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The fascination of PNG’s 800 languages

The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) has been doing fine work researching the 800 plus languages of Papua New Guinea for 52 years. PNG is linguistically the most complex nation of the world and the SIL website, which you can find here, is a rich repository of the 389 of these languages it has already researched. Right now there are over 300 SIL members actively researching 190 other languages.

The SIL website provides information on many of these and includes phonologies, grammars, dictionaries, literacy and other materials, as well as detailed language maps. The stories of the languages are fascinating. Unserdeutsch, for example, has about 100 speakers around Vunapope and is nearly extinct.

Unserdeutsch is the descendant of a pidginised form of Standard German, also known as Rabaul Creole German, which originated among the Catholic mixed-race community of the Gazelle Peninsula during German colonial times. With increased mobility and intermarriage, it’s been gradually disappearing over the last few decades.

Most speakers are older adults, although many younger members of the community can understand it. All speakers are fluent in at least two of Standard German, English or Tok Pisin. Some speak Kuanua.

Then there’s Rotokas, a language spoken by about 4,300 people in central Bougainville. With just eleven consonants and vowels, the fewest of any language (there are 44 in standard English). The Rotokas eleven are A, E, I, O, U, B, G, K, P, R, T.


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