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Written By

Bethany Keats


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

9 March 2018

Studying languages in the Sepik area of PNG

In Papua New Guinea, the most linguistically diverse area of the world, only a few of its approximately 900 languages are likely to survive into the next century.

Papua New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse area of the world, with 900 languages as different from each other as English and German. However, this linguistic diversity is threatened with extinction as the languages come under pressure from Tok Pisin, a creole language based on English. Of the 900 languages, only a few are still actively spoken by children and the majority will probably disappear from the face of the earth by the end of this century.

The Sepik River basin is among the most fascinating, linguistically diverse and poorly investigated regions of Papua New Guinea. It is also one of the least healthy areas, full of swamps, mosquitoes and deadly malaria.

Professor Alexandra (Sasha) Aikhenvald has been studying one of the languages spoken in the Sepik area, Manambu, since 1995. She started this project together with native speaker Pauline Laki, a journalist based in Port Moresby.

Manambu is spoken by about 3000 people in five villages, Avatip, where Aikhenvald spent most of the time, Yuabak, Malu, Apan and Yuanab. There are also a number of expatriates living in Ambunti, Lei, Madang and Port Moresby.

Manambu is a highly complex language, with an intricate sound system and elaborate grammar. One of the most interesting properties of the language is the gender system. Manambu divides the world into ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. Men are usually masculine and women feminine, however this is not always the case.

Everything big and long is considered masculine, so an unusually big and fat woman, or a woman behaving in a bossy way, is looked upon as masculine. Everything short, small and round is treated as feminine, therefore a squat fattish round man could be referred to like a ‘woman’. A big house is typically masculine, and a small house feminine. When Sasha showed her consultants a picture of the Buckingham Palace, they all agreed that it is masculine because it is long.

People of the sun and the moon

Their culture is also highly sophisticated.

The Manambu divide into three groups of clans, the Wulwi-ñawi are associated with light and the power of sun and moon, the Glagw are associated with darkness and the power of the earth, and the Nabul-Sablap are ‘in-between’ the two. All white people are placed in the Wulwi-ñawi.

The whole universe, flora and fauna are divided between clans as their property. For example, the sun and the moon, and also all the white people’s goods and achievements, including writing, belong to the Wulwi-ñawi. The products of the ground are of the Glagw.

Avatip, Papua New Guinea
Sasha Aikhenvald with a Manambu speaker, Papua New Guinea
Sasha has been studying Manambu since 1995. been Photos: Alexandra Aikhenvald, supplied.

The power of a name

The importance attached to names is a striking property of Manambu culture and every person has a multitude of names bestowed upon them by their relatives from different clans as special gifts.

Pauline Laki has seven and Sasha has two: Nyamamayratakw and Apagaj.

But names are not only precious gifts, they are property. Often people from one clan accuses someone from another clan of stealing a name, then a debate is held to determine the correct ownership, and this may go on for days on end.

To be able to rightly greet a Manambu speaker one needs to know the intricacies of the names associated with each clan and the art of correct greeting is highly appreciated.

The Manambu people pride themselves on not ‘selling off’ their culture to tourists. They try to survive on their own subsistence farming and are not very dependent on ‘white-people’s goods. This is probably why the language is still spoken by most people in the village.

However, the children tend to use Tok Pisin, and not Manambu, among themselves. And younger people have very little, if any, knowledge of what names belong to which clan. None of them are eloquent in the traditional genres of name debating, or can sing a song, or lament after somebody has died.

Sasha considers the language fun to learn and speak although it’s challenging and not easy to pronounce. Her name Nyamamayratakw, is a mouthful!

Also travelling to the Sepik River basin region is not an easy task. From Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby, Sasha first has to fly to the capital of the East Sepik Province called Wewak, before she flies to the government post of Ambunti, on a single engine plane. There she is usually met by members of her adopted Manambu family, and they all go down the Sepik River to Avatip, in a wooden canoe with an outboard motor.

Sasha has worked on a number of languages throughout her career including; from Brazil, Tariana, Warekena, Baré (now extinct, the last speaker died in 1991), Baniwa-Kurripako and Tucano; from PNG, Yalaku; and from the Berber language group, Tashelhit, Tamazight and Tamashek. She has also worked on Hebrew.

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