The Wantok System

New Guinea remained on my radar: a horizon of maximum difference, a test bed for linguistics and for linguists. Elsewhere, linguistic differences usually stem from geographic isolation. But in much of New Guinea the diversity is actually deepest in places where travel is easiest. Instead of using religion, clothing, or food, Papua New Guineas have distinguished themselves above all through language. Call it tribalism or, as linguists do, the “constructive fostering of variegation” through “intentional language change.”

A horizon of maximum difference, a test bed for linguistics and for linguists

Photograph by Don Kulick

Don Kulick. A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea. Algonquin Books, 2019.
Don Kulick and Angela Terrill. A Grammar and Dictionary of Tayap: The Life and Death of a Papuan Language. De Gruyter Mouton, 2019.

The world’s second-largest island after Greenland is threaded with twisting rivers, rainforests, and swamps. Steep peaks and grassy highlands cross the center. For forty thousand years there were no centralized states. People lived by planting taro, banana, sago, and yam, with some hunting and gathering. No colonialism, and not much world-system, until about the last century.

New Guinea—the western half is controlled by Indonesia, the eastern half is the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, and both include outlying islands—is the place for languages. Around eleven million people speak approximately 1,150 of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages. (Three-quarters of both the people and the languages are on the Papua New Guinea side.)

On average, there are ten thousand speakers per language, with just a few in the intensively cultivated, pig-breeding highlands having over forty thousand. Most languages have under three thousand speakers, and hundreds have probably never had more than five hundred. Neighboring languages can be as different from one another as English is from Chinese. Closely and clearly related Austronesian languages, which dominate the Indo-Pacific from Madagascar to Easter Island, have taken root on the coast, but New Guinea’s other eight-hundred-plus “Papuan” languages belong to dozens of radically distinct language families, not to mention “language isolates” with no known relatives. A tentative construct known as Trans-New Guinea appears with its 480 languages to be the world’s third-largest language family, after Austronesian and Niger-Congo (which dominates most of sub-Saharan Africa).

Going by Greenberg’s Diversity Index, which measures the chances that two randomly selected people in a country have different mother tongues, Papua New Guinea is a 98.8 out of 100. Linguist Bill Foley, in The Papuan Languages of New Guinea, imagines how a single community speaking a single language, splitting in two every thousand years, could produce 10¹² languages over the course of forty thousand years. New Guinea is nowhere close to that—there are factors that draw or force communities together, and factors that destroy them—but the order of magnitude is telling. The question shouldn’t be Why is New Guinea so linguistically diverse? but Why do the rest of us sound so much alike?

Like many linguists, I was drawn to New Guinea—not only for its qualitative and quantitative diversity, but also for the fact that so few of its languages have been described in any detail. Ten years ago, at a linguistics summer school in Berkeley, I studied Yélî dnye, a language isolate from Rossel Island, working with cognitive linguist Stephen Levinson and speaker Isidore Yidika, both flown in for the summer. We cut our teeth on the language’s doubly-articulated consonants, the simultaneous soundings of what linguists write as n̪͡m and t̪͡p and call “labial–alveolar” and “labial–postalveolar,” respectively—sounds not known in any other language. We grappled with six diurnal tenses, though the language doesn’t use any fixed anchoring of time. A certain genre of Yélî dnye poetry was reported to have a speech rate far faster than any auctioneer, over nine syllables per second. We didn’t even get into the famous shell money system, noted by John Maynard Keynes, which seems to have its own linguistic register.

Serious linguistic diversity and stable multilingualism were probably once the norm almost everywhere. Today, only places like the Amazon, West Africa, the Himalaya, and parts of the Pacific retain it. I ended up working in the Himalaya, and later New York City, chasing a different kind of linguistic diversity, amazingly compressed, that is now flourishing (but for how long?) in mass immigration destinations like New York, London, Paris, Moscow, Jakarta, Lagos, and Kathmandu.

But New Guinea remained on my radar: a horizon of maximum difference, a test bed for linguistics and for linguists. Elsewhere, linguistic differences usually stem from geographic isolation. But in much of New Guinea the diversity is actually deepest in places where travel is easiest. Instead of using religion, clothing, or food, Papua New Guineans have distinguished themselves above all through language. Call it tribalism or, as linguists do, the “constructive fostering of variegation” through “intentional language change.”

Take the Uisai dialect of Buin, spoken by 1,500 people on Bougainville Island. Like many European languages, all dialects of Buin have “grammatical gender,” a system of sorting nouns into a handful of categories that can be read, at least loosely, as reflecting a thorough gendering of all people, places, and things. But part of what distinguishes Uisai, compared with the other dialects of Buin, is that all genders are flipped, along with the agreement marking in the rest of the sentence. In other words, whatever is masculine for other Buin speakers is feminine in Uisai, and vice versa. No known mechanism of language change could explain this; it could only have been intentional.

