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Papua New Guinea: Land of 800 languages


In the above map, conceived by Swedish linguist Mikael Parkvall, each country's area is proportional to the number of languages it has produced. The map, which appears in Parkvall's fascinating book Limits of Language, is accompanied by the following caption:

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... The ten shaded countries are those in which more than 200 languages are in use.

So why does Papua New Guinea have so many indigenous languages? Deep valleys and unforgiving terrain have kept the different tribes of Papua New Guinea relatively isolated, so that the groups' languages are not blended together but remain distinct. While the country is thought to have over 800 living languages, some, like Abaga, are spoken by as few as five(!) people.

Check out the Amazon reviews of Limits of Language here. An entertaining excerpt from one reader's glowing recommendation:

I've never smoked crack, but reading this book approximates what I imagine it would feel like -- an initial rush of pure pleasure, followed by the irresistible craving for just one more bump, yielding to that craving over and over until - six hours later - you find yourself surrounded by cats not fed, laundry not done, unwashed dishes, unpaid bills, and yet you still can't stop yourself. You want more.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Asia, Australia

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