Endangered Languages of Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse conuntry with a total of 750 languages in some 30 different language families, spoken by a population of roughly 4 million. Most of these languages are very small and endangered at great risk of not being passed on the next generation. It is our research mission to document these languages for future generations.

Languages of the New Guinea Region

Languages of the New Guinea area are generally divided into two large groupings: Austronesian languages and Papuan languages. The Austronesian languages all belong to the far-flung Austronesian language family, stretching east to west from Southeast Asia to Hawaii, and north to south from Formosa to New Zealand. Most of the roughly 250 Austronesian languages of the New Guinea area (and all of those in Papua New Guinea) belong to a single subgroup of the family known as the Oceanic subgroup.

Papuan Languages

A Sepik villager

A villager of the Sepik area in PNG. How will we learn about his culture if we cannot speak his language? The key to studying a culture is knowing the language.

Papuan languages are quite different in this respect. The 750 or so Papuan languages do not constitute a single, genetically unified language family, but rather are organized into about sixty different language families averaging ten member languages each. With much more careful and detailed comparative work, some of these language families will undoubtedly be combined into larger genetic groupings, as the Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic language families among others have been combined to form the Indo-European language family.

Since many Papuan language families are composed of so many distinct languages, it can be very difficult to describe what a "typical" Papuan language is, as all generalizations will be contradicted by one language or language family. Click to read more about Papuan Languages >>

Bill Foley's work summarises how two languages, Yimas and Watam, fit with the characterization of languages spoken in the Pacific known as Papuan languages. Click on the links below to read these works.

The Yimas Language

The Watam Language


Several research papers are available for viewing on endangered languages of Papua New Guinea:

The Languages of New Guinea by Bill Foley (2000)

Papuan Languages (for International Encyclopedia of Linguistics) by Bill Foley (2003)

Language endangerment, language documentation and capacity building: Challenges from New Guinea by Bill Foley (2004)

Related Links

Wikipedia: Papua New Guinea
Learn more about Papua New Guinea at Wikipedia

Ethnologue: Papua New Guinea
The Ethnologue reference for Papua New Guinea provides detailed descriptions for the 820 living languages of the country.

Wikipedia: East Sepik
Yimas and Watam are languages of the Sepik area in Papua New Guinea.

Webpage created by Voxcomm, a 2005 Arts Informatics Project. All information, images and media copyright of the Linguistics Department, USYD, 2005.