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Ethnology: the story of the Binumarien


PNG is home to at least 850 of what have been called “the most interesting and least known” languages in the world. In at least some parts of PNG the main enemy of language survival has been warfare. Here I examine the case of the Binumarien.

The Binumarien are an isolated people, “behind the elbow” as their idiom puts it. In the early 1900s they numbered approximately 3,000*. Revenge killings were common and could escalate quickly.

For example, in one case, a man taunted his rivals from a neighboring village. That village attacked and killed him. Then the first man’s village attacked and killed almost everyone in that village, even though all of them were Binumariens.

There was also frequent warfare between the Binumarien and other groups such as the Gadsup people. Cannibalism was practiced on enemies; the Binumarien told how they used to cut people in half in order to more easily carry them home to eat.

Sorcery was an integral part of the cycle. If a death was thought to be due to sorcery, and the guilty person or village was identified through divination, then that was cause for an attack, and the cycle of killing started again.

Since it was thought that sorcery could be performed against people if someone had their bodily excretions, the Binumarien dug quite deep holes for latrines, unusual for the area. One strategy for exacting revenge on someone was to pretend to be friends, and once the friendship was firmly established, to kill him.

In the early 1900s, the Binumarien had started to decline and were driven as a group from their traditional lands and settled in a lowland area. Many died of malaria, and eventually moved back to a higher elevation.

In 1929, the Australian government outlawed warfare, and arrested violators. This did not stop the fighting altogether, but did drastically reduce it. Over the next few decades, however, the Binumarien continued a steady decline, with few children being born, and many of those dying before they reached their first year.

In their depression, many of the women used a local method of contraception to prevent new births. By the time that Summer Institute of Linguistics’ workers Des and Jenny Oatridge started work among the Binumarien in 1959, their numbers had declined to 111, from the 3,000 of several decades earlier.

The Oatridges’ attempts at medical help were initially accepted with reluctance and suspicion; altruism was completely foreign to Binumarien culture. They decided the Oatridges were learning their language in order to sell it, and secretly decided “not to give them all the language.”

What they did give them was “baby talk”—verbs with no inflectional suffixes. Their paid language helper did the same. Meanwhile, lives were being saved by the Oatridge’s medical help, and the population was steadily starting to climb. And one day, a man with a village-wide reputation for not keeping his mouth shut let slip a full verb form to Des, and this started the breakthrough in language fluency for the Oatridges.

One cultural attitude which in particular influenced many aspects of Binumarien society was the absolute inferiority of women. In the Binumarien mind, anything having to do with femaleness was dirty, shameful, inferior. Sex was something that degraded a man. Wives were beaten as a matter of course.

When a birth was imminent, the woman would go outside of the village to a separate birthing hut to avoid contaminating the village. If smoke from the hut’s fire drifted over the village, people would panic and run, for this smoke was thought to be potentially fatal. This view of women not only had contributed to the low birth rate in the past, but obviously made women’s lives miserable.

The Binumarien had some teaching from a German Lutheran mission in years past; but it was considerably distorted since it came through the medium of the trade language, and the Binumarien adapted much of it to conform to their own culture. They were sure women could not go to heaven, for example. Also, they believed that in the beginning, God created two men. One disobeyed God, and as punishment, God made him into a woman. Thus the very existence of women was thought to be due to evil.

Into this setting came the translation of scripture for the Binumarien. A very talented man named Sisia became Des Oatridge’s regular translation helper. In translating the book of Genesis, they soon encountered the passage which speaks of God creating humans as “male and female.” Sisia flatly rejected this as just plain wrong and refused to translate it.

The next day they came to chapter two, in which the two humans were “naked and not ashamed.” Des asked Sisia why there was a shame issue if there were two men. Sisia wrestled with it and finally accepted that there were male and female from the beginning. Then he told the whole village, which initially also refused to accept it. But he insisted, and the village finally accepted it. The consequences were enormous. Gradually women have been accorded a higher status.

An incident from several years ago illustrates another change in Binumarien society. The Gadsups were traditional enemies, and for decades, perhaps centuries, both groups had killed many of the other side. Now, men from a neighboring Gadsup village came close to attacking the Binumarien over land the Gadsups had planted with crops but was officially Binumarien land.

After the immediate crisis, some Binumarien men realised this group of Gadsups was in serious trouble for lack of food. Astoundingly in light of past offenses, the Binumarien decided to give the Gadsups a contribution of food. Though there were still war-like elements among them, the basic pattern of the Binumarien had changed from killing as a first reaction, to helping.

* Binumarien is now spoken by about 360 people living on the north-eastern boundary of the Kainantu District in the Eastern Highlands Province

Source: Summer Institute of Linguistics.


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Arthur Williams

I have always admired the Wycliffe Bible translators and their affiliate SIL. They move into really isolated spots and spend many years translating The Bible. Supplied goods to Dan Shaw at a lonely airstrip north of Lake Murray – Hoyanabi I think.

Ours on Lavongai took residence right at the western end of the island and spent around 15 years on the job. I believe it is now finished.

Yet I have often wondered why they want to spend so much time and energy translating what are languages that are often times on their last decades of existence, such as the reported 360 Binumarien speakers in EHP who are 75% or more literate in both their first and second languages.

SIL claim Biblical instruction for doing the work. The Book instructs Christians to bring The Good News of God to all nations.

Some believers say that until this happens then Christ’s Second Coming is delayed. But I wonder if it must be in the mother tongue of those 360 or could it have been in the lingua franca of the area? After all on Pentecost Day (Acts 2:v5-11) the language used was Galilean but each heard it in his own language through the activity of the Holy Spirit.

Personally I would much prefer that Wycliffe or SIL use their millions of funds to improve literacy of PNG’s tribes. This is especially so when we read reports of such low literacy levels in the nation.

When the first portion of Lavongai’s SIL Bible work was published I bought some copies of it and gave to several pastors who I met in Taskul.

I asked them to read it and try to report back to me on its relevancy. Only a few did and their comments are perhaps biased as they came from either SE Lavongai or Tsoi islands.

But they told me that it was not written in the day-to-day language that they used but partly obscured by having too much West Lavongai words. A few even told me that it was too academic and it attempted to return to pure or deep Lavongai that their ancestors had used.

I cannot recall the actual words now but they suggested that these Tunak words are now never used in the villages.

In 2007 I attended the Taskul United Church and some worshippers had copies of the New Testament in their mother tongue but found it very hard to read out as once again it was in a non-colloquial form.

I recall my French schoolmaster many years ago. A visiting Marseilles teacher called into our classroom to speak with Mr Coppock. I was amazed to notice that our man seemed to be having difficulty conversing with the Frenchman.

Later I would find out that this was because Parisian French was taught in our classes while in the south of France it was more of a Patois or dialect.Don't we all experience problems when listening to Asian call centre helpers or even some of the Irish or Scots ones?

Finally I have often wondered why God allowed 6000 or more languages to develop on this world if it would make the work of evangelism so much harder and expensive and delay conversion. Mind a Welsh preacher once said that the language of the choirs in heaven is Welsh.

Tua’r Goleuni [Towards the light]

Arthur Williams
Silures & Tunak (or is Tunag?)

Reginald Renagi

A very interesting story of the Binumarien by Michael Cahill. A good read into a brief history of a people that nearly died out in the Highlands.

This would have been the case if not for the brave work of Summer Institute of Linguistics’ workers Des and Jenny Oatridge among the Binumarien in 1959.

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