speak in the local dialect,” he said. In some villages he visits, not a single person can understand a word of the traditional language.

“Certain languages disappeared very quickly, like Muris, which was spoken in an area near here until about 15 years ago,” he said.

1000 languages

New Guinea is home to more than 1000 languages – around 800 in Papua New Guinea and 200 in Indonesian Papua – but most have fewer than 1000 speakers, often centred around a village or cluster of hamlets. Some 80 per cent of New Guinea’s people live in rural areas and many tribes, especially in the isolated mountains, have little contact with one another, let alone with the outside world.

The most widely-spoken language is Enga, with around 200,000 speakers in the highlands of central PNG, followed by Melpa and Huli.

“Every time someone dies, a little part of the language dies too because only the oldest people still use it,” said Nico, the curator of Cendrawasih University’s museum. “In towns but also eventually in the forest, Indonesian has become the main language for people under 40. Traditional languages are reserved for celebrations and festivals,” said Habel M Suwae, the regent of Jayapura district.

In PNG, under the influence of nearby Australia, English has spread, though it has been unable to penetrate some tribes, particularly those in the isolated highlands.

The authorities are sometimes accused of inaction or even favouring the official language to better integrate the population, particularly in Indonesian Papua.

Saving a culture

But according to Hari Untoro Dradjat, an adviser to the Indonesian ministry of culture, no matter what measures are taken to promote traditional languages in schools, “it is almost impossible to preserve a language if it is no longer spoken in everyday life”.

Despite his pessimism about the future, anthropologist Yoseph believes art and culture can stop Papuan languages being forgotten.

Papuans love to sing and celebrate and they must do these things in their traditional languages, Yoseph says – this way young people “will want to discover the language to understand the meaning of the songs”.

Instead of saving languages on the way to extinction, some researchers want to preserve a record of them – a difficult task when many are exclusively oral. Oxford University, for example, has launched a race against the clock to record Emma, aged 85, Enos, 60, and Anna, also 60, who are the three last remaining Papuans who speak Dusner.

More than 200 languages have become extinct around the world over the last three generations and 2500 others are under threat, according to a UNESCO list of endangered languages, out of a total of 6000.