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The extreme linguistic diversity of Papua New Guinea

by Sophie Anderson

Papua New Guinea is undoubtedly one of the (if not the) most language-dense countries on the planet. With over 800 native languages between approximately 7.6 million people — which is 12% of the global total — there's a whole lot of language diversity.

There's a whole heap of reasons for this insane amount of languages, one of them is the geography. Between wetlands, mountains, rainforests, valleys and rivers, there's certainly no shortage of range among environments. This variety of terrains, particularly the mountains, make it hard for social groups to interact with each other. This has caused the indigenous people to separate and spread out, forming different languages over time.

They've certainly had no shortage of time, either! Papuans have inhabited PNG for around 40,000 years, allowing plenty of time for languages to chop and change. It's strange to even think about having so many languages in a single country, but when you consider that PNG has been occupied by humans for over double the time of South America, it's really not so surprising. Although South America is also a leader in language diversity with over 350 languages still spoken, they've had under half the time for unique languages to form, and so they only have half of the languages. If South America were also to have been inhabited 40,000 years ago, their quantity of languages could possibly be on par with PNG's.

As with any country, PNG has a few native languages that are far more popular than the rest. Up there with approximately 165,000 speakers, Enga is the most commonly spoken language. Next up is Melpa with 130,000 speakers and Huli with 70,000. Although these are native languages, nearly 4 million PNG residents speak a creole language named Tok Pisin. Creole languages develop from pidgins, which emerge when groups of people who don't share a common language need to communicate. Since its formation, Tok Pisin has grown to be the most commonly spoken language in Papua New Guinea and has now been listed as one of its official languages! Being that Papuans live in tribes, not unified national states, has played a big role in building their extensive list of languages.

The total amount of speakers from each of these major languages only add up to approximately 365,000 people, so you might be thinking “What about the other 7 and a half million?” It's a fair enough question! The geographical conditions, separated tribes, and a long history of inhabitation were perfect ingredients to create a huge range of languages, but as time has gone on and communities have unified, the smaller languages have either become extinct or are rarely used anymore. Most of PNG's languages have less than 1,000 speakers!

About the author

Sophie Anderson is a content writer for Cruise Agency in Sydney Australia. In her spare time she likes to discover new and interesting cruise destinations in the South Pacific region, and share her experiences with other travellers both in Australia and abroad.

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