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Why Tok Ples is probably doomed

LanguageCHRIS OVERLAND

ADELAIDE - Michael Dom’s excellent essay, Tok Pisin, Tok Motu na Tok Ples, will hopefully be widely read in Papua New Guinea.

I do not feel qualified to address some of the specifics in the essay but would like to offer some general observations about the development of languages over the course of human history.

It is clear that language is one of the defining characteristics of our species.

While many people argue that it is our opposable thumbs and comparatively large brains that make us special, I believe it is our ability to form and articulate ideas through language that most distinguishes us from other species.

The development of language appears to follow a particular trajectory across time.

In the distant past or, in PNG’s case, the not so distant past, tokples was how our ancestors communicated.

That 850 distinct languages developed in PNG made sense in a world where scattered groups of people lived in relative isolation from one another.

Over time, these groups discovered one another and the need arose to communicate with people who did not speak the same language. This led to the gradual development of distinct ‘trade languages’ such as the Police Motu that I was enjoined to learn as a young kiap.

There would also sometimes begin a process of convergence, whereby elements of different languages began to appear in those spoken by several neighbouring peoples.

In this way, what were once quite distinct languages gradually became dialects of a more widely spoken common language.

The development of English is instructive in this regard.

Old English was the lingua franca of Anglo-Saxon Britain, having largely replaced the original languages spoken by the ancient Britons.

There were a few exceptions, such as the Welsh, the Scots and the Cornish, who tenaciously clung onto their tokples, but it was Old English that dominated.

This remained the situation despite successive invasions by peoples from Scandinavia who spoke Old Norse, a language closely resembling Old English.

My surname, Overland, apparently derives from the Old English term “ofer” meaning slope or riverbank or ridge. The same word had an identical meaning in Old Norse.

The major challenge to the dominance of English came with the Norman invasion of 1066. The Normans spoke a particular dialect of French and regarded English as the crude and contemptible language of peasants.

In this way they were no different to later colonial invaders who eventually dominated much of the world during the European imperial era.

For the next nearly 300 years the language of the ruling class in England was Norman French.

Latin was the written language used by the royal court and it was spoken by the educated elite, most of whom were in clerical orders of some kind.

At that time very few members of the nobility could read or write, relying instead upon a bureaucracy composed of literate clerics or ‘clerks’ to read and write for them.

Despite this, the ordinary or common people stubbornly continued to speak English and eventually, in 1362, this reality was recognised when Edward III issued the Statute of Pleading which required that English be spoken in the courts.

Edward himself spoke almost exclusively in Norman French but his son, Richard II, was the first king to speak predominantly in English.

It was at around this time that Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) began to write his famous stories such as The Canterbury Tales, exclusively using English to do so.

His works were enormously popular at the time and are still studied today. Chaucer helped popularise the use of English in preference to Norman French although Latin remained the primary language for official written communications.

From the latter part of the 14th century, English began to rapidly develop many of the characteristics and usages that prevail today. It is not really clear why this was so, but by Shakespeare’s time the major elements of Modern English had begun to appear.

This change was both rapid and dramatic. For example, it is accepted that Shakespeare alone coined at least 2,000 new English words and many expressions still in use today.

By 1500 a recognisably modern version of English had appeared which was extraordinarily dynamic in nature. Words and phrases from other languages were added to it at a furious pace and this process continues today.

So it was that English reasserted itself firstly as the lingua franca of England, then of Great Britain and, eventually, of much of the huge British Empire.

And so this language, which had been regarded by the elite as obscure and uncouth, spread around the world.

These days there are thought to be around 1.3 billion people who speak English, with about 370 million doing so as a first language. Only Mandarin can rival English in terms of the number of speakers.

In the context of Michael’s essay, English is perhaps PNG’s greatest and most valuable legacy from the colonial era.

English not only has the largest vocabulary of the world’s languages but it has emerged as the primary language of science and technology.

As a consequence, Papua New Guineans who speak English have instant access to the vast repository of knowledge and literature available in English.

Tok Pisin is another important legacy of colonialism, although it was not the exclusive creation of the colonialists.

It is very much a language that was influenced by Papua New Guineans themselves, who took an active role in moulding and shaping it to meet their needs.

This is still happening, with modern Tok Pisin displaying a greatly expanded vocabulary with many entirely new expressions compared to the original version used in the colonial era.

I am not sure why Hiri Motu has apparently faded into relative obscurity although, for an English speaker at least, it was a harder language to learn than Tok Pisin.

Perhaps it is a function of the reality that the very much more numerous peoples from the former Mandated Territory of New Guinea, especially those living in the highlands, had adopted Tok Pisin and begun to migrate to other parts of PNG in search of paid work.

It was always going to be tough for all of the 850 or so tokples languages to survive the impact of the modern world.

The languages spoken by very large groups are most likely to survive, while the more obscure languages, spoken by comparatively few people, seem most likely to fade away over time.

For example, in Britain, the beautiful Welsh language has survived despite serious attempts in the past to stamp it out.

About a quarter of the current population of Wales speak the language to some extent at least and it is taught in schools as a means of preserving it. In a similar way, Gaelic has survived in Scotland and Ireland.

On the other hand, languages like Old Cornish (closely related to Old Breton in France) are spoken only by a handful of people. So, alas, I can hardly utter a word of the ancient language of my maternal ancestors.

In Spain, the Catalan and Basque languages have survived centuries of linguistic oppression and the numbers of people speaking them appears to be growing once more.

This suggests that a tokples spoken by many people can resist even concerted efforts to extinguish it.

All this bodes well for some of the major languages spoken in PNG (especially Tok Pisin) but it has to be said that the outlook is bleak for the least widely spoken languages.

At best, they will be preserved through the work of organisations like the Summer Institute of Linguistics and survive as linguistic relics of the past.

At worst, like so many languages across the globe, they will die out, being replaced by one of the handful of major languages now in use, of which English (1.3 billion speakers), Mandarin (1.1 billion speakers), Hindi (640 million speakers) and Spanish (540 million speakers) are the most widely spoken.

As our world becomes progressively more linked through technologies of various kinds, we are seeing a process of intellectual, linguistic and cultural convergence taking place.

While this process seems unlikely to lead to a homogenous human society speaking only one or two languages, it seems certain that many languages that were once cherished will become extinct.

Even some major languages of today are unlikely to survive this process unless they are capable of constantly adapting to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world.

This seems to be the lesson of history and I think that this is what will happen in Papua New Guinea.

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