Papua New Guinea is famous for its wide diversity of languages. With well over 700 indigenous languages (a figure of 846 is sometimes claimed), it has nearly two fifths of all those spoken in the world today. It has proved a veritable goldmine for linguists.
This large number may be broadly divided into two groups: Austronesian, which has about 200 languages, and non-Austronesian, or Papuan, which has about 500 languages. The former are mostly spoken in the coastal and island regions, while the latter can be found in the highland interior. Most of the Papuan languages are complex and spoken by very small groups of people, the main exception being Enga which has over 150,000 speakers. For a long time it was thought that the Papuan languages were unrelated to one another, but they have since been divided into much larger groups. Only seven languages remain isolated from the main branches.
How these people came to speak so many tongues is a fascinating subject for speculation, but more significant are the lingua francas they use to communicate with one another. In effect, there are only three principal languages: Tok Pisin (New Guinea Pidgin or Neo-Melanesian), Hiri Motu (or Police Motu) and English.
The first of these emerged as a trading language, but was developed when trade turned from goods to people in the nineteenth century when many New Britain and New Ireland men were abducted and forced to work on Samoan sugar plantations. Today, Pidgin has a much higher status and, despite its clear associations with colonial times, it is used freely by most people all over Papua New Guinea. Hiri Motu, mostly used in the Port Moresby area, is also a pidgin. It originated in village Motu and was spread by Sir William MacGregor’s police force in the late nineteenth century. The press use only Pidgin and English and the latter is the language of government and the education system.
There is a real risk of many local langauges dying out, as has happened in South America. A change of thinking in education policy, to teach the first years in school in the local language, reflects a desire to keep them alive – as another of PNG’s amazing treasures.