Our systems worked, so what happened?
Radio Days: Political pressure & public resistance

Believe me, there’s a darn lot in a word

Forster - Cr Muka (Ian Douglas)
Councillor Muka winces as turns away from the heat of burning weapons (Ian Douglas)


NORTHUMBRIA - Kunimeipa used to be home to Guari Patrol Post. In 1975 it was the most isolated government station in the Goilala.

But it has since been abandoned, and its brick buildings either gape windowless or have disintegrated into rubble.

When I discussed the reasons for, and the consequences of, this administrative desertion in a magazine, to my surprise the loudest response was criticism of my spelling of the word ‘Kunimeipa’.

I should, the critic said, have spelled it ‘Kunimaipa’ otherwise the ‘ei’ indicated the region had at one stage been under pre-1918 German administration when it very clearly had not.

Standardised spelling in Papua New Guinea. Now there’s a challenge.

So I checked out ‘Kunimeipa’. Konedobu still prefers ‘ai’ to ‘ei’. The Bereina Diocese, which only recently abandoned its mission station at nearby Kamulai, prefers ‘ei’ to ‘ai’.

And Anthony Morant, who writes the Goilala District Development Blog prefers ‘Gunimaipa’.

I too am confused and I am too confused and I cannot say who is right.

Anthony is the son of Moruana, perhaps one of the longest-serving interpreters at the Goilala sub-district headquarters at Tapini.

Moruana is someone I worked with.

Anthony, who took his father’s name for his surname, renders it as ‘Morant’.

Pronunciation moves closer if the ‘a’ at the end of Moruana is made silent and the ‘t’ at the end of Morant is also silent. But there remains a gap.

Confusion spreads further when an internet conversation with Agnes Mek reveals that her preferred spelling for the Konjiga clan which dominates a section of the Wahgi Valley near Banz is ‘Konjka’.

Then John Muke, also from that section of the Jiwaka, emails to ask if I knew his father Muke – also known as Mugo or Muka.

I did know him, and can even claim to have known him well.

But along with everyone else at Minj sub-district office I called him Muga.

And who is that can erase the many times Muke’s (or Muga-Mugo-Muka’s) name has been spelled wrongly in what are now historical government records?

Perhaps that is where some of the problems began? Is there a kiap who ever conducted a village census who cannot recall the occasional bewildered silence after he had called out a name from the census book?

There would be the tok-ples equivalent of ‘eh?’, heads would turn to the interpreter, the kiap would be asked to repeat his mutilation, there would be further discussion and then someone came up with the tok-ples equivalent of ‘got it’ and a man, at last correctly identified, would step forward with his family.

One problem was the inability of the English 26 letter alphabet to wrap itself around the phonetic demands of any number of PNG languages which either needed an additional letter, or many additional letters, to cover the twists of pronunciation.

Another problem was that a kiap’s individual ear could be kinked by his own Aussie or British accent while village people themselves were indulging their own dialectic curls.

An inevitable result is that a historian or researcher, studying old records in PNG, must be alert to shifts in contemporary spelling and pronunciation as well as misspelling and mispronunciation.

Perhaps this already adds to the fun in the same way as modern English speakers find records written in English almost 1,000 years ago almost completely indecipherable.

Footnote: The photo shows Muke (Muga-Muka-Mugo), who was a Councillor, wincing at the heat generated by a bonfire of spears and other weapons that in 1972, and with his help, was lit in Minj market place in an effort to end hostilities between his Tangilka clan and neighbouring Kambilikas. [First printed in The Northumbrian Kiap]


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Charles Nicholson

I'm a bit late reporting, but I hope someone interested in Kunimaipa and Guari is still listening in.

The debate over the spelling of location names is understandable because we English speakers are largely deaf to foreign phonetics, but it's largely irrelevant to what's happening on the ground.

Like Ray Weber, my wife for 51 years and I are sad to read that the Guari Patrol Post has crumbled.

As a humble Assistant Patrol Officer fresh out of ASOPA in 1970 I was dispatched to Tapini as an apprentice PO under the tutelage of the wise and benevolent ADC Ray Weber.

Finding the work and social circumstances at Tapini suitable for married personnel, within the year I ducked off home to Western Australia and married my true love who graciously agreed to join me in my wild adventure back in Tapini.

Apparently it soon became clear to the ADC that a honeymooning couple on a small outpost needed to be sent to a smaller outpost where they would not be so much of a distraction, and where the husband would have to devote himself to husbanding his Kunimaipa flock.

So off to Guari we went. I had a short ride by helicopter courtesy of the telecom outfit servicing the new microwave network towers.

Christa had 12 hours on the trailer behind the tractor delivering the monthly mail and stores, along with all the Kunimaipa passengers.

The brick house at Guari was an astonishingly welcoming home. The centrepiece was a warming fireplace for roasting a pig, or for idle weekends when the clouds closed in, reading old papers or novels and sipping flagon red.

The small brick office a bit down the hill accommodated a radio set that often refused to communicate with HQ so bureaucratic peace prevailed.

The clouds closed in before lunch, so clients were few.

Perhaps I misread my ADC's insistence that we go to Guari: in hindsight he wanted us to enjoy the house he built, and we did.

In our short time at Guari the great event was the opening of the airstrip.

