A country the size of California with fewer than 4 million people, Papua New Guinea is home to more than 850 indigenous languages-roughly one-third of the world's entire supply. With a dizzying ratio of only 5,000 people per language, there are far more tongues crammed into this remote Pacific archipelago than any other country.
New Guinea's remote, mountainous terrain has always been considered the reason its numerous sequestered clans haven't shared more words with one another over the years. But recent findings indicate otherwise. 'People once thought these languages evolved in isolation,' says NYU professor of anthropology Bambi Schieffelin, 'but, in fact, natives commonly traded and dealt with other groups outside their little areas. One reason there are so many languages is because the various cultures are actually quite similar. Language became a social practice that groups used to differentiate themselves.'
Just a few thousand speakers is all it takes to make up a 'major' language in Papua New Guinea. Enga, a language from the highland province of the same name, leads the pack in this category. With about 170,000 speakers at last count, it's the most widely spoken native tongue in the country (though it has nine separate dialects). On the other side of the scale, the sparsely populated northwestern province of Saundaun has 95 local languages; some are restricted to about 60 people.
And the complexity of these languages tends to run the gamut as well. The handful of people speaking Rotokas on central Bougainville Island only have to deal with an alphabet of 11 letters-five vowels and six consonants. Grasping the well-named Ample language, on the other hand, is no walk in the park, with thousands of forms attached to most verbs.
Papua New Guinea's babel of tongues adds a lively element to national functions like elections. Anyone can run for office (and many do), but the common goal is simply to be heard, and possibly understood, by a portion of the public. To help communication, all ballots are equipped with photos of each candidate so voters who can't make out the fine print can still support their face of choice.
Without a common language, any semblance of unity in the country-independent only since 1976-would be virtually impossible. But the problem has been eased by Tok Pisin (or 'talk pidgin'), an indispensable lingua franca derived from a form of pidgin English spoken during colonial days a few centuries ago. Tok Pisin has become a common tongue for well over half the population, gaining status as an official language (along with English and a less widely spoken pidgin called Motu).
'Tok Pisin has helped unify the country as much as it can be unified,' says Schieffelin. 'A lot of people speak it, but its use still depends on how much contact people want or need outside of their respective communities.' Which is often not much.
With virtually all of its 1,600 words stemming from English, Tok Pisin is fairly easy to pick up and can give travelers-or man bilong longwe ples (sound it out)-a real edge in PNG's lingual jungle. You can test out your skills by flipping through Wantok (one talk), PNG's weekly Tok Pisin niuspepa. Or you can learn some lingo at a piksa bilong bigplea man (adults-only film).
Or just tok to any pela and don't sweat it if you bagarap the conversation. Simply explain that yuplea tok esi-and they'll probably slow down for you.
FromEscape(July 1999). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.