Cultural and ethnic diversity may increase in parts of the world for different reasons. The world is becoming smaller because of the ease of travel, immigration, and communication. When it comes to linguistic diversity, however, Papua New Guinea is possibly unmatched. This relatively small country found in Oceania in the southwestern Pacific boasts of around 850 languages spoken within its borders. Some of the unique reasons for this are looked at in this article.
A Brief Background on Papua New Guinea
The country of Papua New Guinea is an island country making up the eastern side of the island of New Guinea. This region of the Pacific Ocean is north of Australia. The capital of Papua New Guinea is Port Moresby. The country covers an area of 178,700 square miles. There are hundreds of ethnic groups in the country as well as many expatriates from places such as China, Australia, and Europe. Most of the country’s exports come from its rich mineral deposits. Marine activity and forestry are also big contributors to the national economy, while the diverse terrain makes the cost of developing infrastructure quite high.
Reasons for High Linguistic Diversity
With over 800 languages spoken with a population of just over 8 million people in Papua New Guinea, there have to be some very good reasons why. Mathematically, this works out to around 10,000 people for every language, which is a very high level of diversity. As you are soon going to see, however, some of the languages are far more widely spoken than others. You may be wondering where all these languages came from, how many people speak each language, and how the different groups communicate.
One of the main reasons for the linguistic diversity in Papua New Guinea is that the indigenous people have lived there for over 40,000 years. This is a very long time for languages to develop. Other parts of the world, like South America, for example, have been inhabited for about half the time. This helps to explain why, although South America also has high language diversity, it is around half of that of Papua New Guinea.
The question remains why one small country with less than 10 million people did not have fewer languages spoken among its people. The geography of the country helps can lend one explanation. The terrain of Papua New Guinea is very rugged. There are many mountainous areas, rivers, and many other natural barriers. The people tend to live within their native tribes or ethnic groups, and separated geographically over thousands of years, it makes sense for distinct languages to be spoken in the different pockets of people.
The official languages of Papua New Guinea are English, Hiri Motu, and Tok Pisin. English comes from the country’s colonizer, Australia. Hiri Motu is a pidgin language and is rarely spoken as a first language. Tok Pisin is a Creole language spoken by around 120,000.
Looking at the hundreds of indigenous languages spoken in Papua New Guinea, it is interesting to note that the main ones are spoken by a few hundred thousand people. You may be wondering what languages the other millions of people speak. Many of the indigenous languages in the country are spoken by very few people, and this could be a few hundred or a few thousand. Many of these native languages are also at risk of dying out.
Another geographical reason for language diversity is that the island lies in the Polynesian community, which is far removed from many other nations and cultures because of the ocean. Languages, therefore, had all the time in the world to develop far from other cultures and countries.