People differentiate themselves from others all the time by how they speak—dial up an accent here, use a fancy word there—but lasting, counterintuitive change across all speakers of a language, consciously choosing to differentiate themselves from their neighbors, is rare. A linguist studying the Papuan language Selepet observed a community meeting where it was decided to use the new word bunge for “no” in place of the standard word bia, with the express purpose of sounding different from other Selepet speakers. Another linguist working on the Anem language of New Britain, an island off New Guinea, found that speakers regularly introduced irregular forms, opaque idioms, and elaborate terms as a way of maintaining the boundaries of their linguistic community.

If the purposeful creation of different, obscure, and esoteric language is more common in New Guinea than elsewhere, it may have something to do with wantok—“the idea,” writes the linguist Nick Evans, “that we are on the same wavelength as speakers of our language, and can therefore trust and call upon them.” A language, in a wantok world, extends only as far as the bonds of trust, and if you want to be trusted you need to learn the language. A very New Guinean concept, even if it’s a modern coinage, wantok expresses the traditional role of linguistic solidarity in many of the thousand-plus traditional social systems across the archipelago, each fortified and circumscribed by its own language.

Yet wantok networks have also always cut across linguistic lines to include kin, friends, and other “people one can talk to.” Ironically, the word itself (from “one talk”), despite referring often to highly local units, comes from Tok Pisin, an English-based creole that first formed in the colonial plantation economy of the late 19th century and is now the fast-spreading national language of Papua New Guinea. Indeed, today some have the hope, expressed in the name of the national Tok Pisin newspaper Wantok, that all of Papua New Guinea can come to constitute one giant wantok.

Tayap is a disappearing language of Papua New Guinea, and the Swedish-American linguist Don Kulick (also known for his work on language and sexuality) has written a troubling, accessible account of the language and its speakers, A Death in the Rainforest, based on several periods of fieldwork since the mid-1980s. It’s a book about the decline and fall of a wantok.

Kulick is clear-eyed about his position: “I am a white American/European middle-class male professor writing about largely moneyless (which is not the same as ‘poor’) black villagers who live in a backwater swamp in a faraway Oceanic country.” He doesn’t romanticize the country, the language, the jungle, or himself, an annoying, micro-bribing gatecrasher fired by morbid curiosity about “language death.” He expects his fieldwork recordings to “linger on like ectoplasm, long after the speakers are gone and the language is forgotten.”

Originally an island before the sea around it receded, Gapun, the New Guinean village where Tayap is spoken, was for most of the past few millennia an isolated mountaintop village. Probably as a result, Tayap is a “language isolate” completely unlike any other. Before Kulick, only a few wordlists had been collected in passing by the German missionary Georg Höltzker and the Australian linguist Don Laycock, who advised Kulick to go there and figure out what was happening to the language. The village wasn’t on any map that Kulick could find. Google Maps still doesn’t have it.

In 1985, then a graduate student in anthropology, Kulick met an Aussie who introduced him to another Aussie living in Wewak, the capital of East Sepik Province. This was still three days’ journey from the village. That man’s brother-in-law, an East Sepik local, took him part of the way, to a river landing where Kulick was able to hire an outboard-motor-driven canoe to get him to his destination. One of the men driving the canoe had a distant relative who had married a woman from the village. That family became Kulick’s entrée into the Tayap-speaking world. Six degrees of separation, plus schlepping, like most linguistic fieldwork.

The village, writes Kulick, was “a tiny windless slit in the rainforest . . . surrounded on all sides by massive trees rooted in a vast, seemingly boundless swamp.” Scratch that: if the word “rainforest” evokes an ecotopia, Kulick wants us to know that this particular “jungle” is an “endless expanse of mud” throbbing with clouds of mosquitoes, ill-disposed crocodiles, black leeches, venomous snakes, needly trees, and spiky vines. Not entirely immune to the fieldworker bravado now increasingly out of fashion, Kulick wants us to know that he got malaria five times and dengue twice, had intestinal parasites and gaping sores, et cetera.

Clueless and overwhelmed, like most first-timers “in the field,” Kulick was lucky. The villagers associated him almost immediately with the ghost of a child who had died. This gave him a place in the community, however spectral. The villagers built him a house and would do the same for him on two later visits. His first task was “to catch a language teacher”—no easy matter given how busy the villagers were kept by processing sago, hunting, collecting firewood, getting water, cooking, and taking care of their gardens. His only prospects were elders, of which there were only seven in the village at the time, and ultimately just one that Kulick could really work with.

