Language

Dash to document disappearing PNG language

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International researchers are rushing to document a German colonial-era language from Papua New Guinea before it becomes extinct.

One of the world's rarest languages is being kept alive in Australia, spoken by just a handful of families. 

The rare language is known as Unserdeutsch, or 'Our German'. The linguists' work has reunited the scattered speakers, some for the first time in decades.

"Unserdeutsch is a contact language, like all creoles are contact languages, and shares features with PNG pidgin, German and English but it has its own characteristics as well," said Professor Peter Maitz from the University of Augsburg.

"The most important thing is it's the only German-based creole worldwide we know of, so this is really a unique language and unfortunately a dying language, so this is the last chance to document it."

At a recent gathering in Brisbane, several dozen of the Unserdeutsch speakers sung old-German songs and reminisced about their childhoods in the Catholic mission in Rabaul.

They sung out, "Willst du klettern", amid laughter at the unique greeting used only by the mixed-race descendants of German colonialists from what was once known as Kaiser-Wilhelmsland.

"When we came (to Australia) from Papua New Guinea after independence, when we get together, we speak Unserdeutsch," said Diana Kraus-Kearney says in Unserdeutsch. 

"I'm very proud (to speak it), from my grandmother to my mother to me but I'm sad our children don't speak Unserdeutsch."

Parts of northern and eastern New Guinea were seized by Germany's Kaiser in 1884 and a lucrative colony was set up.

With the colonists came nuns - Sisters of the Sacred Heart - who set up an orphanage at Vunapope, near the then capital Rabaul, for the mixed-race children of the Germans and others.

Emilia Ah Ming's name says it all.

"My mother was half white, my father was Chinese. Black and white and black and yellow," she said in Unserdeutsch with a laugh.

"We spoke Unserdeutsch our way at home, our way."

Professor Maitz's research is the first on Unserdeutsch in decades. 

"The language emerged in the orphanage among the mixed-race children who were living in the mission in social isolation and learnt proper German and then in the dorms developed this simplified version, their own group language, or a secret language," he said.

Unserdeutsch survived more than a century after Germany's New Guinea colony fell to Australia in World War One and English became the language of authority. 

Most speakers applied for Australian citizenship after PNG's independence four decades ago and now about 100 fluent speakers remain scattered across Australia.

"Australia is a mono-lingual country, in PNG it is a completely different situation where people speak two or three languages," professor Maitz said.

"People live in different parts of Australia now and not like Vunapope in PNG where they lived close together, so they had the chance to speak it, and now as there's no need to speak language and where there is no need or chance to speak it, people loose it and and instead of Unserdeutsch speak English now," professor Maitz said.

Unserdeutsch was first recorded in the 1970s by a then young University of Queensland Masters student Craig Volker while teaching German at schools on the Gold Coast. 

"The very first day I met a student who had this wonderful, perfect accent, vocabulary and was very relaxed but the words were kind of all over the place," professor Volker said.

The student was Yvonne Lundin. 

"I thought (German lessons) would be easy because I understood a bit about German, but when I got there, I sort of got confused because it was a different kind of German, to my German," she said.

Professor Volker was looking for a thesis topic.

"So I asked Yvonne, 'Where did you learn German?' She said she was never taught it, she learnt it at home," he said.

"It’s not every day that a PNG student walks into your classroom and says they're native German speaker, and I found she wasn't a bad speaker but that they spoke in a different structure to what they spoke in Germany. Maybe this is of interest?"

Now a professor in linguistics, Craig Volker's old masters thesis was uncovered three decades later by Peter Maitz, who is recording the last Unserdeutsch speakers for the next generations.

As one of the youngest known speakers, Ms Lundin is a focus of the research. 

"I hear this Unserdeutsch being spoken about, it's an identity, we're given an identity because there's a language that binds us now," she said. 

"There is a history that binds us, and this Unserdeutsch is a little bit glue.  

"It's important for future generations that this information is gathered, about where did their grandparents come from and, if they Google, they'll know there is this little pocket of people that used to speak this language."

Many there words have survived unchanged and their meanings understood even by non-German speakers, others like the Unserdeutsch for "hello" has a double meaning. 

"The sentence like, 'Ich will klettern du', how should I explain that so it can be broadcast?" Professor Maitz said laughing.

"'Klettern' is a German word, but the word in Unserdeutch, 'kletter' doesn't just mean climb, but also when two people are about to climb each other in certain positions.

"This word shows us well that Unser Deutsch is spoken in the community and not outside."

Professor Maitz's recording of Unserdeutsch will eventually be upload online for all to access.

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