Sunday, January 13, 2008

Papua New Guinea: Linguistic Superpower

Strange Maps:

The book Limits of Language by Swedish linguist Mikael Parkvall is a sort of languages-only Guinness Book of Records, listing everything that’s large, small and otherwise interesting about the manifold manners of human speech and associated forms of communication. One item deals with the world’s most linguistically diverse countries, and is illustrated with this map, of the world’s ‘linguistic superpowers’. The caption reads:

“Languages are very unevenly distributed among the countries of the world. The map tries to capture this fact by rendering each country in a size corresponding to the number of languages spoken in it. (Because of the inherent problems in accomplishing this, sizes are rather approximate). The ten shaded countries are those in which more than 200 languages are in use.”

The Ethnologue, cited a bit further, only lists 9 countries with more than 200 languages, however. Here are the 12 top countries:

Papua New Guinea 823 languages
Indonesia 726
Nigeria 505
India 387
Mexico 288
Cameroon 279
Australia 235
DR Congo 218
China 201
Brazil 192
United States 176
Philippines 169

It’s curious how the linguistically most diverse country in the world is Papua New Guinea – because it’s also the place with the biggest biodiversity anywhere, one of the last places in the world where new species get discovered regularly. I wonder whether there’s a single explanation for both phenomena.

I was alerted to this map by Bjørn A. Bojesen; Mr Parkvall himself was kind enough to provide me with this map. Here’s a link to his book on Amazon, warmly recommended for anyone both language- and trivia-obsessed.


Papua New Guinea also gets a lot of missionary activity from Christians who believe the Bible mandates that the gospel needs to be taken to people of every nation, tribe, people and language. According to the US State Department:

The bulk of the estimated 2,000 Americans resident in Papua New Guinea are missionaries and their families.

With the lingquistic diversity (indicative of numerous, indepednent development of many cultures) and religious freedom of Papua New Guinea, I would expect it to have significant religious diversity as well. (Although perhaps this is shrinking with all the missionary activity. Monotheistic religions tend to dominate polytheistic ones when they come into competition with one another.)

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