How primitive are PNG languages?


DURING the early colonial period, it was not uncommon for Europeans to talk about Melanesians and their languages as “primitive”.
We have to wonder how they could come to such a conclusion, since very few of them ever learned a language of Melanesia. Nevertheless, attitudes such as this have continued into our post-colonial present, so that some parents think it is better to speak English with their children rather than their ancestral languages, because English is somehow “developed” and their own language “primitive”.
Someone who speakers three local languages is not thought of as special, but someone who speaks German or Japanese is thought to be extremely skilled. Are there any grounds for thinking that PNG languages are more primitive than the languages of Europe or Asia?
Human languages are made of sounds, grammar, and vocabulary. Let us look at each of these separately.
Humans are able to make a huge number of sounds. Each language community chooses some of these sounds to use and groups them together, some making distinctions that other languages do not. Some Highlands languages, for example, do not make a distinction between “p” and “f” like English does. English, on the other hand, does not differentiate between the strong “p” in “Peter” and the almost silent “p” in “stop” like Korean does.
Languages in PNG differ greatly in the number of sounds they differentiate. Some make many more distinctions in their sound inventories than English, while others make far fewer. At least one, Ma Manda in the Finisterre Mountains of Morobe, has features in its sound system that have not been recorded in any other language in the world (rules for making some consonants nasal in certain environments).
Does a small number of sounds show superiority because it is more efficient? Does having a unique phonological feature make the Ma Manda language superior to all other languages? Does having a very large number of distinct sounds mean that a language is superior to other languages?
PNG languages are certainly very different from one another, with some being more complex than the world’s average, and others less complex, but none has difficulty being a vehicle for human thought.
In terms of grammar, human languages differ greatly in the types of grammatical constructions they have and how they express the relationships between words in a sentence. Tok Pisin, for example, like many other PNG languages, differentiates between two types of “we”: “yumi” when “we” includes the speaker and “mipela” when it does not.
English does not make this difference, but English does differentiate between males, females, and non-gendered references with “he”, “she”, and “it”, whereas, like many other PNG languages, Tok Pisin makes do with only “em”.
These examples show that, although we can say that there are significant differences between the grammatical constructions possible in one or another language, we cannot say that overall the grammar of one language is more or less advanced than another. Some of the types of grammatical constructions in non-Austronesian PNG languages are extremely rare among the world’s languages, which is one reason why linguists from around the world come to PNG to study its languages.
Vocabulary is the area that most people think of when they think of a language being primitive or not. They correctly point out that Papua New Guinean languages often lack words for modern technology such as mobile phones and laptops —although I do know of one PNG language that has adopted the local word for “little mischievous jungle spirit” for laptops, because sometimes they are helpful, but sometimes they give us headaches!
It is common in any society to borrow words for new technologies, ideas, or plants along with the new items themselves. English itself has done this when English speakers adopted algebra (from Arabic “al jebr”), baptism (from Greek “baptizein”), and chocolate (from “chocolatl” in the Nahuatl language of Mexico). Indeed, English is still doing this by adopting “bilum”, “kundu”, and “wantok system” from Tok Pisin.
It is possible to talk about almost any idea in any language, but in any one language there will be a word that clearly and concisely wraps up an idea or feeling that requires a whole sentence in another language. The English word “justice”, for example, needs a long explanation to be fully expressed in many PNG languages (“the equitable and transparent delivery of a society’s rewards, punishments, and protections”).
But by the same token, there are words in some PNG languages that need a long explanation in English. The Nalik language of New Ireland for example, has one word that requires a whole phrase in English: “the dawning point of the first moment of the creation of the universe”. It also has two separate words for English “love”, one that means “love given in the full expectation that it will be reciprocated” (such as the love a child expresses to its mother), and one that means “love given without knowing if we can expect it to be reciprocated” (such as the love we have when we are just trying to start a new romance).
From this discussion we can see that languages differ greatly in the number of sounds they use to make words, in the complexity of one or another part of their grammatical system, and in the way certain areas have greater or lesser specific vocabulary.
But while we can say that languages differ in the levels of complexity of one or another aspect, we cannot say that overall some are more or less developed or more or less primitive. All languages are complex in certain ways and less complex in others. This includes Papua New Guinean languages, which are certainly not more primitive than languages elsewhere.

  • Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland and an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.

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