Language at risk as we speak something else


PAPUA New Guinea needs an Institute of PNG languages and folklore. I am concerned that many of our languages are dying and many of us are moving away from our languages.
It is becoming a reality that I no longer speak my language and my children do not even know their mother’s Sudest language or even my Nagum Boiken language. The crisis is deepening with the arrival of my grandchildren, who no longer speak any of the languages they are supposed to identify with.
As a result the cultural knowledge and the ecological knowledge of our traditional PNG societies are also denied to my children and their children.
It is a linguistic disaster.
Existing literature on ecological diversity and linguistic diversity all argue that in order to be doing anything to restore a balance we need to do more than what is already done. Linguists are concerned about the ecolinguistics systems in danger of continued unbalance practices in biological and linguistic diversity of many indigenous communities.
This is where ecolinguistics is important. Ecolinguistics, is the “ecological embeddedness of human communication systems (that is, language not being a self-contained system but an integral part of a larger ecosystem) [and] the analysis of environmental discourses (both how people talk about the local environment, and the discourses of environmentalism”, with the key concepts being “diversity and functional interrelationships” (Muhlhausler 2001: 133).
Muhlhausler argues that “our ability to get on with our environment is a function of our knowledge of it and that by combining specialist knowledge from many languages and by reversing the one-way flow of knowledge dominating the world’s education system, solutions to our many environmental problems may be found” (Muhlhausler 2001: 135).
The solution to environmental problems in the world is one among many. We can also take action to slow the rate of language and biodiversity extinction, and better understand the needs and ways of the indigenous people’s knowledge systems.
Muhlhausler correctly points out that to see the continued survival of our species we need to recognize the importance of “learning from local knowledge, such as learning from the insights and errors of traditional rainforest dweller or desert nomads” (Muhlhausler 2001: 135).
The loss of language and biodiversity is so obvious that we are left with no choice. As many as 95 per cent of more than 6000 languages are on the endangered list and this will continue to increase.
Linguists such as Muhlhausler and biologist Nabhan want ethnobotanists and linguists to go beyond collecting and identifying plants names in indigenous communities: “By names I do not mean just labels for single species, nor scientific labels, but native local names, as well as local names for all kinds of ecologies and, very importantly, names of parts of plants and animals of use to human beings” (Muhlhausler 2001: 135).
Muhlhausler illustrates this argument with an example from the Enga language. From the dictionary compiled by Lang (1975) ,Muhlhausler identifies the way in which language is used by Engans to describe plants. Below is the list of tree names and species names used by in Enga:
tree-breadfruit (ficus dammaropsis), kapi, tokaka, yakate, yongate (T)
-breadfruit (wild) yokopati
-casuarina (Casuarina oligodon), kupiama, yawale
-cedar (Papuacedrus papuan [E. Muell] ayapa
-evergreen (Podocarpus compactus Wassch./P.imbricatus/P.papuanus) pau
-evergreen (Podocarpus neriifolius/P.pilgeri) kaipu
-fig (Ficus sp) peke ita
-mahogany (dysoxylum sp.) mama
-oak (Lithocarpus sp.) lepa
-palm mulai

Lang also has a long list of tree names not yet described by European botanists, a list that in all likelihood further research would make considerably longer:
tree -kind of andaita, anguana, auki, bona, gii, kaepu, kendu, kipondu, kumu, kungu, laikilaki, lomba, lyaka, lyakati, lyunguna, matopa, naipi, naka, opaka, pala, patepa, peke, pelepele, pulaka, sangu, sapo, suku, su’u, wayape, waname, wano, yandale, yoke.
Muhlhausler observes that “the perspective that inescapably drives the human perceptions of nature, most prominent among the Enga names for plants and plant parts are those that this particular culture has identified as being of use as food, medicines, building materials, and so forth.
Again, Muhlhausler uses the Enga dictionary compiled by Lang (1975) to show samples of the names of plants, species, and varieties:
tree -(bark used as rope) light wood angewane (P), wanepa.
– (bark used as string) enambo, komau, kotale.
– (used in leprosy cure) dilay
-(used for throwing stick) kongema
-(where possums are found) mina
-(seeds eaten) ambea managa, keta, tapae, waima, yombuta.
-(seeds used for hair dye) milya.
-(wood used for spears) mandi.
-(used for arrows) mama, yupi.
-(used for arrows/bows) black plam (?) kupi, mima
-(used for clubs) kulepa
-(used for drums) laiyene
(Muhlhausler 2001: 136-7).
Muhlhausler observes that as “Engans are becoming dependent on foods imported in tins and containers, as their children have to attend government schools where they are expected to acquire nontraditional knowledge, and as the habitat of much of the indigenous fauna and flora is destroyed to make way for coffee plantations and gardens in which introduced food is grown, as well as for roads, towns, and airstrips,” the language itself is under threat of losing the indigenous knowledge.
He adds further that many studies on other Papua New Guinean language “point to very much the same development” (Muhlhausler 2001: 136-7).
This is the same observation Majnep (2001) also has of his own Simbai society. The same characteristics of losing their language and knowledge systems was observed in the societies that I worked in.   The seriousness of all this linguistic and biodiversity tragedy is that it is unstoppable. An inevitable truth that seems to have left us stunned only to watch it happening to us everyday of our lives.
Rather than leave the responsibility, of saving languages and our knowledge systems in folklore of the country, to the church groups and NGOs the government must take leadership in ensuring there are research institutions and relevant programmes developed to protect our languages and culture.