It’s basically impossible not to be bowled over by the abundance of languages in Papua New Guinea. Though the nation’s population clocks in at a shade less than six million souls, those residents speak a mind-boggling 830 languages. That’s enough to make PNG the most polyglot country on Earth, beating out runner-up Indonesia by 108 languages. (Nigeria takes third place, with a measly 521 living tongues; the United States has 364.)
We naturally assumed that this abundance of languages was due to PNG’s history of physical isolation between tribes. But the authors of Vanishing Voices dismiss that, pointing out that trade between neighboring tribes dates back centuries, as does multilingualism. They instead suggest a different theory, one that takes into account the way the power dynamics of village society, in which “Big Men” hold sway:
Language is, to adopt the terminology of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, a form of symbolic capital that may be as valuable in its way as are concrete goods. The traditional New Guinea situation makes sense from this perspective. Larger languages were available to be learned at minimal costs. Indeed, many people knew them already. However people were concerned to maximize their social capital within their immediate surroundings. It was, after all, the local group’s territory, and the local group within which one’s family had ot exist. There was a great incentive to maintain, alongside any regional languages used for trade, a form of speech peculiar to one’s local group which was used within it and which correlated with a commitment to it. As William Foley puts it, vernaculars were the “indispensable badge of a community’s unique identity.” This factor may well be enough to account for the maintenance of so many languages.
(Image of a PNG market circa 1911 via Jane’s Oceania)