Languages of Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea, a sovereign state in Oceania, is the most linguistically diverse country in the world.[6] According to Ethnologue, there are 839 living languages spoken in the country.[7] In 2006, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare stated that "Papua New Guinea has 832 living languages (languages, not dialects)."[8][9] Languages with statutory recognition are Tok Pisin, English, Hiri Motu, and Papua New Guinean Sign Language.[10][11] Tok Pisin, an English-based creole, is the most widely spoken, serving as the country's lingua franca. Papua New Guinean Sign Language became the fourth officially recognised language in May 2015, and is used by the deaf population throughout the country.

Languages of Papua New Guinea
OfficialTok Pisin, English, Hiri Motu, Papua New Guinean Sign Language
IndigenousPapuan languages
VernacularHiri Motu (in the New Guinea Highlands), Tok Pisin (nationwide)
ForeignFrench,[1][2] Indonesian,[3] Japanese,[4] Russian[5]



English-language sign on Doini Island.

English is a language of Papua New Guinea and is used by the government, courts, and the education system. In the 2011 census, 39.9% of the population was literate in English.[12]


From 1884 to 1914, the northern half of the present-day country was a German colony known as German New Guinea, in which German was the official language. Tok Pisin derives some vocabulary from German as a result of this influence. Today however, German is not a generally spoken language in Papua New Guinea.


Unserdeutsch, or Rabaul Creole German, is a German-based creole language spoken mainly in East New Britain Province. It is the only creole language that has developed from colonial German. The lexicon is derived from German, while the substrate language is Tok Pisin.[13]

Tok Pisin

English/Tok Pisin sign at Lae War Cemetery.

Tok Pisin is an English-based creole language spoken throughout Papua New Guinea. It is an official language of Papua New Guinea and the most widely used language in the country. In parts of Western, Gulf, Central, Oro and Milne Bay provinces, however, the use of Tok Pisin has a shorter history, and is less universal especially among older people. In the 2011 census, 68.4% of the population were literate in Tok Pisin.[12]

Hiri Motu

Hiri Motu, also known as Police Motu, Pidgin Motu, or just Hiri, is a simplified version of the Motu language of the Austronesian language family. In the 2011 census, 4.7% of the population were literate in Hiri Motu.[12]

Papuan languages

The Trans-New Guinea Family according to Malcolm Ross
Hotel Room Door Signs in Papua New Guinea

Outside Papua New Guinea, Papuan languages that are also spoken include the languages of Indonesia, East Timor, and the Solomon Islands.

Below is a full list of Papuan language families spoken in Papua New Guinea, following Palmer, et al. (2018):[14]

  1. Trans-New Guinea
    1. Madang
    2. Finisterre-Huon
    3. Kainantu-Goroka
    4. Chimbu-Wahgi
    5. Enga-Kewa-Huli
    6. Bosavi
    7. East Strickland
    8. Kutubu
    9. Duna-Bogaya
    10. Wiru
    11. Ok-Oksapmin (also in Indonesia)
    12. Anim (also in Indonesia)
    13. Gogodala-Suki
    14. Turama-Kikori
    15. Kiwaian
    16. Awin-Pa
    17. Angan
    18. Greater Binanderean
    19. Dagan
    20. Mailuan
    21. Koiarian
    22. Goilalan
    23. Yareban
    24. Kwalean
    25. Manubaran
  2. Torricelli
  3. Sepik
  4. Lower Sepik-Ramu
  5. Border (also in Indonesia)
  6. Sko (also in Indonesia)
  7. Eastern Pauwasi (also in Indonesia)
  8. Senagi (Angor-Dera) (also in Indonesia)
  9. Kwomtari
  10. Leonhard Schultze (Walio-Papi)
  11. Upper Yuat (Arafundi-Piawi)
  12. Yuat
  13. Left May
  14. Amto-Musan
  15. Busa
  16. Taiap
  17. Yadë
  18. Yam (also in Indonesia)
  19. Pahoturi River
  20. Eleman
  21. Oriomo
  22. Teberan
  23. Doso-Turumsa
  24. Dibiyaso
  25. Kaki Ae
  26. Kamula
  27. Karami
  28. Pawaia
  29. Porome
  30. Purari
  31. Tabo
  32. Baining
  33. North Bougainville
  34. South Bougainville
  35. Butam-Taulil
  36. Anêm
  37. Ata
  38. Kol
  39. Kuot
  40. Makolkol
  41. Sulka
  42. Yélî Dnye

