Neighbouring groups in Papua New Guinea had contact through intermarriage, trade and warfare, leading to a certain amount of bilingualism or competence in other dialects. A sizeable minority of New Guinean women have had the experience of being linguistic ‘foreigners’ in the village into which they have married.

‘We might well ask why such contacts did not lead to a lessening of linguistic differences. A partial explanation probably lies in the fact that New Guineans often make use of other-language and other-dialect knowledge in rhetoric and verbal art, highlighting the known differences between their own and neighbouring speech varieties. It appears that contacts with and awareness of other languages have led not to levelling but to heightened consciousness of and pride in difference.’

Gillian Sankoff, The social life of language (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980) pp. 9-10, abridged

Quoted in Andrew Dalby, Dictionary of Languages (Columbia University Press, 1998) p. 491

Dalby points out that PNG “is linguistically the most complex region of the world. In mountainous, forested and swampy country, full of obstacles to travel, the languages of New Guinea have been developing and interacting for 40,000 years… It is a massive challenge to historical linguistics to trace language relationships that may date back 40,000 years or more. Genealogical trees have been drawn that link all the languages of New Guinea into a very few ‘phyla’, but for the present these all-embracing families are little more than blueprints for future research.”


  1. Prestige. Hardly a new concept. Though I suppose tying prestige to the mere *fact* of difference, rather than to specific varieties, is a bit of a switch. If that’s really what’s happening.

  2. I read a recent collection of essays on the causes of language change (dialect formation in New Zealand, the great vowel shift, and so on), and noticed a couple of different writers making casual reference to a maintenance of distinguishing traits for “ideological” (or at least not-purely-utilitarian) reasons.
    It’s one I can recognize from personal experience, having had it pointed out. Although the cornpone aspects of my dialect get re-inforced by phone calls with my family, they’ve been maintained largely by a need to “admit who I am.”
    Perhaps similarly, several essays indicated that when a small group of outsiders comes into contact with a larger group (via trade or migrant labor), it’s the larger group’s language which tends to be modified.

  3. Interesting. What’s the title of the book? I’ll have to take a look at it.
    Yeah, when I was in college people told me I sounded like an Okie when I was on the phone to my aunt and uncle. The details of language use are endlessly fascinating.

  4. The book is _Motives for Language Change_, ed. Raymond Hickey.
    I’m going to keep an eye out for more studies of oppositional linguistics. I mentioned the case of “self-image” or “self-definition,” which might be part of what was observed among New Guinean married women. Some other possible examples from personal observation:
    – The “exoticization” perks gained by maintenance of an English, Scottish, or Irish accent in American cities.
    – The “populist” perks gained by emphasis of a southern accent in American politics.
    – The “race traitor” or “class traitor” pressures brought to bear on African-Americans, on Irish-born residents of England, and on lower-class Britons who have improved their economic status.

  5. I had a TA whose voice instantly became extremely Canadian when she was talking to another TA out in the hall. All of us students were amazed.

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