Written Languages in Papua New Guinea

Over 200 of PNG’s languages, estimated to number between 650 and 750, have been given written form, with grammars, dictionaries and readers. Most of this work has been done by the Christian missions. By 1890, for example, the London Missionary Society had printed very simple books in seven languages and published the four gospels of the New Testament in Hiri Motu. In the late 19th century Lutheran and Catholic missionaries began writing down the languages of the people whom they were converting. Their motive was usually to teach people the scriptures, not provide secular instruction.

Much work has been done by the Summer Institute of Linguists (SIL), a Christian foundation formed in the United States of America in 1934 to study Mexican languages. SIL activities were extended to other countries, and in 1956 a team based at Ukarumpa, in Eastern Highlands Province, began work in PNG. SIL workers, most of them North American, have translated the whole of the New Testament into 60 languages and are working on 150 other languages. SIL’s highly trained linguists have produced many scholarly papers as well as translations. A PNGan group, the Papua New Guinea Bible Translation Association, is working on a further 25 languages.

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