Nestled against the Pacific Ocean – on an island group split cruelly in half between two sovereign states – is Papua New Guinea. She remains a vast forested island, largely ignored internationally, ruled over and ravaged. Her recent history has been cruel – divided between Germany and Britain in the 19th century – the German portion was conquered by Australian troops during WW1.
Despite this, these unassuming islands hold the honour of being one of the world’s most linguistically diverse places. Around 800 languages are spoken amongst its 7 million inhabitants, which means a language for about every 8500 Papua New Guineans. In some areas there is a new language every 200 sq km. Not only that, but some are entirely unrelated to any others, of an origin long since lost in the mists of time. Part of the reason behind this surely lies in its isolation. Splattered islands surround it on all sides, whilst dense forests and sky-piercing mountains slice up its inland communities, reducing interaction. Time too plays its role.
For 40,000 years humans have inhabited the islands, and every time a group split off to find a new home in the woods, they began a new branch on the tree of linguist diversity.
Tribal culture and the lack of centralised power did not encourage linguistic unity until well into the 19th century. Having a separate tongue surely helped tribal groups identify friend from foe in the low light of the thick jungle.
These unique set of topographic, cultural and positional circumstances have had an effect on more than just language.
During WW2, conflict ravaged South East Asia and the pacific, as allied forces drove back the Japanese advance. For the native populations of Papua New Guinea, this came as a whirlwind of shock and change. For centuries they had lived with relatively little contact with each other, let alone the outside world, in highly traditional and conservative societies. The arrival of strange, pale-faced men in their lands, wielding tools the like of which they had never seen, who despite their small number were able to defeat even their bravest warriors with a streak of fire and thunder, shook the very foundations of their societies.
As the war blitzed over their island, their world was rocked by the noise of the huge steel birds that screamed through the sky, the gun fire and explosions. As troops occupied the interior, planes dropped supplies from up high, scattering them into the jungle canopy.
Bands of Papua New Guinean tribesmen, walking through the landscape that they and their ancestors had known for centuries, yet was suddenly so unfamiliar, stumbled across these airdrops.
They were amazed as they prised open crates to find goods of incredible, almost magical qualities. Manufactured cloths, steel weapons, preserved foods and other items of a quality they could hardly comprehend. How could they explain this? How did these strange men from far away summon these magical items, seemingly from the sky? The conclusion that village elders, mystics and priests drew was that something about the behaviour of these men must appease the Gods. That somehow acting in the way that they do must please the almighty powers, who shower them with gifts. As such the Papua New Guineans began to mimic the behaviour of the westerners.
Firstly, they begin to view these strange men from across the ocean as something akin to a God. They fawned to the soldiers, and begged for supplies, which the soldiers often shared with them. When hostilities ended however, the supply of goods dried up. Confused and desperate the islands looked for answers. Fashioning rifles out of wood and parading around the old parade grounds, building towers out of wood and sitting inside with wood around their ears to imitate headphones, the islanders engaged in this ritualistic behaviour, thinking that if they acted like the westerners they had seen the cargos would return. Others waved wooded batons on runways cut out of the jungle and built makeshift planes out of straw.
With a new generation in a new world, there is less need for the esoteric languages of a bygone age. What the example of this distant land shows us however, is the extraordinary diversity of the inhabitants of this earth. It demonstrates how our environment, physical and cultural, shapes us as people. Behaviour, perfectly rational to one set of eyes, is bizarre and nonsensical to another.
We cannot underestimate the importance of localisation when engaging with the outside world.
Even a small distance makes a massive difference.
And when that distance is half way around the world, it may feel like an entirely different planet.