What you speak is who you are


In this monthly discussion we answer one question about language in Papua New Guinea and beyond. This month we are looking at how to find out what linguists have to say about your language.
Our language is an important part of our identity, so it is natural for us to want to learn more about it and to see what linguists have discovered about how it operates. While many PNG languages have still not been documented or described in detail, many of them have, with dictionaries that list words in the language, grammar books that describe the rules of the language, and articles that explain how the speakers of the language use it in different situations. For a great many languages, linguists have been able to show which other languages in and out of PNG are related languages with a common ancestral language, and how a particular language or group of languages has migrated from one area to another. But how can an ordinary educated person find out about all this information? Luckily, the internet has made the search easier.
The first thing to do is to find out what name linguists use for your language. Sometimes local people use a different name than the one normally used in linguistic literature, or they just use a phrase like tok ples to describe their language. A good place to find the linguists’ name for your language is by going to www.silpng.org, where you can find language maps for each PNG province by clicking the “language resources” tab. Each map has a list of the languages for that particular province. Next to each name is a three-letter code. This is the ISO international code for that language. This code can be useful when looking for information in databases or lists.
This site also has links to good SIL articles, either online or in their archives, on PNG language-related topics in general and about individual languages. Another good SIL resource is Ethnologue, a book that tries to provide information about every language in the world. An online version of the book is found at www.ethnologue.org. While much of the information here repeats what is given on the SIL PNG website, it has the advantage of having a feedback tab where you can correct or add to information about your own language.
You can click on the “Language Resources” link in Ethnologue to go to a list of materials in and about your language in the OLAC (Open Language Archives Community) database. Some of these are online, while others are not. Sometimes older articles are in German, since even after German colonial rule ended in 1914, German missionaries would still write descriptions of languages in their own language. But even if you cannot read German, the examples used in the articles can give you an idea about how your language was spoken a hundred years ago.
Another online resource is the website of the Linguistic Society of Papua New Guinea (www.langlxmelanesia.com), which has online versions of all the articles of the LSPNG journal, now called Language & Linguistics in Melanesia and originally called Kivung. These articles date back to 1968 and provide a wealth of information about individual languages and general language issues in Melanesia. Unfortunately, there is not yet an index for the articles, so going through them takes quite a bit of time.
Google searches using the “official” name for your language together with its ISO code can also lead to books or articles in a number of places, often overseas. Overseas researchers are usually happy to share findings or resources with speakers of the languages they are describing, so an email or letter to the institution or university is worth a try. Besides these online resources, the libraries of the country’s major universities are good places to look for out-of-print materials. The Divine Word University library, for example, has a number of manuscripts written by missionary priests describing the languages they were learning for their work. Similarly, the UniTech library in Lae has a series of books written by one of its lecturers describing the various mathematics and counting systems used in most Papua New Guinean languages. Older works like these capture knowledge that was once common but is now sadly becoming rare in societies undergoing westernisation.
You might also be able to learn about your language by speaking with a linguist in person. The Linguistic Society of Papua New Guinea hosts an international conference every year. This year the conference will be at the University of Goroka from 11 to14 September, featuring presentations by linguists from PNG, Australia, and Europe about language use in general, the role of English in PNG schools, and aspects of specific PNG languages. The conference is open to the public and there is ample time for people to meet with professional linguists for informal discussions. There is always a time set aside for PNG university student presentations and proceedings from each conference are available on the LSPNG website.
For people who have access to written documentation and analysis of their language, seeing the often complicated descriptions of what they themselves take for granted can be enlightening. Few people appreciate just how complex the structure and richness of their own language is and how many language rules they carry in their heads without even realising it.
For people who do not yet have a written description or analysis of their language, there is often still much general information available today about the language family their language belongs to and about the linguistic environment of similar language groups in the country. By reading about these, you might just get inspired to be the one who writes the first description of your language. This would be a great legacy for generations to come.

  • 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.