Filming a dying language


A FILM is being made to help to document a dying language once popular with Vunapope’s mixed race German community in East New Britain. Rabaul Creole
German or Unserdeutsch is thought to be the only German-based creole language in the world. It was spoken mainly among children who grew up at the Vunapope catholic mission around the time of World War
1. Nowadays, only a very few elderly people still speak the creole language.
Prof Péter Maitz, from Germany, who is leading the Unserdeutsch Documentation Project, was in Rabaul last week with a German TV crew making a film about the history of this community of isolated Germans and about early German involvement in PNG.
The film is made for ARD, the joint organisation of Germany’s regional public-service broadcasters, the world´s largest public broadcaster.
It is about PNG today with a special focus on the German heritage, especially the Vunapope mixed-race German community that used to live in Gazelle at and around the mission of the Sacred Heart Missionaries in Vunapope near Kokopo. The film introduces – among other topics – the mixed-race German community and the mission itself, the international research project on documenting Unserdeutsch (Rabaul Creole German), the unique and dying tok ples of the community which is the only German-based creole language of the world, the linguistic fieldwork with the last speakers of Unserdeutsch as well as different other places in East New Britain and other parts of PNG.
According to Maitz, the film will help to introduce PNG to a wider public in Germany.
“This is important as the country is virtually unknown for the German public. Also widely forgotten in Germany is the fact that parts of PNG used to be a German colony.”
“Especially unknown is the fact that in former German Nuew Guinea, close to the German colonial administration in Herbertshöhe (Kokopo), at the catholic mission in Vunapope the one and only Germanbased creole language of the world (Unserdeutsch) emerged among mixed-race children,” Maitz said.
The Vunapope mixed-race community left PNG shortly before and after PNG independence and settled down in the urban areas of Eastern Australia and later spread out.
Maitz said finding and getting in touch with people was, for this reason, not easy and took some time.
“But as they understand the importance of the project in documenting and preserving the German heritage of the community for future generations, members of the community are very supportive and they helped to get in touch with other families as well.
“Even though the community spread out, the close ties between the families are still there, that helped as well.
Very few of them have ever been to Germany. Nevertheless, the German cultural and linguistic heritage is still an important part of the identity of the members of the community.
The film is not only aimed at the wider public in the Germany only but includes other German-speaking countries in Europe.
In PNG, the crew took 10 days to film in Rabaul, Kokopo, Vunapope and New Ireland.
The film crew includes three professionals, two members of the Vunapope mixed-race community, and two Germans whose ancestors used to work for the German colonial administration during the German colonial period. Prof Maitz is leading the Augsburg project on the documentation of Unserdeutsch.
Maitz, who is based at the University of Ausburg in Southern Bavaria, near Munich, Germany, co-worked with former Divine Word Linguistics professor Craig Volker on the project starting in September 2015.
The research journey began in PNG and in Queensland, Australia with the first part of the project to be completed soon. Once that is done, it will take another three years for work to be conducted language description.
In an interview last year, Maitzsaid, “later on we want to write and publish the grammar of the language as well as the history of the language.”

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