Tongue-tied in New Guinea

How can you govern a country that has 246 different kinds of
cheese?’ Charles de Gaulle once asked, ruminating on the task of
governing his finicky Frenchmen. Yet if he’d found himself running
the show over in Papua New Guinea, he’d really have had his hands
full.

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.

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