What is the difference between Motu and Hiri Motu?


READER Darren Paul has asked about the Motu language and in particular the difference between “true Motu”, Police Motu, and Hiri Motu. For people outside the Papuan region, the relationship between the language of villages around Port Moresby, such as Hanuabada and neighbouring villages, and the common language of the southern region can be confusing.
Like Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu is a pidgin-creole language, while like English, “true” Motu is a “natural” language. We all know about English and Tok Pisin. English is a natural language that has existed for hundreds of years as the native language of the English people, who then spread it worldwide through colonialism and trade. Tok Pisin came into existence quite suddenly as a result of Pacific Islanders from many language backgrounds being brought together and trying to communicate using the English vocabulary they heard and fitting it into the grammatical patterns of their own languages.
The result today is a new and separate language, although with many words derived from English. English speakers cannot understand Tok Pisin when they first hear it, just as uneducated Tok Pisin speakers cannot understand English.
Motu and Hiri Motu have the same relationship. Motu is the native language of the Motu people, developed over centuries and spoken as a first language, while Hiri Motu is a new language that developed suddenly in the colonial era when people of many different ethnic groups needed to communicate. To avoid confusion, the native language of the Motu people is sometimes called “true Motu” or “Motu korikori”.
Hiri Motu is a language that was derived from true Motu in the early days of British colonial rule in Papua, when men from many different language groups were brought together in the colonial police force. Because their headquarters was in Port Moresby, and because many of these men ended up marrying Motu women, they developed a familiarity with Motu, even if few ever learned to speak it fluently.
Nevertheless, it was the only common language they had amongst themselves, especially as the British police officers and colonial rulers prohibited them from using any form of pidgin English. When they spoke with each other or to others in Port Moresby, they did not use the complicated grammatical rules of Motu (because they had never learned them) and used words in ways that were more like their own languages.

Dr Dutton’s book about Hiri Motu.

When they went on patrol and opened up new areas for the colonial government, they brought this new language with them. The people they contacted learned it from them, as did many of the expatriates with whom they worked. In this way the language became the easiest way for Papuans from different language backgrounds to communicate with one another. Because the language was usually first introduced through the police force, it was called Police Motu to differentiate it from the much more complex native language of the Motu people.
At Independence, when this language was to be used as one of the official languages of PNG, it was thought that “Police Motu” sounded too colonial, so the name was changed to “Hiri Motu” in memory of the Hiri trading expeditions of Motu men to what is now Gulf Province.
This was an unfortunate name, because it suggests that the language developed from this precolonial trading partnership. There does seem to have been a mixed Toaripi-Motu language used in that trading relationship, but it was quite different from the common language developed later on by policemen in the colonial period. It was certainly not the ancestor of Police Motu.
But there is a social relationship between the earlier Hiri trading jargon and the later Police Motu (that we now call Hiri Motu). It seems that Motu people have had a historical tendency to use a simplified baby talk with outsiders.
There is the story of an early missionary who spent years learning what he thought was proper Motu, only to be disappointed when his son, who grew up playing with Motu children, told him that he was actually speaking like a little baby. This tendency for Motuans to encourage outsiders to use a simplified language would have lessened the pressure for the first generation of Papuan policemen to become fluent users of true Motu. This in turn encouraged the emergence of the pidgin Motu that became known first as Police Motu and later as Hiri Motu.
People who live near Port Moresby have exposure to true Motu. For this reason, when they use Hiri Motu, they often use the more complicated grammatical structures of true Motu, marking, for example, adjectives as well as nouns for singular or plural or making a difference between the ownership of ordinary items and special inalienable items, such as body parts and blood relatives.
Speakers living some distance away from Port Moresby who have little or no contact with Motu people tend to use a much simpler grammar and do not make these distinctions. To be understood over a wide area, Hiri Motu broadcasters and writers should use this simpler style, even if it does not sound elegant to speakers of true Motu.
Since Independence, both Hiri Motu and true Motu have lost much of their social power. The increased mobility between the different parts of the country has led to a large influx of Tok Pisin-speaking Highlanders into Port Moresby. There is therefore much pressure for Papuans to learn Tok Pisin.

Police Motu was spread by police to new areas.
True Motu is the native language of the Motu people.

Without large concentrations of Papuans settling in Tok Pisin-speaking areas, there is, however, little reason for people in the northern and island regions to learn Hiri Motu. Because of these population movements, Hiri Motu is becoming less and less useful as a language for inter-ethnic communication. Today even in Port Moresby itself, Tok Pisin is much more useful as a market language than Hiri Motu.
Like many other vernacular languages near urban centres, true Motu is also losing out to Tok Pisin. Motu children in the Port Moresby area come in constant contact with peers in their neighbourhood or school who do not speak true Motu. They soon learn that if they speak Tok Pisin, everyone can understand them, but only their family can understand them if they speak Motu.
If their parents and grandparents do not make them speak Motu, they often grow up understanding Motu, but not being able to speak it well. When they do learn to speak Motu, it is often Hiri Motu, with its simpler Tok Pisin-like grammar rather than the more complicated true Motu. Like so many other PNG languages, true Motu is therefore becoming an endangered language.
In this short article, we have been able to look at only some of the highlights of the history of Hiri Motu and the relationship between true Motu and Hiri Motu.
For more information, I recommend the UPNG Press book Police Motu: Iena Sivarai, by Tom Dutton. In spite of its Motu title (which translates as “Police Motu: its history”), the book is in English. Dr Dutton gives a detailed description of the history of the language, its emergence as a separate language, and its role as a common language in the development of colonial Papua.
Namo sibona!

  • 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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