(Comment from West Papua Media: A very sad indictment of the policy of cultural genocide and Indonesianisation practiced in West Papua. Deliberate refusal of allowing birth languages to be spoken at school, and persecution of people speaking traditional languages by security forces is contributing to this. As any indigenous person knows, loss of language means loss of place, and is the last step of cruel dispossession.)
July 21, 2011
Who will speak Iniai in 2050? Or Faiwol? Moskona? Wahgi? Probably no
one, as the languages of New Guinea — the world’s greatest linguistic
reservoir — are disappearing in a tide of indifference.
Yoseph Wally, an anthropologist at Cendrawasih University in Jayapura,
keeps his ears open when he visits villages to hear what language the
locals are speaking.
“It’s Indonesian more and more,” he said. “Only the oldest people
still speak in the local dialect.”
In some villages he visits, not a single person can understand a word
of the traditional language.
“Certain languages disappeared very quickly, like Muris, which was
spoken in an area near here until about 15 years ago,” he said.
New Guinea is home to more than 1,000 languages — around 800 in Papua
New Guinea and 200 in Indonesian Papua — but most have fewer than
1,000 speakers, often centered around a village or a few hamlets.
Some 80 percent of New Guinea’s people live in rural areas and many
tribes, especially in the isolated mountains, have little contact with
one another, let alone with the outside world.
The most widely-spoken language is Enga, with around 200,000 speakers
in the highlands of central PNG, followed by Melpa and Huli.
“Every time someone dies, a little part of the language dies too
because only the oldest people still use it,” said Nico, Cendrawasih
University’s museum curator.
“In towns but also eventually in the forest, Indonesian has become the
main language for people under 40. Traditional languages are reserved
for celebrations and festivals,” said Habel M. Suwae, the regent of
In PNG, under the influence of nearby Australia, English has spread,
though it has made little headway with some tribes, particularly those
in the isolated highlands.
The authorities are sometimes accused of inaction, or even of favoring
the official language to better integrate the population, particularly
in Indonesian Papua.
But according to Hari Untoro Dradjat, an adviser to the Indonesian
ministry of culture, “it is almost impossible to preserve a language
if it is no longer spoken in everyday life.”
Despite his pessimism about the future, anthropologist Wally believes
art and culture can stop Papuan languages being forgotten.
Papuans love to sing and celebrate and they must do these things in
their traditional languages, Wally says — this way, young people “will
want to discover the language to understand the meaning of the songs.”
Instead of saving languages on the way to extinction, some researchers
want to preserve a record of them — a difficult task when many are
Oxford University has launched a race against the clock to record
Emma, aged 85, Enos, 60, and Anna, also 60, who are the three last
Papuans to speak Dusner.
More than 200 languages have become extinct around the world over the
last three generations and 2,500 others are under threat, according to
a Unesco list of endangered languages, out of a total of 6,000 in the