Small Languages in PNG: Are they declining?


This note studies the population figures given in the last two Ethnologue editions (14 and 15, 1996 and 2000, respectively) for languages with 500 speakers or less in PNG.

My conclusion is that the number of such small languages has declined in every population category and that overall the number of small languages has declined by 41.

The following table outlines the figures from the Ethnologue editions.

Number of Speakers Ethnologue 14 Ethnologue 15
Extinct[1] 8 8
01-50 13 21
51-100 32 24
101-200 61 42
201-300 47 38
301-400 56 43
401-500 41 31
Total 258 – 8 = 250 217 – 8 = 209

Table 1: Population Figures given in Ethnologue 14th and 15th Editions

Chart A: Papua New Guinea Small (500 or fewer) Languages

There are a number of considerations when examining the two Ethnologue records:

  1. The number of languages has remained approximately the same: 832 > 830
  2. The number of small languages has decreased: 250 > 209
  3. The number of extinct languages has remained the same: 8
  4. The number of languages in the 1-50 range is the same: 45
  5. The number of languages in the 51-100 range has decreased by 8 languages
  6. The number of languages in the 101-200 range has decreased by 19 languages
  7. The number of languages in the 201-300 range has decreased by 9 languages
  8. The number of languages in the 301-400 range has decreased by 13 languages
  9. The number of languages in the 401-500 range has decreased by 10 languages

Based on the decreased number of languages in each category in Ethnologue 15, it seems likely that the overall decrease in the number of small languages is either because they have become larger and are now in the “over 500” category or that some of them have moved from one category to another.  Even if this is the case, some have “disappeared.”  Given the overall growth of population recorded in the 2000 census it seems that these smaller languages are struggling to maintain their population levels.

Based on the same numbers in the 1-50 category in both Ethnologue editions, it seems unlikely that there are current population figures available.  Surely there would have been some population change.

It would seem therefore that:

  1. The PNG survey department does not have any regular method to update the 1-50 or extinct categories for each Ethnologue edition
  2. The small languages will continue to decline although, for some reason, the overall number of PNG languages remains the same
  3. Some of the population figures are unreliable

In respect to bullet three, consider the following table which names small languages (8) where SIL or BTA is either working or has worked:

SIL/BTA Map (no date) Ethnologue 15th Edition
Language and Speakers Increase/Decrease
Ama 400 475
Bahinemo 400 550
Ogea 500 2,915
Gumawana 470 469
Karnai 450 915
Serra 300 432
Sissano 300 300
Warapu 300 300


Table 2: SIL/BTA Map (no date) Compared to Ethnologue 15

Chart B: Population Changes Relative to 500 or Fewer Speakers

Note the following:

  1. The population change for Ogea is obviously in error
  2. The population change for Karnai seems excessive
  3. Sissano and Warapu remain unchanged and should be checked
  4. Three languages have increased in population so as to be above the 500 speaker threshold
  5. Only one language (Gumawana) has decreased in population and it only by one speaker
Karl J. Franklin
November, 2005

[1] Extinct languages are not included in the calculations.  They are listed here only for interest.