What language does our northern neighbour speak?


In these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at what languages are spoken in the Federated States of Micronesia.

IF you ask Papua New Guineans about neighbouring countries, most will mention Australia to the south, the Solomon Islands to the east, and Indonesian Papua to the west (although many might call it West Papua or Irian Jaya).
Few will think to mention the Federated States of Micronesia, the neighbour directly north of Papua New Guinea. And if you ask about the languages spoken in neighbouring countries, everyone will know that Australians speak English, and that the Melanesian neighbours to the east and west have many local languages like PNG does. Most will also know that people in Jayapura speak Bahasa Indonesia and people in Honiara speak Pijin, a language so close to Tok Pisin that it is easy for Papua New Guineans to understand. But few will know for certain what the neighbours in Micronesia speak.
With Air Niugini opening up routes to Micronesia in pre-covid times, these links were becoming revived, so it is an appropriate time for Papua New Guineans to become more aware of their northern neighbour and its languages.

Map of German New Guinea, 1888-1899.

A lack of knowledge about the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) is in spite of the many connections between the two countries in the past. There is, for example, evidence that Micronesians and Manus Islanders used to visit each other at regular intervals in the past. In fact, some researchers believe that the ancestors of modern Micronesians originally came from the New Guinea Islands.
More recently, northern New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and Micronesia were all part of “German New Guinea”. When Germany lost this colony a hundred years ago at the end of World War I, the parts south of the equator were given to Australia, to eventually become part of Papua New Guinea, while the islands north of the equator were given to Japan, who lost them in turn to the United States at the end of World War II.
The Federated States of Micronesia is composed of four states, each an island group: Chuuk directly north of PNG, Yap to the northwest of PNG, and Pohnpei and Kosrae to the northeast of PNG. Each of the four states has a main state language. Besides these four major languages, there are a number of smaller languages, making a total of 17 indigenous languages for the nation’s 114,000 people (about the same population as Lae).
People speaking minority languages usually know the main state language of their state. In fact, just as in PNG, a number of these smaller languages are becoming endangered as younger people tend to use only English and the state language.
Not everyone speaks English, however. From 1914 until 1945 Micronesia was under Japanese rule, with Japanese settlers outnumbering the indigenous population. During that time people went to school in Japanese and many of the very oldest generation still speak the language and use it with other older people from other islands, never having learned English.
After 1945, the islands were placed under American control, with education and administration in English. While people tend to speak their local language in their homes and communities, English is the common language linking people from different states and is the language used by the national government.
Today English is introduced as a subject from the very beginning of primary school, although in primary school most other subjects are taught in the four state languages. In high school, all classes are taught in English, and in two states, some classes are taught in English in upper primary school, so today all younger and middle-aged people have a good command of English.
Because of the compact of free association between the United States and Micronesia, Micronesian citizens can live, study, and work in the United States, with many people on the islands having lived there for many years. As one would expect, the English spoken in Micronesia is therefore very American in its pronunciation and vocabulary.
During the American administration a special research programme at the University of Hawai’i was set up to study Micronesian languages. Because of this, the four state languages of Micronesia are among the best documented languages in the Pacific, with dictionaries, grammars, and textbooks both for local children and for foreigners wanting to learn the languages. Each state has newspapers published either completely in a state language or half in a state language and half in English, and radio and television broadcast in the state languages as well as English.

Ulithi dancers from FSM. – Pictures borrowed

All the languages of the Federated States of Micronesia are Austronesian languages, like many of the mainland coastal and NGI region languages of PNG. The late Professors Lynch and Blust have shown that there is evidence that the Micronesian group of languages are more closely related to the languages of Manus Province than to any other languages in the Pacific.
The languages spoken on the small islands closest to PNG, Nukuoro and Kapingamarangi, are not Micronesian, however. Both are Polynesian languages. Like the Nukumanu, Nuguria, and Takuu (Mortlock) islands in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Nukuoro and Kapingamarangi were settled by Polynesian seafarers between the tenth and eighteenth centuries. These remote islands are closer to Kavieng than to Palikir, the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia, and their cultures and languages are more like those of Tonga, Samoa, and Tuvalu than those of the other islands in Micronesia.
Like PNG, Micronesia is home to a local pidginised form of English, Ngatik Men’s Creole. But whereas Tok Pisin is a common language spoken throughout the country, Ngatik Men’s Creole is spoken only on one atoll, Sapwuahfik, which used to be called Ngatik. It came about after British and Australian traders got involved in a war in 1837 between Pohnpei and Ngatik and killed all the men on Ngatik. After the war, European and Pohnpei men married the surviving widows, and a pidginised English came to be spoken alongside the local Ngatikese language. Men on the island continue to speak it today.
Papua New Guineans going to Micronesia will find much that is familiar. In terms of language, both countries use English, although with different accents. Both Papua New Guineans and Micronesians are multilingual, and are used to dealing with local languages, regional languages, and English as the language of education and international communication.
Papua New Guineans who speak Austronesian languages will be surprised to find words in Micronesian languages that are similar to words in their own languages. If PNG visitors look hard enough, they can even find a creole English, and Bouginvillean visitors will find Polynesian languages related to the Polynesian languages spoken on small islands in the ARB.
Let us hope that after the covid pandemic, air links will once again enable Micronesians and Papua New Guineans to revive and strengthen links between these two neighbours.

  • 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 [email protected] Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.