Papua New Guinea, the third largest island country in the world, has an estimated population of nine million people. There are also at least 839 languages spoken in the country, which is located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, making it one of the most linguistically diverse in the world! Join us as we learn more about these languages, and take a deeper look at a handful of them.
According to Ethnologue, there are 839 living indigenous languages spoken in Papua New Guinea, making it one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. Each language as an average of 7,000 speakers; however, even though these languages represent 12% of the world’s total, most have, in fact, fewer than 1,000 speakers, with a handful having speakers that number in the tens or hundreds of thousands.
Due to this high number of languages, Papua New Guinea has a great density of languages. It comes second only to the country of Vanuatu in this regard, which has a population of around 300,000 and 138 still-spoken indigenous languages.
Why does Papua New Guinea have so many languages?
There are plenty of reasons that might contribute to the fact that Papua New Guinea is so linguistically diverse. For one thing, a lot of the population is quite isolated. Over 80% of the population of Papua New Guinea lives in rural areas and has minimal contact with external influences.
There are also taboo languages that are used (you’ll see this in relation to Huli), which can affect the languages they draw grammar and vocabulary from. This is a deliberate modification, and has led to an increase of the number of distinct languages.
What about Papua New Guinea’s official languages?
When it comes to official status or recognition, there are four languages that have some statutory recognition in Papua New Guinea. These are Tok Pisin, English, Hiri Motu, and Papua New Guinean Sign Language. There is no specific legislation that proclaims an official language of Papua New Guinea, but Tok Pisin, English, and Hiri Motu are mentioned in the constitution. Sign language was recognised in 2015, and in practice, this means Papuan New Guinea Sign Language.
In 2011, around 68.4% of the population were literate in Tok Pisin, 39.9% were literate in English, and 4.7% were literate in Hiri Motu. English and Tok Pisin are considered de facto national languages. Tok Pisin is less prevalent in the southern region of Papua, where people tend to use Hiri Motu.
Languages of Papua New Guinea
Of course, we can’t list all the languages of Papua New Guinea here, but we’ve got a few with their number of speakers (from Ethnologue):
Tok Pisin developed as a lingua franca used for trade. It has since become a distinct language with native speakers of its own and is now a creole language. It is often referred to as ‘New Guinea Pidgin’ or just ‘Pidgin’ in English.
Between five and six million people in Papua New Guinea use Tok Pisin to some degree, though not all of them speak it fluently. It is the most widely used language in the country.
The word tok is derived from the English ‘talk’, but has a wider application in Tok Pisin, also meaning ‘word’, ‘speech’ or ‘language’. Pisin comes from the English word ‘pidgin’.
There are considered to be four sociolects of Tok Pisin. Sociolects are dialects of particular social classes. These four are: Tok Bus or Tok Kanaka (‘talk of the remote areas’ / ‘talk of the people of the remote areas’), Tok Bilong Asples (‘language of the villages’), Tok Skul (‘talk of the schools’), and Tok Bilong Taun (‘talk of the towns’).
Many words in Tok Pisin are derived from English, indigenous Melanesian languages, and also from German, for example:
- belhat – angry (from English, lit. ‘belly hot’)
- bensin – petrol/gas (from the German Benzin, which means ‘petrol/gas’)
- gude – hello (from Australian English ‘g’day’)
- lotu – church, worship (borrowed from Fijian)
- maski – it doesn’t matter, don’t worry about it (probably from German macht nichts – ‘doesn’t matter’)
- solwara – ocean (from the English ‘salt water’)
- susu – milk (borrowed from Malay)
Hiri Motu is also known as Police Motu, Pidgin Motu, or just Hiri. It is mainly spoken in the areas surrounding Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.
Hiri Motu is a simplified version of Motu, a language from the Austronesian language family. It is neither a pidgin nor a creole, but it possesses some features from both language types. The word hiri is a name for the traditional trade voyages that create a culture and style of living for the Motu people.
Phonological and grammatical differences mean that speakers of Hiri Motu and speakers of Motu cannot simply understand each other, and Hiri Motu has been influenced by Tok Pisin. However, the use of Hiri Motu in recent years has been declining in favour of both Tok Pisin and English.
Hiri Motu became a common language for a police force known as Police Motu. Hiri Motu developed before Europeans ever had contact with inhabitants of Papua New Guinea, but in early European colonial days, the language was adopted by the Royal Papuan Constabulary. Its use was needed because the colonial government had recruited constables from various Papua New Guinean ethnic groups, as well as from places like nearby Fiji and the Soloman Islands. There could have been anywhere between 700-800 different languages among these recruits, so Hiri Motu was used – and took on the name Police Motu – to facilitate communication.
