Why don’t so many people speak Hiri Motu these days?


IN this monthly discussion we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at why not so many people speak Hiri Motu these days.
People in multilingual societies such as Melanesia choose to use or learn a language for a number of reasons. Sometimes it is because a language is a family language. Sometimes it shows their identity. Sometimes a language is necessary for trading or customary exchanges. Sometimes speaking a language helps them make money or show off their status (this is certainly the reason most people use English). As long as any of these reasons exist, that language will be widely spoken and learned. But when those reasons disappear, people gradually stop using the language and young people don’t feel a need to learn it. This seems to be happening with Hiri Motu today.
Before we look at this shift in language use, we should be sure we know what we mean when we say “Hiri Motu”. The names associated with “Motu” and “Hiri” can be confusing.
Just about everyone in PNG knows about the Motu people, who long before colonial contact settled in what eventually became Port Moresby. They had contact with many other people, the most well-known being people to the west whom they visited in the famous Hiri trade circuits. On these voyages they spoke a simplified version of the language of their trading partners, mixing in some of their own Motu words. This was a contact language used by Motu men and it was spoken in the Hiri voyages, but it was not the language we call Hiri Motu today.
Hiri Motu origins date to the time when English colonists and missionaries first met the Motu people and tried to learn their language. The Motu people used a simplified grammar and vocabulary with them, much as some people do when they speak with little children. At first the adult missionaries did not know they were not learning true Motu. But their children grew up with Motu village children and learned normal Motu as a second home language from their friends. It was only when these missionary children pointed out to their parents how they were speaking a kind of baby talk that the adults realised what was going on and that they had not been learning the true language of the area.
When the colonial government set up a police force, they brought in Pacific islanders from other colonies at first. These men often married Motu women and had Motu friends, who also used this simplified Motu with them. This eventually became the language they used amongst themselves and that was learned by Papuans from other areas joining the police force. Knowing what became known as “Police Motu” became important if a man wanted a prestigious and relatively well-paid job. As colonial rule spread throughout Papua, this simplified Motu spread with it. Colonial rule brought peace and increased mobility, so this Police Motu was learned and used by many outside the police force when speaking with Papuans from other areas. There were several different varieties of the language. Those furthest from Port Moresby spoke without many of the complicated forms used by Motuans themselves, while those closer to Port Moresby used more Motuan forms and expressions. Motuans themselves, of course, continued to speak “true” Motu amongst themselves, but they had to learn to switch to Police Motu when speaking with other Papuans.
Eventually, the use of Police Motu became an important part of a new Papuan identity, distinguishing Papuans from Tok Pisin-speaking people from the former German Territory of New Guinea to the north. Even after World War II, when the two colonies were united and more people moved between the two areas, New Guineans and expatriates moving to Papua found they needed to learn some Police Motu to communicate in markets or with their workmates or neighbours. I myself remember how when I first went to Port Moresby in 1979, people in the market would speak to me in Police Motu, and many people could still not use Tok Pisin comfortably.
As Independence came closer, many Papuans were worried about being dominated by the more numerous New Guineans, and some wanted a separate Papuan country. To counter these separatist feelings and create a feeling of inclusion in the new nation, Police Motu was included alongside Tok Pisin and English in all national radio broadcasts, the House of Assembly, and public announcements. But because a name like “Police Motu” sounded too colonial to many people, in the Constitution the language was renamed “Hiri Motu”, even though the language had nothing to do with the Hiri trade voyages themselves.
Since Independence, large numbers of Tok Pisin-speaking people have moved into Port Moresby, eventually making it a Tok Pisin-speaking city. Today, no one would address me in the market in Hiri Motu, because the assumption is that I am much more likely to know English or Tok Pisin. Papuan children in Port Moresby grow up mixing with Tok Pisin-speaking children so that for them, Tok Pisin, not Hiri Motu, has become the normal language to use when speaking with people from other areas. In the years after Independence, a national identity has become stronger for most people than regional identities, so the ability to use Tok Pisin, a language spoken throughout almost all areas of the country, has become more important to their self-identity than Hiri Motu, which reflects only a regional identity. In national institutions such as the police or the Defence Force, English and Tok Pisin are languages used informally and for training purposes, so there are no longer prestigious institutions where it is necessary to use Hiri Motu.
The development of modern Papua is closely linked with the language once known as Police Motu and today called Hiri Motu. At one time a knowledge of Hiri Motu was necessary for paid employment and an important part of a new post-contact regional identity.  But this is no longer the case. As the reasons for using Hiri Motu have become fewer and the number of people knowing English and Tok Pisin increases, fewer adults use the language on a daily basis and fewer young people learn the language as they grow up. Today it is much less often heard on the streets of Port Moresby and other urban areas in Papua and almost never heard in National Parliament debates. Unless new reasons, purposes, or identities are found for Hiri Motu, we can expect that its use will continue
to decline.
Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Queensland, and Jakob Fugger Visiting Professor at the University of Augsburg, Germany. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.

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