As the patrol officer in charge I can claim no credit, it was the public works bulldozer driver who did it, a 'local' who has escaped his place in history. Did he drive it from Tapini?

Alas, when I returned to PNG in 2008 to walk the Kokoda Track (I'd walked the Koiari southern half in the 1970s when I was posted to Sogeri) I found all the government schools and aid posts derelict. How did we let that happen?

Not by misspelling place names.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I reckon four syllables, Ray - ku.ni.mai.pa.

Ray Stegeman | Linguistics Office Coordinator, SIL-PNG

Mr Forster - I work with Summer Institute of Linguistics PNG at Ukarumpa in the Eastern Highlands and all the material we have, from the 1960s until the recent past, all have Kunimaipa as the correct spelling.

Check out our website: https://pnglanguages.sil.org/resources/search/language/kup

Now, the actual local pronunciation - there's the rub. I'll check with my colleagues to see if anyone has current experience in the language community who can confirm your information.

In the meantime, this paper, http://sealang.net/archives/pl/pdf/PL-A7.49.pdf by Alan Pence, seems to say that there are no diphthongs in the language; any two consecutive vowels are belonging to two separate syllables.

So, we shouldn't expect the ai (or ei, for that matter) to have one sound, in one syllable. The word Kunimaipa should have 5 syllables: ku.ni.ma.i.pa.

Robert Forster

For Ed Brumby - I'm sure you are right about "Kunimaipa". I must have used that spelling while I was at Guari and then picked up "Kunimeipa" after reading reports by the Bereina Dicocese about the relatively recent murder of one of its priests at a nearby mission station - and the subsequent pull out it triggered.

And I too was mystified by the insistence of a former kiap that my use of "ei" could be interpreted as meaning I was signalling acceptance of the presence of pre-1918 German administration in the area. Some of those old silverbacks beat their chests over almost nothing.

For Ray Weber - The dereliction of Guari Patrol Post is sad indeed. A labour line was still molding fresh bricks when I was there in 1975. Perhaps you trained some of the older men?

The number of distinctive brick built houses was impressive. If you can stomach the pictures I suggest you visit Anthony Morant's Goilala District Development Blog.

For Ross Wilkinson - I'm sure more unique historical information would have appeared in old Patrol Reports if the required format had not been so cramped and stereotypic.

Ed Brumby

I’m a little bewildered, Robert, by your critic’s assertion that the use of ‘ei’ is related somehow to the (non-existent) German administration of Kunimxxpa.

I’d be interested to hear his justification, especially given, as far as I know, the two German diphthongs ‘ai’ and ‘ei’ are pronounced the same: ‘i’ as in ‘mite’.

In English, however, as you will know, whereas the ‘ai’ diphthong is pronounced the same as in German, the ‘ei’ diphthong is pronounced the same as the ‘a’ in ‘mate’

Thus, for the purposes of English spelling, if the penultimate syllable in Kunimxxpa is pronounced ‘i’ as in ‘mite’, the ‘ai’ spelling should be used, and if it is pronounced ‘a’ as in ‘mate’, then the ‘ei’ orthography should be used

In any case, as Phil has pointed out, the ‘official’ spelling, as provided in the Village Directory, is Kunimaipa.

And you are absolutely correct regarding the limitations of English orthography.

It is generally accepted that so-called standard English has 43 (or thereabouts) distinct sounds (or phonemes). Representing these sounds using 26 symbols/letters has always been a challenge……

Compare that to Hawaiian (13 phonemes) and Rotokas (a central Bougainvillean language) which has 9 or 10 – depending on which linguist you talk to.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I've got a copy of the 1968 Village Directory and the Census Division is listed as Upper Kunimaipa.

We were required to send additions and corrections to the directory as part of the patrol reports. I often came across anomalies in previous reports and attempted to correct them.

I replaced the previous kiap's mistakes with my own mistakes.

Ross Wilkinson

I have been reading the old Papuan Patrol Reports and have written previously on the pedantic nature of senior officers' comments on them.

Apparently before the Second World War, copies of all reports were sent to the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Hubert Murray, through the Office of the Government Secretary.

From the comments back to Resident Magistrates in each District from the Government Secretary, it appeared that Sir Hubert read all reports with a keen eye.

At some point in the early days of the then colony, an Official Village Directory had been published that listed all village names in each District.

Presumably it had been created at some point from the names listed as having been visited by the first or very early patrols by government officials.

Copies were sent to all Districts and officers instructed to comply with this spelling.

God forbid that a patrolling officer deviated from the official spelling or failed to type or write the village name in capital letters.

An instruction would be sent to the relevant Resident Magistrate by the Government Secretary on behalf of His Excellency, to have the offending officer instructed to ensure that, in all future Patrol Reports, village names were both spelled correctly and put in the right format.

And all this depended on the original reporting officer's interpretation of the sound and spelling of these names.

Ray Weber

Re Kunimaipa, how sad - I built those home made brick buildings while stationed there in 1966/67. And I bet all of those perfectly graded bridle paths/roads are over grown or collapsed.
Re pronunciation, in 1964/65 I was sent to the base camp at Kaintiba to establish a permanent patrol post. The known population was about 3000 and when I departed I had added another 6000 names. I pity the followup patrols - the local language was very guttural and nearly impossible to interpret their names.

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