What are “church lingua franca” in PNG?


Reader Solange Metta wrote recently to talk about her surprise when recording songs at her home in Moveave Village in Gulf that some songs contained words that were not in her native Toaripi language.
Investigating further into oral history, Solange learned that originally people in that area had spoken a different language, which they called Tati Siravi, but London Missionary Society (LMS) missionaries encouraged people to favour Toaripi over their own language. Solange wrote to ask if I could explain why and how this happened.
The use of one language to the exclusion of others was not limited to the LMS missionaries. The same practice was found throughout the country during the colonial period.
Before missionaries came to PNG, they had had much experience in Latin America, Africa, and Polynesia. Those areas tended to have large political units where one language was already established as the official language. Often it was also the native language of all or most people.
Melanesia with its incredible diversity of languages was a completely different linguistic environment. As one German missionary said, “This is the Tower of Babel on earth”.
At first the missionaries did what they had done elsewhere, learning the local language, preparing a writing system for it, and starting to translate Christian scriptures into it. But they soon found out they just didn’t have the human resources to do this for all the hundreds of languages they were encountering.
They did realise that Melanesians grow up learning good language learning skills and that many of the languages were related to each other. It was obviously easier for Melanesians to learn one of their own languages than for foreign missionaries to learn all the hundreds of languages Melanesians spoke.
They therefore decided in many areas that the new converts would learn one local language that would also be learned by the overseas missionaries. The missionaries would devote their energy to producing written materials and schools in that one language to the exclusion of other languages in the area.
In this way the LMS missionaries worked with Motu and Toaripi in the central Papuan region, and Dobu in certain island and coastal areas of Milne Bay.
In the mainland areas of German New Guinea, Lutheran missionaries chose Yabêm as a common language for church activities in areas where Austronesian languages were spoken, and Kâte in the much more widespread areas where non-Austronesian (“Papuan”) languages were spoken. Both Catholic and Methodist missionaries chose the Kuanua language of the Tolais for their work in the New Guinea Islands.
In a way this was a repetition of what had been done in Europe itself when Christianity was first establishing itself there. Rather than producing literature in the many languages spoken in Europe, for centuries the Latin language was learned everywhere in Europe as a common language for church use and by educated persons speaking different languages. Arabic served a similar purpose in Muslim areas from Spain to India.
Today we call these languages “church lingua franca”. A lingua franca is a language that is a common language for speakers of many languages. They are “church lingua franca” because they were favoured and spread by missionaries moving into new areas.
These languages remain among the best documented languages in Papua New Guinea. The early missionaries developed dictionaries and grammars for their overseas missionaries to use, and both religious and secular texts to use in worship and schools.
They also developed specialised vocabulary in these languages to express central ideas of Christian theology that they wanted their converts to understand. Often these words or translations based on these words found their way into many of the surrounding languages.
In particular, the word for “God” (in a Christian sense) in many local languages comes from the word that was adopted for use in these church lingua franca. Most important of all for historians, the first writing by Papua New Guineans is often in these languages.
Of course, once people mixed, and communication between groups was firmly established, people who learned these languages for religious purposes used them for other fields as well, such as in markets, when dealing with government officials, or after moving to new areas for plantation or other employment.
Perhaps the language that was most widely used for these purposes was Kâte. Originally spoken by only a few people along the coast, it was spread by Lutheran missionaries throughout the many areas of the Highlands where they established missionary stations.
The German Lutherans developed an extensive system of schools using Kâte, which strengthened its use as a vehicle over a wide area for modernisation and inter-ethnic communication as well as church activities.
Eventually as Tok Pisin and Police Motu spread and government authority followed missionary expansion, Tok Pisin and Police Motu became languages that people could use even further beyond their own regions.
People realised the greater practical value of these lingua franca and gradually used these languages more than the church lingua franca, whose use was limited geographically. Eventually Tok Pisin and English as well as, to a lesser extent, Police Motu, became used in churches as well so that the use of church lingua franca died out even in purely church situations.
The legacy of these church lingua franca remains today, however. In some areas, as Solange Metta learned, the use of church lingua franca was so powerful that some people in small language groups stopped using their own languages and adopted the church lingua franca instead.
In other areas, hymns and parts of the worship service remained in the church lingua franca long after the languages themselves were no longer in general use. In New Ireland, for example, Methodist/ United Church hymns continued to be sung mainly in Kuanua until just a few years ago.
For people interested in what Papua New Guineans thought during the early colonial era, the writings of the few literate people of a hundred years ago area are usually found in these church lingua franca.
Although sometimes edited and censored by foreign missionaries, their writings provide a glimpse into indigenous thought at a time when Melanesian society was changing rapidly in many ways. While no longer widely spoken today, these lingua franca were instrumental in the formation of modern Papua New Guinean society.

  • 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 craig.volker@jcu.edu.au. Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.

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