Social & Historical Context


The Arapesh-speaking villages have a total population of about 30,000. However, population figures present a misleading picture of Arapesh vitality, since vernacular fluency is no longer predictable from village of residence. This is increasingly true throughout the entire “West Coast” and “Sepik Highway” areas of East Sepik and Sandaun provinces where the Arapesh languages are spoken. As with so many other languages in the region, Cemaun Arapesh is giving way to Papua New Guinea's English-based creole lingua franca, Tok Pisin, and increasingly to English. Tok Pisin is the main language used in the Cemaun villages, as well as by Cemaun people living in town. The youngest good Cemaun speakers are all elderly, putting their language on the verge of “seriously endangered”. Younger Cemaun speakers show clear deterioration in their grammar and fluency, and their speech in all genres is marked by frequent code-switching. Below middle age, there is a precipitous drop in vernacular competence in every respect. Young people are unable to produce extended stretches of vernacular speech, and although some young villagers have limited passive competence, most children cannot understand even basic commands and greetings. There are fewer than a hundred fluent speakers of Cemaun. No one within living memory has been monolingual. Since these recordings were made, nearly all of the fluent speakers whose voices were captured have passed away.

In many ways, the Cemaun Arapesh situation is a textbook case of language shift leading toward extinction. Paradoxically, this process is being accelerated by the Cemaun people's unusually high rate of success in education and formal urban employment, which makes them reliant on Tok Pisin and English and draws the population, as well as prestige, away from the village and a traditional way of life. Indeed, in the last generation, so many people have left Wautogik that more of its people now live in towns and cities than in the village itself. The Wautogik diaspora is unusually well represented in the national elite. This group includes diplomats, politicians, businessmen, teachers, and professors, as well as several internationally trained PhDs. Increasingly aware that their language is obsolescing, villagers have raised funds for language revitalization activities (such as building a vernacular language preschool) and members of the diaspora community have expressed some interest in reaquiring the language. Community leaders have been supportive of research on the language, welcoming efforts by western linguists to document it for their descendants and help reinvigorate its use.

Language shift among the Arapesh has proceeded in large part in response to culture-external factors associated with colonialism and the postcolonial national framework. These include the use of Tok Pisin as the official medium of Catholic missionization since 1931 and the use of English as the official language of national discourse and schooling since the 1950s. Perhaps more importantly, however, Arapesh people's eager embrace of Tok Pisin has been facilitated by the culturally particular ways in which foreign linguistic codes have come to be symbolically associated with the prestige of western modernity, Christianity, and development. While from an analytical perspective Tok Pisin is undoubtedly a local language, villagers nevertheless strongly associate its use with the West. Traditional Arapesh society is culturally predisposed to be open to diffusion and indeed to value most highly those cultural forms, including languages, that can be attracted from outside. While it is hard to predict the future, the factors that have shaped the language's history to this point make its continued use in daily life unlikely.


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