Austronesian languages

People speaking languages belonging to the Austronesian family arrived in New Guinea approximately 3,500 years ago.

Austronesian languages spoken in Papua New Guinea include Meso-Melanesian languages (such as Nalik, spoken in New Ireland Province; Kuanua, spoken in East New Britain Province; and Nakanai spoken in West New Britain Province).

The Austronesian languages are widely spread across the globe, as far west as Malagasy in Madagascar, as far east as Rapa Nui in Easter Island, and as far as north as the Formosan languages of Taiwan. Austronesian has several primary branches, all but one of which are found exclusively on Taiwan.

Papua New Guinean Sign Language

PNGSL is an official language of Papua New Guinea; it is based on Auslan and various home sign forms.


In 2011, 67.6% of the population of Papua New Guinea over 10 years of age were literate.[12]

See also


  1. "PNG University promotes French language".
  2. "The French Language Celebrated in Papua New Guinea | Coopération Régionale et Relations Extérieures de la Nouvelle-Calédonie".
  3. "The French Language Celebrated in Papua New Guinea | Coopération Régionale et Relations Extérieures de la Nouvelle-Calédonie".
  4. "Launching of Japanese Language Proficiency Test".
  5. "Papua New Guineans embrace Russian exchange". Radio New Zealand. 17 October 2019.
  6. Krishnan, Varun B. (7 August 2019). "Which Country Has Most Number of Languages? Not India". The Hindu. Retrieved 14 February 2022.
  7. "Languages of Papua New Guinea". Ethnologue. 21 February 2017.
  8. Somare, Michael T. (21 September 2006). Statement at the World Leaders Forum (Speech). World Leaders Forum. Columbia University, New York. Archived from the original on 18 March 2008 via Office of the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea.
  9. "Papua New Guinea's Incredible Linguistic Diversity". The Economist. 24 July 2017. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
  10. There is no specific legislation proclaiming official languages in Papua New Guinea. In the constitution of Papua New Guinea, section 2(11) (literacy) of its preamble mentions '...all persons and governmental bodies to endeavour to achieve universal literacy in Pisin, Hiri Motu or English' as well as "tok ples" and "ita eda tano gado". In addition, section 67 (2)(c) mentions "speak and understand Pisin or Hiri Motu, or a vernacular of the country, sufficiently for normal conversational purposes" as a requirement for citizenship by nationalisation; this is again mentioned in section 68(2)(h).
  11. Silva, Diego B. (2019). "Política Linguística Na Oceania: Nas Fronteiras da Colonização e da Globalização". Alfa: Revista de Linguística. 63 (2): 317–347. doi:10.1590/1981-5794-1909-4. S2CID 204627919.
  12. National Statistical Office (2015). Papua New Guinea 2011 National Report (PDF) (Report). Port Moresby. p. 57. Retrieved 3 May 2020.
  13. Maitz, Péter; Volker, Craig Alan (2017). "Documenting Unserdeutsch: Reversing Colonial Amneasia". Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages. 32 (2): 365–397. doi:10.1075/jpcl.32.2.06mai.
  14. Palmer, Bill (2018). "Language Families of the New Guinea Area". In Palmer, Bill (ed.). The Languages and Linguistics of the New Guinea Area: A Comprehensive Guide. The World of Linguistics. Vol. 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. pp. 1–20. ISBN 978-3-11-028642-7.

Further reading

  • Gordon, Raymond G. Jr., ed. (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the World (15th ed.). Dallas, Texas: SIL International.
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