Wednesday, 4 August 2010

blog holiday

Sorry for the long absence from blogging. I'm now in Papua New Guinea and from where I live on New Ireland, the nearest internet connection is 80km away. More to coe in October, when I am in Japan/cyberspace.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

A PNG-German Dramatic Collaboration Begins

Marc’s initial idea was to use large mannequins for actors. This was both because of his own training in European puppet theatre and because of our discussions about the problems of representing the first mixed-race Unserdeutsch speakers using German actors with no understanding of PNG or Papua New Guinean actors with no knowledge of the German language. As he gathered a team, he was able to enlist Nicola Unger, as director. Nicole, a German artist living in the Netherlands, decided to focus on themes of death and continuity, both on an individual level and for the community of speakers as a whole.

A combination of factors–Germany’s strong support for the arts and Marc Pohl’s enthusiasm for the project–led to enough initial funding for Nicola and Marc to come to Papua New Guinea and Australia in late 2008 to meet and interview the last active Unserdeutsch speakers and to get a firsthand feeling for the country itself, which neither had ever visited. I was able to make contact again with Unserdeutsch speakers and to travel with introduce Nicola and Marc to meet them in Rabaul, Brisbane, and Sydney. For me it was especially rewarding to reconnect with my former student, Yvonne, now a public servant in Queensland, whose appearance in my classroom a quarter century ago had changed my life so significantly.

We were also able to meet with the vice-chancellor of the University of Goroka, Dr Michael Mel, a well established Papua New Guinean artist in his own right. With his help, Nicola and Marc met with the Goroka-based Raunraun Theatre. They participated in the Raunraun Theatre’s rehearsal workshop and shared their impressions of contemporary German theatre. It is my deep hope that this contact can be further developed into stronger links between this very talented–and very underfunded–Papua New Guinean theatre company and artists in central Europe. Certainly, the discussions in Goroka helped Nicola and Marc get an understanding of Papua New Guinean dramatic creativity and sensibilities.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Unserdeutsch and Berlin

One of the people who read the interview in the Frankfurter Allgemeine about Unserdeutsch was Marc Pohl, a theatre producer with Aktionsbank, e.V. (, a not-for-profit drama group in Berlin that tends to work with issues that push traditional borders. Marc thought the idea would be an interesting idea to base a play on, so he cut the article out and put it in a drawer to "Deal with later".

Two years later, "later" arrived when he was cleaning out his apartment and came across the article again. Resolving to do something with the idea, he used Google to find me at my university in Japan. He explained his interest in the idea, but, of course, knowing nothing about Papua New Guinea, he wanted to pick my brain about it. As luck would have it, I was planning a trip to Berlin during my next summer holiday, so we arranged to meet up.

When we met in the summer of 2005 at an outside beer garden in Berlin, I was pleasantly surprised to find out how much research he had done in the meantime and how many old books he had found about the German colonial period in New Guinea. We hit it off and decided to go ahead with some kind of a theatre piece based on how the Unserdeutsch-speaking community began in the late 1800s in New Britain-- if Marc could get funding.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Bringing Unserdeutsch to the Web

After finishing my masters degree with the successful acceptance of my thesis about Unserdeutsch (Rabaul Creole German), I pursued little further research on the language. I accepted a job at Aiyura National High School in the PNG Eastern HIghlands, and was kept busy settling into a new country, becoming fluent in Tok Pisin, starting a new family, and eventually starting doctoral work on the Nalik language of New Ireland, an Austronesian vernacular that was only sparsely documented in the 1980s.

By the beginning of the 21st century, however, I was professor of languages at the Gifu Shotoku Gakuen University in Japan. Over the years a number of graduate students from German-speaking Europe found their way to me through Internet searches. They were interested in Rabaul Creole German and often wanted to check one or another characteristic of the language. One, Friedel Martin Frowein,was especially keen and much more computer-savvy than me. He put up a website with the support of the German Gesellschaft für Bedrohte Sprachen (Society for Endangered Langauges). This website is still active at: It has a number of papers about Unserdeutsch, as well as digitalised copies of some of the recordings I made during the 1970s.

Through this website the number of people who have become aware of the language has steadily increased. Among the people who have contacted me through this website was a reporter for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who wrote about the language in the context of modern German attitudes towards cultural identity ad integration in a multicultural society.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Documenting Unserdeutsch

By the time I went to PNG for the first time in 1979, I knew that I was going to be the first linguist to try to document Rabaul Creole German / Unserdeutsch. Through a colleague in Australia who had taught in Rabaul, I was able to swap houses and a car with an Australian teacher who was teaching in Rabaul.

