Where are PNG’s linguistic wantoks?


IN this monthly discussion we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at who PNG’s linguistic wantoks in the Pacific region are.
The first thing Papua New Guineans do when they go to a new place is painim wantok (lookout for fellow Papua New Guinean). Whether it is finding old friends or establishing new relationships, knowing you’re not alone is a good feeling when you’re in a new place. So when it comes to languages, just who are Papua New Guineans’ wantoks in the Pacific region? Whose languages are related to the languages you speak?
If you’re reading this, you obviously speak English. And since you’re from PNG, you probably speak Tok Pisin. And let’s hope you still speak your tok ples. So let’s look at those three languages and see where there might be some connections.
English is the most widespread language in the Pacific, but it isn’t universal. Besides small Spanish-speaking Rapa Nui, a territory of Chile, French is used in the French territories of French Polynesia, Wallis & Futuna, and New Caledonia, and, of course, neighbouring Indonesian Papua uses Bahasa Indonesia. Some people assume that everyone speaks English, with many Papua New Guineans being surprised that even highly educated persons in neighbouring countries do not. It is important to remember that being educated and being able to speak English are not necessarily the same thing. For example, a few years ago I had to speak to a meeting of senior academics and administrators at Cenderawasih University in Jayapura. Only about half of those highly educated professors could follow my talk or ask me questions in English. The rest needed an interpreter.
I’m especially struck at the language barrier when I go to international conferences in the Pacific. Often there are people from the French-speaking countries who cannot speak with their colleagues from English-speaking countries like PNG, and vice versa. In fact, in many cases the only people who can speak to everyone are European expatriates, even if it is supposed to be a “Pacific” conference. This is an unfortunate legacy of the colonial era that continues to make communication between ordinary Pacific Islanders difficult. This situation is especially frustrating because even though Papua New Guineans tend to be very eager language learners, there are almost no opportunities here for people to learn French or Bahasa Indonesia. This is another colonial legacy from an Australian school system, which is notoriously poor at teaching foreign languages and where monolingualism is considered normal, rather than a handicap. This is an attitude that will have to change if PNG is ever going to take its rightful place as a leader in the entire Pacific region.
One place where not knowing French is not a problem for Papua New Guineans is Vanuatu. Vanuatu Bislama and Solomons Pijin are easily understood by Papua New Guineans, as anyone who listens to interviews on Radio Australia Tok Pisin Service will know. But don’t be offended if people giggle a bit now and then though, as happened to me when I was at someone’s home for dinner in Vanuatu and asked “Plis, kisim bret i kam”. For them “kisim” means “to give a kiss,” not “pass” or “fetch”. For that they say “kasem”. I still remember the joking about my bizarre bakery-oriented romantic life.
When it comes to tok ples, there are only a few languages that actually straddle the artificial PNG-Indonesian border. But many PNG languages are related to languages elsewhere in the Pacific, even if they are not mutually intelligible. If you have a word like “susu” for “breast” and “milk”, “rua” for “two”, “mai” for “come”, or “tama” for “father”, then there’s a good chance your language is an Austronesian language. Most of the languages in the Pacific outside the New Guinea mainland are Austronesian. In fact, we think that the rest of the Pacific to the east and south of PNG was settled by people who originated from the Bismarck Archipelago and brought Austronesian languages with them. If you speak an Austronesian language, when you meet people in other parts of the Pacific, you will be surprised at how many words will seem similar to those in your language. They are long-lost cousins.
If your language doesn’t have these words, then it probably belongs to one of the non-Austronesian language groups. These are spread in an arch from Timor-Leste through eastern Indonesia and Indonesian Papua, PNG and on into some of the islands in the Solomons. There are also two non-Australian languages spoken on the Australian islands in the Torres Strait. The non-Austronesian languages come from the very first languages spoken in the Pacific, but because they have been in one place for a long time, they have had many thousands of years to become more and more different from one another. It can be hard to see the relationships between these languages after so many thousands of years of separation.
Languages can bring us together or create barriers between us. Luckily, Pacific Islanders are good at using language creatively to make connections with others. As a Papua New Guinean, one way or another, it should not be difficult for you to find linguistic wantoks of one kind or another in the Pacific.
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 [email protected] Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.

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