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Language contact, change and endangerment in Papua New Guinea


Research focus:

With over 840 languages, Papua New Guinea is an area of considerable linguistic diversity where contact between speakers of Oceanic and Papuan languages is pervasive, especially in an ever-increasing globalised and mobilized world. This research investigates the consequences of this contact for the Papapana (Oceanic) speech community - language change and language endangerment - and the implications for language revitalization.

  • How has the Papapana language changed as the result of its speakers being multilingual?
  • How endangered is Papapana and why?
  • What are the implications of language change and endangerment on language revitalization efforts, including vernacular education? How effectively is the vernacular education policy implemented in neighbouring language communities?


I collected linguistic data while living in the Papapana community for 12 months between 2011 and 2013, and further data during a 3-week visit in April 2018. My corpus includes:

  • 51 hours audio-recorded lexical and grammatical elicitation sessions
  • 10.5 hours audio- and/or video-recorded monologues (e.g. traditional narratives, procedural descriptions)
  • 1.5 hours of video-recorded dialogues

All data, including annotations and metadata, have been archived with The Endangered Language Archive (ELAR) (Smith 2015).

I also collected sociolinguistic data through participant observation, informal interviews and compiling speakers’ family trees.

Key findings:

  • Papapana is highly endangered: only 17% of the community’s population speak Papapana, only 2 children speak it as their first language, and Papapana is used in limited settings and is barely used in school, despite the country’s vernacular education policy.
  • Papapana is endangered due to shift to Tok Pisin (English-based pidgin/creole) which has been brought about by a number of factors including European colonisation in 1886, and displacement during a civil war in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • As a result of contact with Papuan language speakers, the Papapana language displays a partial shift from left- to right-headed typology, evident, for example, in its clause orders, where the verb can appear either in the middle or at the end of the clause.
  • There are numerous loanwords from Tok Pisin in Papapana, and there is evidence of semantic change as a result of contact with Tok Pisin, e.g. the Papapana word eangoiena ‘can’ now also means ‘until’, c.f. Tok Pisin inap means ‘can’ and ‘until’.

To find out more:

Smith, Ellen (2016). Contact-induced Change in a Highly Endangered Language of Northern Bougainville. Australian Journal of Linguistics, 36(3): 369-405.

Smith, Ellen (2016). Measuring and understanding ethnolinguistic vitality in Papapana. In Luna Filipović & Martin Pütz (Eds.), Endangered Languages and Languages in Danger: Issues of documentation, policy and language rights (IMPACT: Studies in Language and Society, 42, pp. 249-279). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Smith, E. (2015). Documenting Papapana, a highly endangered Northwest Solomonic language of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. SOAS.