Over the course of an initial fifteen months, Kulick made the most of this foothold, spending “untold hours with Raya in his rickety little shelter, sometimes working on Tayap but often just hanging out.” Raya, it turned out, was “a well-informed, eager, and catty gossiper, which for an anthropologist is like hitting the mother lode.” Even more, Raya took it upon himself to explain to Kulick how the world works, from the Tayap point of view.

Kulick threw himself into documenting the language, but for the technical details I had to nerd out on A Grammar and Dictionary of Tayap, which Kulick calls with tenured candor “the linguistic equivalent of a meticulously mounted fossil skeleton,” lacking the “nerves,” “spit,” and “spark” of living language. Tayap, like every language properly studied, is a tongue of great intricacy and style, where gender is marked on transitive verbs (Wetet! is “Come!” said to a man, Wetak! is “Come!” said to a woman) and great chains of morphemes form mind-bending words (Tapratkɨŋgɨatɨkɨtakana is “She intends to carry him on her shoulders”). Bored by cosmography and folktales, Kulick thrilled to Tayap’s “impressive lyrical arsenal of vulgarity.” He discovered that the first three words of every Tayap-speaking baby are said to be the same, all equally cranky (okɨ “I’m leaving,” mɨnda “I’m sick of this,” ayata “Stop it”)—which is neither more nor less accurate than the idea that English-speaking babies start out with “mommy” and “daddy.”

At Kulick’s arrival in 1985, about 90 people from a total population of 130 still spoke Tayap. Almost every villager over 25 was still fluent in the language, but Tayap speakers’ traditional multilingualism—most were competent in at least two unrelated local languages—was already plummeting and a decisive shift was well underway to Tok Pisin.

Today, even as the overall population of the village has doubled, the speaker population is under 50, and there is little prospect that anyone will still be speaking the language in the second half of the 21st century. On his most recent visit last year, Kulick found the village virtually abandoned. Across three decades of visits, he charts the process of language loss in painful, longitudinal detail, as few scholars have.

Kulick estimates that Tok Pisin would have first entered the village around 1916, when two local men set out to find white (German) labor recruiters on the coast and ended up working on a distant copra plantation. They came back both with substantial “cargo” (steel knives, machetes, axes, factory cloth, and more) and with Tok Pisin, considered the white man’s language and the key to cargo. This set a pattern, common the world over, where young men are drawn into migrant labor and then return to their area not only with goods but with a new language that is imbued with the same aura. Returning men, writes Kulick, “ordered their sons, nephews, and wives around in Tok Pisin . . . as they had been ordered around in Tok Pisin by white overseers.” Young women in the village, fully picking up the language a generation later, then started to do the same with children. People continued speaking Tayap, but the language now had a prestigious, dangerous rival for the first time.

Germany nominally controlled the northeastern part of New Guinea for a few decades, until Australia seized it during the First World War. Japan, in the Second World War, tried in turn to wrest the territory from Australia’s equally nominal grasp. After a last doomed Japanese campaign sent the entire Tayap-speaking community fleeing into the jungle, seventeen villagers died, representing not only 40 percent of the adult population but a high proportion of the elders who knew the language best.

When the people returned they re-founded the village at the base of the mountain it had been on top of, hoping to sell cash crops to outsiders. In 1948, the first missionary appeared, a Canadian Catholic priest, and the village rapidly converted, with all things Christian happening in Tok Pisin. Later, when halting literacy arrived—Tayap is a traditionally oral language—it came in Tok Pisin and was mainly used by young men to write extravagant love letters to their crushes. (Kulick offered to type letters up on his solar-powered laptop and print them on his portable printer, provided he could keep a copy and quote from them.)

Independence from Australia came in 1975, but in the distant capital Port Moresby there has been little support for, or political representation of, remote communities like the village, which has no schools, roads, hospitals, courts, or police. “From the stone age to the space age” runs the tired cliché about Papua New Guinea’s 20th century history, but for all they lost Tayap speakers ultimately have gotten little in return.

If anything, the garbled, fifth-hand discourse of development also brought disaster. Moses, a fortysomething komiti (village headman), had spent just enough years in the ’70s and ’80s at Catholic mission school and on a copra plantation to crave an abstract idea of “modern living” based on pictures of orderly-looking Australian suburbs. In the 2000s, stirred up by a well-meaning NGO course and slurs from a neighboring village, Moses dreamed of replacing the organic village layout, surrounded by coconut and betel palms and interspersed with mango, soursop, and laulau trees, which the villagers used every day. Finally, in one frenzied, drunken night in 2007, Moses led the villagers in the destruction of their own homes, resulting in a superficially orderly wasteland, where life only grew harder.

