An entry in the Crocodile Prize
Cleland Family Award for Heritage Writing
“With well over 800 [indigenous types throughout], Papua New Guinea’s languages make up about two-fifths of all those spoken in the world today” (A fact book on modern Papua New Guinea, J Rannells, 1990)
PAPUA New Guinea is a Melanesian country renowned for its vast number of diverse languages.
Linguists divide them into two broad categories: the Austronesian, consisting of approximately 200 languages, and the non-Austronesian (or Papuan), made up of the remaining 600.
While these figures indicate a veritable diversity, there is a grave risk that the majority of these languages may soon die out, as has happened in countries such as South Africa, Ireland, Canada, China, and parts of India and the Americas.
That is to say, with a growing number of the country’s younger population speaking English as their second and or even first language, there is a chance that these indigenous languages may soon be lost.
The 5th Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture was held in Port Moresby last year and has since attracted numerous positive and challenging comments as well as countless discussion, debate and documentation from a cross section of the Papua New Guinean community as well as other Melanesian visitors to the event.
An international photographer who was there suggested was quoted in the PNG Post-Courier as saying that “cultural threat [was undeniably] imminent in Papua New Guinea as well as in other parts of the Melanesian region”.
So let me consider the issue of ‘cultural threat’ in Papua New Guinea by looking at the gradual but alarming decrease in the use of indigenous languages in today’s society by making reference to the people of Oro Province.
Oro Province is a lightly populated area of mountains and plains on the north coast of mainland PNG. Undisturbed by European intrusion for tens of thousands of years, the indigenous inhabitants built up their own civilisation and cultures, and communicated within their own little communities using various distinct languages.
Today, the province has around 33 different indigenous languages. Of these, only two - in the Tufi district - are Austronesian. Nine related languages which come under the Binandere family are the first language of an estimated 53% of the Oro people.
The remaining 47% of people speak other minor local languages, Hiri Motu, Tok Pisin or English.
This alarmingly statistic in Oro Province alone suggests that as more of the country’s younger generation are gradually moving away from the use of their mother-tongue and that these indigenous languages are fading away.
The Orokaivalanguage (a well-known language of the province) once had around 25,000 speakers. This number has declined as more Orokaiva-speaking young people have switched to either Tok Pisinor English.
This decline is making the language increasingly vulnerable to extinction. It is anticipated that by the end of this century there could be less than 40% of people who speak Orokaiva. The fact that a majority of today’s young generation are letting go of their great ancestors’ languages and embracing adopted languages offers a sense of sadness and loss of identity.
According to a report by Payal Sampat, a research associate at the Worldwatch Institute, nearly half of the world’s 6,800 living languages are spoken by much fewer than 2,500 people.
Sampat estimated that, at the current rate of decline, by the end of this century at least half of the world’s languages will have been forgotten and will disappear.
He refers to another expert, Michael Krauss, a linguist at the Alaskan Native Language Centre and an authority on global language loss, who estimates that just over 600 of the world’s languages are safe from extinction. That is, they are still learned by children at an early age.
Therefore, the views of photographer David Kirkland that our country is facing an imminent cultural threat seem to be consonant with expert opinion that we are indeed under attack by an ever-increasing global trend.
The wide diversity of languages in PNG is something to be proud of as a nation, however, unless we are able to mitigate and reduce the risk of extinction, we will lose a part of our identity. The ultimate decision is in the hands of the government.
We need to change our mindsets with regard to educational policies and reintroduce the old system by which children use their indigenous languages in the first few years of their basic education.
We also need to establish effective organisations which work towards conserving and promoting our languages and our rich cultural diversity.