To keep a rare language alive

Women from several generations at a community gathering. Photo courtesy of Christopher Kikuchi.
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One of the rarest languages spoken by only a small community from Papua New Guinea may soon be extinct. Julia Reger reports.

One of the world’s rarest languages, spoken by less than 100 elderly people in a small Papua New Guinea community, may soon become extinct.

Rabaul Creole German, or Unserdeutsch, is the only Creole-German language in the world.

The language developed as a form of in-group communication between mixed-race children who grew up speaking Tok Pisin but were taught German in the mission school they attended.

Professor Craig Volker, a teacher of German in Australia, first met a student who spoke Unserdeutsch in one of his German classes in the 1970s.

He was surprised how fluent the student was in German but realised that she used a different structure of speaking to regular German. Professor Volker learned that she grew up speaking Unserdeutsch at home.

This led him to investigate the origins of the language which brought him to Rabaul, a township in Papua New Guinea, which had been colonialised by Germany in the 18th century.

The Germans had built a mission school in that area to raise mixed race children. There the nuns taught them to speak German and told them about German traditions.

In 2014 a team from the linguistic department of the University in Augsburg, Germany led by Professor Péter Maitz started to document the language now spoken by less than 100 elderly people.

Since the start of the documentation until now many of the original speakers have died.

Christopher Kikuchi, one of the Unserdeutsch speakers, explains that most of the people from his community now live on the East Coast of Australia. They have been sent there by their parents, the first generation of Unserdeutsch speakers, in the hope of a better education.

However, this has led them to use English as their main form of communication instead of the rare form of German they grew up speaking at home.

The Unserdeutsch speakers try to meet up a couple of times a year to talk about old memories but most importantly to talk to each other in Unserdeutsch to keep the language alive.

Another native Unserdeutsch speaker, Judie Layt, said she tried to teach her children some Unserdeutsch but they are not  fluent in the language. In an attempt to pass the language on, she and some others are now trying to teach their grandchildren to speak it as well.

Siegwalt Linderfelser, a postgraduate student from Augsburg, explained that they are trying to keep the language alive as well by speaking it themselves among their research team in Germany. They are working on a multilingual dictionary and grammar book to document it for future generations.

Judie Layt said that she feels sad about the fact that the language is most likely going to be extinct within the next century.

Women from several generations at a community gathering. Photo courtesy of Christopher Kikuchi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Until Péter Maitz started to document the language she never even realized that the language she grew up speaking was so special. She thought that she was just speaking bad German.

Looking back, she wished that the language could have been discovered and documented 20 years earlier when more of the original speakers were still alive.

Though the colonial period was not easy for the people from Papua New Guinea she doesn’t have hard feelings towards the language.

But the community doesn’t only have a language in common with their former colonisers. They also practice many typically German traditions such as celebrating St. Nicholas Day and did Easter egg hunts before they became popular in Australia.

Judie Layat says that they also enjoy singing German songs together when they meet each other.

She also explains that typical German dishes such as Sauerkraut and sausages are still very common within the community and she hopes that those traditions are much easier to hand down to future generations than the language itself.