Then there was the violence and alcoholism. Guns started going around in the late 1980s, enabling ol raskol, the disgruntled and violent young “rascals” toting them, to raid and loot with impunity. When Kulick visited as a postdoc in 1991, a gang of ol raskol from a neighboring village heard that he was carrying a huge sum of cash. During a singsing, an all-night party thrown by the villagers after they finished building Kulick a new house, the gang descended and ended up killing Kawri, one of the villagers.

When Kulick eventually returned fifteen years later, the threats recurred. Some of Kawri’s relatives wanted blood money, not from the murderers but from the linguist, who had already sent money to Kawri’s father and brothers-in-law. Feeling danger closing in around him again, Kulick played the ultimate First World card: he called a helicopter service to airlift him out.

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, the publishing sensation of 1997 since pressed on countless undergrads, turned on “Yali’s question,” which derived from Diamond’s encounter with a New Guinean politician. “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” Yali asked the anthropologist.

Diamond’s book-length answer is that the global dominance of Eurasian peoples, and the vast material inequalities that have gone with it, can ultimately be explained in terms of environment, climate, and geography, which led to world-conquering weapons, diseases, and technologies. It’s a vision of stark determinism, which risks justifying colonialism and empire while also overlooking economic, institutional, and cultural factors. But it’s hard to deny the continuing force of Yali’s question, and the fact that languages with cargo (and languages derived from them, like Tok Pisin) are taking over.

Between the 1980s and the 2000s, Tayap—one small part of New Guinea’s own immense cultural and linguistic cargo—went from being the natural language of the village to a marked, mocked code increasingly shunned and contested. Parents would discourage and avoid it with their children, but also bemoan their errors when the kids did try to speak. The remaining speakers would squabble over the right word for “rainbow,” with no authority around to decide. Traditions collapsed: the house cult, healing rites, funerary rituals, kinship bonds. Remarkably, some young people in the village continued to have excellent active competence in Tayap, even the ability to tell stories, despite never using the language. But this could only ever be a transitional state.

Tok Pisin, and ultimately English, looked like the way out, the high road to modernity and all the cargo supposed to come with it. Where a language like Tayap used to be associated with a community, a wantok in all its indelible particularity, today it is associated with a seemingly fixed position on the scale of global inequality, which mass media and “education” make plain for all to see. Tayap, like endangered languages almost everywhere, appears at the bottom.

In the ugly scramble to be modern, the village—and the country surrounding it—is becoming like every other place, only poorer and more violent. In the middle of an unprecendented material and epistemic rupture, there is little appetite for difference in and of itself. Whatever made the wantok system work is less and less operative. In some parts of Papua New Guinea, the recent arrival of large-scale extractive industries, especially oil and gas, now is, or should be, bringing the cargo. But it’s the underlying awareness of an absence (of “cargo” or “development”) that has broken the integrity of these places. Among the Tayap older villagers talk of having “grown down”, becoming smaller in every way from their ancestors.

But consider a possibility. With luck or with help or with hustle, a few villagers—maybe aided by their fluency in Tok Pisin or English—make it out to Wewak, the nearest town, or Moresby, or (one can dream) even Sydney. By this point, their Tayap is fading, but they have money, jeans, cell phones, internet, and above all an awareness of the wider world and how to navigate it. The hunger for cargo eases, maybe. The people they meet—it could be their own children—ask them who they are, where they come from. They remember Tayap.

Won’t it be too late? “What the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember,” wrote Marcus Lee Hansen, the historian of U.S. immigration. Thoroughgoing modernization, with a major redistribution of resources to its speakers, may paradoxically be what Tayap needs most. There can be no room for purism. Other languages can be learned strategically—sometimes it’s even better to vault to an international language like English—in a way that ultimately strengthens the mother tongue.

The successful language revitalization movements of the past century—whether Hebrew or Hawaiian, Basque or Breton, Mapuche or Māori—have been anchored in both sovereignty struggles and economic advance. These movements are breaking the link, inherited from colonialism, between their languages and the idea of “backwardness.” Could it work at the level of a single village? For the past several decades, Native American language activists like Jessie Little Doe Baird, with Wôpanâak, and Daryl Baldwin, with Myaamia, have been reviving languages which had no native speakers, starting with their own families and widening the circle from there. Ectoplasm like Kulick’s has come in handy. Instead of “growing down,” they are building wantoks again.

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