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: http://www.uni-koeln.de/gbs/unserdeutsch/index.html. 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, http://www.endangered-languages.com/. 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.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Unserdeutsch / Rabaul Creole German

One of the most interesting languages I have worked with in Papua New Guinea is Rabaul Creole German, which its speakers call Unserdeutsch ("Our German"). The language arose at the end of the nineteenth century in German New Guinea when Catholic missionaries at Vunapope, near Rabaul in what we now call East New Britain established an orphanage for mixed-race children. The education at the mission was all in Standard German, but the children played with the language, using German words to make sentences based on the early form of Tok Pisin (New Guinea Pidgin English) used as a common language in the German colony.

As these children became adults and married each other, this new language became the mother tongue of their children in many families. For several generations, and even after the Australian conquest of the German colony in WWI, it was one of the main languages of the small multilingual mixed-race community centered around Vunapope and Kokopo (formerly called Herbertshöhe). When most of the community dispersed and emigrated to Australia with Papua New Guinean independence in 1975, the language ceased to be learned by a new generation of speakers. Today only a few dozen speakers remain, the youngest in their sixties. It is perhaps the only language of Papua New Guinea to face extinction through emigration. It is also the only known example of a creole language based on German.

Friedel Martin Frowein, a German linguist and doctoral student in Australia, has made a website where a number of articles and recordings about the language can be accessed: http://www.uni-koeln.de/gbs/unserdeutsch/index.html

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Vernacular, pidgin, and creole languages in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea has more languages than any other country on earth; of the 6909 languages listed at www.ethnologue.org, 841 are in this relatively small country with only six million people. The overwhelming majority are vernacular languages, that is, the indigenous languages of the aboriginal people, usually called "tok ples" in Papua New Guinea. A few are introduced languages, such as English.

The rest are pidgin and creole languages, including two of the three national languages, Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu. Pidgin languages arise when people of different languages come together for work or trade who have no common language. They often come about as a result of colonisation. Sometimes these languages become the mother tongue of young children, in which case they are called creole languages these creole languagess must be develop into full languages as the children grow and express themselves in the creole

In later posts I'll talk about the two Papua New Guinean pidgin and creole languages I've worked with, Unserdeutsch (Rabaul Creole German) and Tok Pisin (New Guinea Pidgin English).

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

I am fortunate to live and work in two extremes-- Japan and Papua New Guinea. In every possible way they are exact opposites. One is technological, reserved, monolingual, highly educated, and very first-world. The other is traditional, out-going, multilingual, poorly educated, and very third world. Both are fascinating, professionally, culturally, and socially. In this blog I will share some of the professional, cultural, and social insights of life in my homes, with a particular emphasis on language and its interplay with culture and society.