The linguistic plenitude of Papua New Guinea

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There are many things about Papua New Guinea (PNG) that make it unique (the abundance of its flora and fauna, its ritualistic cannibalism, its political complexity, etc.), but above all for me is the huge number of its languages, especially considering its relatively small population on such a large amount of land (see below for some details).

Papua New Guinea (abbreviated PNG; /ˈpæp(j)uə …ˈɡɪni, ˈpɑː-/ , also US: /ˈpɑːpwə-, ˈpɑːp(j)ə-/[12]) is a country in Oceania that comprises the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and its offshore islands in Melanesia (a region of the southwestern Pacific Ocean north of Australia). Officially the Independent State of Papua New Guinea (Tok Pisin: Independen Stet bilong Papua Niugini; Hiri Motu: Independen Stet bilong Papua Niu Gini), it shares its only land border with Indonesia to the west and it is directly adjacent to Australia to the south and the Solomon Islands to the east. Its capital, located along its southeastern coast, is Port Moresby. The country is the world's third largest island country, with an area of 462,840 km2 (178,700 sq mi).

At the national level, after being ruled by three external powers since 1884, including nearly 60 years of Australian administration starting during World War I, Papua New Guinea established its sovereignty in 1975, becoming an independent Commonwealth realm with Elizabeth II as its queen. It also became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations in its own right.

There are 839 known languages of Papua New Guinea, making it one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. It is also one of the most rural countries, with only 13.25% of its population living in urban centres in 2019. Most of its people live in customary communities. Although government estimates reported the country's population to be 9.4 million, it was reported in December 2022 that its population was in fact closer to 17 million.


A closer look at the linguistic situation of PNG may be found in this new article by Hannah Sarvasy:  "Keeping languages alive in the family", Lowy Interpreter (12/29/23):

Australian politicians like to speak of “our Pacific family.” But what brother or sister can’t speak the languages of their siblings? Australian schoolchildren can study Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian, but not a single language of our closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea.

Australians could become true family in the PNG sense, wantoks (literally, “speaker of the same language” = classificatory family), by committing to learning PNG languages and cultures. Imagine if all Australian foreign service members in PNG underwent a village homestay, complete with intensive tutelage in languages such as Enga, Manambu, or Nungon, and were adopted into local clans? This would create lifelong bonds between the Australians and their new wantoks.

Beyond government workers, everyone who does research or development work in PNG should be mindful that one of PNG’s national treasures is its 600–800 languages, the most of any country in the world. PNG is home to over 10 per cent of the world’s languages, many of them spoken by fewer than 10,000 people.

PNG’s linguistic diversity can be seen in the southern Uruwa area in the Saruwaged Mountains, Morobe Province, where I have studied the local language, Nungon, since 2011. Each of six villages there has its own dialect, with distinct sounds and vocabulary. A two-hour walk north brings you to another set of villages, again with their own dialects. After a hike of several more hours, you meet people speaking wholly different languages.

Outsiders can help promote the worth of local languages, but they can also unwittingly do the opposite.

Colleagues and I recently used eye-tracking to show that a feature of Nungon leads speakers to plan their speech up to three times farther in advance than English speakers are known to do. Our exploration of the cognitive ramifications of this feature, found in hundreds of other Papuan languages, is just beginning.

PNG also houses immense cultural diversity. A few days’ hike from the Uruwa villages lies a region of 15,000 people who call each other by wordless melodies, each unique to an individual. Anthropologist James Slotta of the University of Texas recalled showing children there a photo of a local preschool class. The children burst into song, each singing the “name tunes” of children in the photograph. These name tunes, used by the Yupno, Nankina and Domung groups, have echoes in drum and naming systems elsewhere in PNG.

The national lingua franca of PNG is Tok Pisin, "often referred to by English speakers as New Guinea Pidgin or simply Pidgin, … a creole language spoken throughout Papua New Guinea. It is an official language of Papua New Guinea [the others are English, Hiri Motu*, and Papua New Guinean Sign Language] and the most widely used language in the country." (source)  Tok Pisin exists alongside the local, indigenous, heritage languages, but is slowly displacing them too.

[*Also known as as Police Motu, Pidgin Motu, or Hiri, which was formerly spoken as a lingua franca in areas around Port Moresby, but whose use is declining while that of English and Tok Pisin is increasing.  "The term hiri is the name for the traditional trade voyages that created a culture and style of living for the Motu people. Hiri Motu became a common language for a police force known as Police Motu."  (source)  I find it fascinating that a culture and style of living has come to mean "language".]

In PNG, the outsiders most supportive of local languages have been Christian missionary organisations. The Lutheran church, SIL, and others have long realised the importance of engaging with communities in their own “heart languages.” The broader development sphere, however, continues to fund English-language workshops and pamphlets in the hinterlands, where many don’t speak or read Tok Pisin, let alone English. For two conservation areas established by outsiders, extensive discussions with communities apparently involved no attempt to translate the key English term, “conservation,” into local languages. Eventually, the English “conservation” was adopted into local parlance – but not with the same meaning. In these languages, “conservation” often refers specifically to governance of the conservation area.

I began this post by contemplating the attributes of PNG that contributed to the multiplicity of flora and fauna, languages, and other characteristics of the half-island nation.  Although I did not say so explicitly, I suspected that this biological and cultural diversity was primarily the result of its geographical position as a remote land mass in a humid tropical climate at the extremity of the chain of large and small islands stretching eastward from Southeast Asia before facing the immense oceanic expanse of the Pacific.  Having come to the conclusion of this meditation upon the cultural, biological, and linguistic essentiality of PNG, I believe that the same criteria (remote isolation at the edge of the world's largest ocean), among other factors of the modern world, will result in the diminution of these characteristics.

See the "strange map" here.

Update (2/20/24), from Nathan Vedal: 

I wish to recommend a book although you may have already read it: Throwim Way Leg, by the mammalogist Tim Flannery.
There are some linguistic observations regarding Tok Pisin (the title of the book is in this language), but even more so you might enjoy the tales of biological discovery which are quite inspiring.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. Jenny Chu said,

    December 29, 2023 @ 8:33 pm

    Given the number of spoken languages there, I speculate that there are also a lot more signed languages in PNG than just the one PNGSL. Has any inventory been done?

    It's nice to think of offering PNG languages in Australia, but seems unlikely to happen in reality. Do Australians even learn their own indigenous languages in school (Aboriginal languages, I mean)? When I was in school in the United States, French and Latin were offered as second languages – but, alas, definitely not (for example) Navajo.

  2. Phillip Helbig said,

    December 30, 2023 @ 5:43 am

    About 35 years ago I picked up a hitchhiker just south of Hamburg. Asked him where he was headed, expecting “Hanover” or, at most, “Munich”. The answer: “New Guinea”. He had been hitchhiking for about a year, and was on his way home after having been in Sweden. He said that he was the only opera singer in New Guinea, and would fly to Australia when he had a gig.

  3. Carlana said,

    December 30, 2023 @ 8:26 am

    People interested in PNG may enjoy a documentary featuring Australians and Papuans who had first contact in 1930.

  4. Chris Button said,

    December 30, 2023 @ 8:39 am

    Apparently there are at least a couple of languages there attesting phonologically vertical vowel systems. The most famous case nearby is Marshallese.

  5. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 30, 2023 @ 1:38 pm

    I had thought the standard account of PNG's linguistic diversity had to do with its internal geography: numerous small valleys separated by extremely rugged terrain and dense jungle. Has this view been superseded?

  6. Klimenok said,

    January 1, 2024 @ 7:01 pm

    This was extensively discussed in LLog earlier

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