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The University of Hong Kong
Exchanging languages: Explaining language shift in Papua New Guinea

This is a paper written together with American linguist Lise Dobrin (U Virginia) that attempts to account for the fact that languages in the country of Papua New Guinea seem to be disappearing at a dishearteningly rapid rate. I will briefly discuss the evidence for the widespread language shift and argue that the reasons behind it are the same dynamics that, in the past, led to country’s lush linguistic diversity (840 languages, at last estimate)—a diversity that now is vanishing. I will suggest that both diversity and shift are crucially linked to the prominence and value of exchange throughout the country. Language traditionally has been regarded less as a conceptual system than as a material possession; a quality that makes it both available and desirable for exchange with others. When the conditions of exchange are altered (as has happened during the last century with the colonization and missionization of Papua New Guinea), the dynamics of exchange relationships remain, but the consequences of those exchanges turn out to be dramatically different.


Don Kulick is Chair Professor of Anthropology at HKU and Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology at Uppsala University, Sweden. His books include A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea (2019); Loneliness and its Opposite: Sex, Disability and the Ethics of Engagement (with J. Rydström, 2015); Language and Sexuality (with D. Cameron, 2003) and Travesti: Sex, Gender and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes (1998).