In the early 1970s, the language’s name was officially changed to Hiri Motu due to the connotations of the word ‘police’ during a conference held by the Department of Information and Extension Services.
Hiri Motu has two dialects: Austronesian and Papuan. Both dialects are Austronesian in their grammar and vocabulary due to the fact that the language itself derives from Motu. The dialect names, then, refer to the first languages spoken by users of the lingua franca.
Hiri Motu is one of a few languages that has different words for ‘we’ depending on whether it includes the listener (ita) or excludes them (ai).
Golin, also known as Gollum or Gumine, is a Papuan language of Papua New Guinea. Papuan languages are non-Austronesian and non-Australian languages that are spoken on the western Pacific island of New Guinea in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. If a language is Papuan, that refers only to the geographical grouping; it is not a language family. In terms of language family, Golin is a Trans-New Guinea language.
Golin is a tonal language with three tones: high, mid, and low. There are only two basic pronouns in the language – ná, which refers to the first person (I), and í, which refers to the second person (you). There is no number distinction (i.e. I vs. we, or you vs. you all) and no true third person pronoun
Instead, third person pronouns in Golin are compounds that come from the words for ‘man’ and ‘woman’, plus inín (self):
- ‘He’ – yalíni – yál ‘man’ + inín ‘self’
- ‘She’ – abalíni – abál ‘woman’ + inín ‘self’
Enga is a language from the East New Guinea Highlands and is spoken by around 230,000 people in Enga Province. It has the largest number of speakers of any native language in New Guinea and is second across the country, after Papuan Malay.
Enga has noun classes that, while they have not yet been studied in great detail, have been shown to primarily be based on syntactic (grammatical) features. For example, there appear to be noun classes based on whether nouns are animate or inanimate, or on their location.
The word order for a standard sentence in Enga is subject object verb (SOV); English’s word order is subject verb object (SVO). Verbs in Enga are very complex because the language has no subordinating or coordinating conjunctions (although, because, and, but, or etc.), no modal auxiliaries (shall, should, can, could, etc.), and no prepositions (in, at, on, under etc.). This means the verbs have to communicate all of these things.
Huli is a Tari language spoken by the Huli people, who reside primarily in the Hela Province of Papua New Guinea. It has a pentadecimal numeral system, which means its numbers use 15 as their base (as opposed to many other languages which use a decimal or base-10 system). It is based on body parts – Huli people count not only on their fingers, but also on their chest, ears, eyes, and nose.
Note: in the table below, each number root has a suffix of either -ra or -ria. This is to show an object that is counted; it is denoted in the meaning column as ‘obj.’ (object).
|16||nguira-ni mbira||15 obj. and 1 obj.|
|17||nguira-ni kira||15 obj. and 2 obj.|
|18||nguira-ni tebira||15 obj. and 3 obj.|
|19||nguira-ni maria||15 obj. and 4 obj.|
|20||nguira-ni duria||15 obj. and 5 obj.|
|30||ngui ki||15 x 2|
|40||ngui ki, ngui tebone-gonaga pira||(15 x 2) + 10 obj. of the 3rd 15|
|45||ngui tebo||15 x 3|
|50||ngui tebo, ngui mane-gonaga duria||(15 x 3) + 5 obj. of the 4th 15|
|60||ngui ma||15 x 4|
|75||ngui dau||15 x 5|
|90||ngui waraga||15 x 6|
|225||ngui ngui||15 x 15|
Huli also has something known as a pandanus language called tayenda tu ha illili (bush divide taboo). Pandanus languages are elaborate avoidance languages that are used when collecting Pandanus nuts, as well as for hunting or travelling. The idea behind this language is that it helps evade malevolent bush spirits.
The grammar for Tayenda is nearly identical to Huli, but its vocabulary is different. Tayenda often borrows words from the Duna language and changes their meanings.
Interested in the languages of Papua New Guinea?
Clearly, we couldn’t cover all of the languages of Papua New Guinea in one blog post, so we hope this post inspires you to go out and learn more about the 800+ languages of the islands.
If you want to start learning Tok Pisin, then why not give our app a try? You can learn 2,500 words and phrases by playing games, scoring points, and having fun. Plus, get 40% off your subscription via this link.
Happy language learning!
1 thought on “How Many Languages Are Spoken in Papua New Guinea?”
I would not imagine one country has so many differents linguages. It is very interesting.