FROM 1884 until the beginning of World War I in 1914, the northern half of what is today Papua New Guinea was under German control. Those 30 years brought sudden and cataclysmic change to the coastal and island societies that the Germans encountered. People’s lives were changed in just one generation with the introduction of a new religion, new technology such as the wheel and iron, new plants and food crops, and new diseases that killed large numbers of people in some areas. At the same time, many people travelled to new areas and started to get an idea of just how big the world really was, changing their perceptions of themselves and their societies.
It is not surprising that this upheaval in society was reflected in language, as people needed new words to describe the new things they were seeing and the new life they were experiencing. Many of these words came from the language of the German rulers who had brought the changes. Some of them are still used today, both in local languages and in Tok Pisin.
When Christianity was introduced, some concepts could be expressed in the local languages, but it was often easier just to use a German word. Some of these, such as “Pater” (“Catholic priest”) were originally Latin words that had come into German.
Others were ordinary German words that developed a specific church connotation when used in PNG. Bogen, for example, means “bow” or “arch” in German, but has the much more specific meaning of a “religious arch in front of a church on festivals” in Tok Pisin and a number of languages in Madang and Morobe.
Many of the religious words that came from German have since been replaced by English words, such as “segen” (“blessing”) that has been replaced by “blesing” or “blesim” from English. At the moment we are seeing this happen with German-derived “beten” (“pray” or “prayer”), which is being replaced in many areas by “prea”, from English “prayer”.
Melanesians were overwhelmed by the introduction of new technology at the end of the nineteenth century and often used the German word for new items. German Messer (“knife”), for example, can be found in some Bougainville languages as the word for a metal knife, as opposed to a traditional stone or sharpened shell knife. Similarly, German words were often taken for newly introduced plants. Two examples in many languages of the New Guinea Islands are Ananas (“pineapple”) and Klee (“clover”). In one New Ireland language, the word for “pineapple” was transformed in an interesting way. In that language, “a” means “the”, so people heard “Ananas” as “the nanas”, and the word for “pineapple” became “nanas”.
Today these words are often being replaced with their English equivalents, especially in Tok Pisin.
The Highlands region was not colonised or even known by the Germans. Nevertheless, a number of German words have entered Eastern Highlands and Simbu languages in an indirect way, as Kâte and later Tok Pisin became common languages spread by missionaries and Australian kiaps beginning in the late 1930s.
Kâte and Tok Pisin had adopted many German words, so with new concepts and ideas being introduced into the Highlands via Kâte and Tok Pisin, German-derived words from these languages were also introduced, even among people who never actually encountered German people or the German language itself.
Tok Pisin in particular absorbed a number of German words in its early years. One researcher has suggested that in 1914, as many as 20 per cent of all Tok Pisin words were of German origin.
Today that number is much lower, probably not even 2 per cent, but it does include many high frequency words still in use, such as “kela” (“bald”), “rausim” (“get out”, “remove”) and “tais” (“swamp”).
In these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at what words in PNG languages come from German.
As the last word shows, German words were adapted to fit the sound systems of PNG languages. German “Teich” (“pond”) ends in a “ch” sound made in the very back of the throat that does not exist in Tok Pisin. It was replaced by a Tok Pisin -s, and it is with this sound that it was brought into the Highlands.
German and English are closely related languages, with many similar-sounding words. For this reason in many cases it is difficult to work out whether a word in Tok Pisin or another PNG language has an English or a German origin. Some sound exactly the same, such as Tok Pisin “haus” (English “house” / German “Haus”) and Tok Pisin “ais” (English “ice” / German “Eis”).
Others are different, but sound so similar, that it is likely that both languages contributed to the local word. An example of this is Tok Pisin “blut”, which seems similar to both English “blood” and German “Blut”.
Linguists at the Institute for German Language in Mannheim, Germany are currently working on a project to document obsolete and current German words in Tok Pisin and other languages of PNG and other former German colonies in the Pacific.
The Tok Pisin dictionary of German-derived words can be found online at http://lwp.ids-mannheim.de/dict/tokpisin. Linguists there would be very interested in knowing about words of possible German origin in PNG local languages that they have not yet recorded.
The vocabulary of a language gives us a history of the origins and historical contacts that the speakers of the language have had with others. The existence of German words in Tok Pisin and PNG local languages shows this.
Even if today ties between Germany and Melanesia are weak, the existence of numerous German words in many languages shows us the importance Germany once had at a time of sudden and intense Melanesian interaction with the outside world.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.