This was my first experience with the wonderfully chaotic and generous world of expats in PNG. Generous because we had a big house and a car to use for three weeks, a real help in getting around the Gazelle Peninsula to interview people. Chaotic-- well, when we went to take a shower, we found that someone had forgotten his/her false teeth in the shower. I had a great image of someone going toothless for an entire trip to Australia....

Another teacher, Veronica, with ties to the Unserdeutsch-speaking community (her husband was of mixed German-PNG background) spent many days introducing people to me to interview.

I used two methods to get data. With some people I gave sentences in Tok Pisin or English and asked them to translate the sentences into Unserdeutsch. These sentences were chosen to try to see to what extent sentence structures and vocabulary were like either German or Tok Pisin. With other people I used some stimulus (a picture book or photos) to record an extended monologue or story.

The original tapes were deposited with the MGATA dialect tape collection at the University of Queensland library. The library threw the tapes out at some date when it decided to move the MGATA collection to another university. Luckily I hd made copies, but these were not kept in a good environment, and not all tapes were copied. Some of these tapes are now on the Unserdeutsch website discussed earlier.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Why is Rabaul Creole German dying?

Unserdeutsch (Rabaul Creole German) is a dying language. In this respect, it's not unique—languages around the world are dying. See, for example, By the end of this century, I would be very pleasantly surprised if half of the languages spoken today still have native speakers.

We use a language because it has a purpose. Among the purposes are:

- to communicate within our group, be it the family or the ethnic group
- to communicate with others outside our group (many people learn English for this reason)
- to access formal or informal education (many people used to learn Latin for this purpose)
- to revere the Divine (many Hindus learn Sanskrit for this reason)

When these purposes no longer exist, people stop learning or using the language, even if it is their native tongue.

In the case of Unserdeutsch, the small community of speakers was always at least trilingual in Tok Pisin (New Guinea Pidgin English) for communication with others, as well as English and/or German for communication with others, education, and religious worship. The only real purpose of Unserdeutsch was for communication within their group and as a badge of ethnic identity.

When the colour bar was lowered in the 1960s, and mixed-race persons could take Ausralian citizenship and move to Australia, most families sent their children to school in Australia. At Independence, most made plans to move permanently to Australia, where they saw their future as being more secure. Many, perhaps, most, young people from the 1960s on married outside their small community, so that their children did not identify primarily as mixed-race Germans and did not learn to speak Unserdeutsch.

Because the language no longer has a purpose, younger members of the community, now dispersed along the Australian eastern seaboard, grow up with English as their dominant language. while they may know some phrases from a grandparent, they are not fluent speakers of the language. The youngest fluent speakers of the language are now in their sixties. The language is therefore unlikely to survive as the language of native speakers for more than a few decades. The challenge to linguists and members of the community now is to document the language so that future generations will have access to this unique language whose birth and death symbolise the turmoil of European colonialism and the emergence of the modern nation-state of Papua New Guinea.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

How I got to know about Unserdeutsch

I was lucky enough to be the first linguist to document Rabaul Creole German/Unserdeutsch. In the late 1970s I was teaching German at Miami State High School on the Queensland Gold Coast in Australia. A new student, Yvonne, came to be registered at the school who wanted to take German. As usual, I spoke with her in German to see just how much German she spoke-- foreign language teaching standards varied greatly in Australian schools. I was surprised at how fluent her accent was and how comfortable she was trying to speak German, but how unusual her grammar was. When I asked where she had studied German, she said she had never studied it, but that her family spoke it "at home".

As she was a Black girl and "at home" was Papua New Guinea, this was a big surprise. I was a masters student in German at the University of Queensland with a strong interest in German dialects spoken by European emigrants in places like North America and Australia, but I had never heard of a German settler dialect spoken in Papua New Guinea.

As I got to know Yvonne and her family, I learned that this was a language very similar to Tok Pisin (PNG Pidgin English). They were kind enough to introduce me to other members of their community and to prepare me for a visit to Rabaul for fieldwork. I knew I had a topic for my thesis. I did not know how meeting Yvonne would change my life, as PNG became my home and the focus of my professional and personal lives.