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Endangered Languages

Indicators of Ethnolinguistic Vitality

M. Lynn Landweer

Originally printed in Notes on Sociolinguistics 5.1:5-22.


The fact that languages "die" is not new;[1] Koiné Greek and Classical Latin both are "dead" as spoken languages. The only reason we know of them is because of the written record that was left behind. In Papua New Guinea we have records of 830 languages. Of that number nine are considered extinct, and at least sixteen others, with speaker populations of less than fifty, could be considered endangered if not dying by almost any observer. In addition there are other languages, such as Taiap, Doga, and Mamaa whose population figures could suggest potential language viability; however, upon closer examination, these vernaculars are in fact dying. They are dying not because their populations have stopped talking—people after all are incurably gregarious—they are dying because of the effect of language use choices made by the majority of individuals of those speech communities. In essence, instead of using Taiap, Doga, and Mamaa, former speakers have instead chosen to use Tok Pisin, Anuki or Jimajima, or Finungwa, respectively. However, my focus today is not specifically on Papua New Guinea's lost or endangered languages, but on the processes which undermine language vitality and lead toward that demise.

Because SIL linguistics personnel generally commit 10 to 20 years of their lives to living and working within specific indigenous people groups for the purpose of facilitating language development projects, it is advantageous to know in advance which languages are likely to remain viable to the end of such projects. When SIL first entered the country, language groups were relatively isolated from one another and, as a result, their traditional vernaculars were relatively stable. However, during the last forty years Papua New Guinea has run a course of rapid development that has brought more and more speech communities into contact with one another. The existence of a unified education system, the growth of corporate and private enterprise, and extensions of systems of travel have fostered the need for and use of various lingua francas.[2] With intergroup contact and thus the need for and opportunity to learn other languages, people groups in Papua New Guinea are now faced with the option of switching language allegiances toward the languages they perceive will give them better

During the last 14 years, my work with SIL has been aimed at understanding what factors are associated with such shift in language allegiance. Combining the disciplined study of sociolinguistics with personal experience of sociolinguistic survey of language groups throughout this country, I have found that there are at least eight interacting indicators of potential language viability germane to the Papua New Guinea setting. Over the years, SIL colleagues and I have used the following eight indicators to produce sociolinguistics profiles of 76 distinct language groups, including a projection of the vitality of each of the languages:[3]

Indicators of ethnolinguistic vitality

The indicators of ethnolinguistic vitality are a collection of factors that have been documented in sociolinguistic literature and found pertinent in Papua New Guinea. First presented in 1989 (Landweer 1991), and then developed further and reported in 1998,[4] these factors have been useful in indicating the probable direction a speech community will go relative to the maintenance of, or shift from, its traditional language. No one factor has become a leading indicator of linguistic vitality. Whether a language appears to be "maintained" or "dying" depends on the collective impact of positive or negative indicators that place the language on a continuum of stable vitality, change in process due to other-language interference, radical shift in process, and death. As such, language maintenance and shift are long-term consequences of consistent patterns of language choice throughout the speech community.

One note of caution is appropriate at this point. The absence of indicators of ethnolinguistic vitality—and by implication the presence of characteristics associated with language shift—is not foolproof in the prediction of language shift or death, but they do seem to suggest the direction the language is taking. It may be that language maintenance is not completely associated with the QUANTITY of the indicators present, but perhaps the QUALITY of interrelationships between relatively positive and relatively negative forces, leading to language maintenance or language death, respectively. These relative strengths have yet to be studied and documented in Papua New Guinea.[5] With this note of caution, a discussion of the eight indicators of ethnolinguistic vitality follows. Included in the discussion are examples of how each indicator has been manifested in one or more speech communities of Papua New Guinea. In addition a hierarchical scale is proposed for the use of each indicator.

Relative position on the urban-rural continuum

The first indicator of ethnolinguistic vitality is the relative position of speech communities along an urban-rural continuum. For example, the Baibai people of Sandaun province (Landweer and Sligh 1999) live in three widely separated villages, the first located 19 hours hiking time from the nearest airstrip. There are no roads nor are there any navigable rivers in the area. Clearly, the Baibai people group would be considered remotely located. In contrast, the people of the eastern dialect of Koita (Landweer and Toivanen 1989b) live in communities that are now within the city and suburban limits of Port Moresby. One outcome of the daily contact these Koitabuans have with outsiders has been the adoption of Motu, a regional lingua franca, for communication even among themselves. During the survey of Koita, I found that the majority of ethnic Koitabuan people located in this eastern dialect area speaks Motu. This choice of language even included Koitabu elders, who sheepishly admitted that they spoke Motu to their children and grandchildren instead of Koita.[6] The experience of speakers of the eastern dialect of Koita is not unusual. Proximity to urban centers is a well-documented undermining factor to vernacular or minority language vitality (cf. Buchheit 1988).

Position on the urban-rural continuum covers not only the physical location of a speech community relative to an urban area (or area where speakers of different and more prestigious languages congregate), but also what access speakers of the vernacular have to urban communities, and how many people take advantage of that access. In 1989 I had the opportunity to work briefly among the Labu people of Morobe Province (Landweer and Purnell 1989). During my stay I noted that about one‑half of the Labu lived in Labubutu, a village of approximately 800 people. This village is located just 20–30 minutes by dinghy southwest of Lae, across the mouth of the Markham. While visiting in Labubutu, I noted that the majority of the adult population left the village for Lae sometime between 6:00 and 8:00 a.m. and then returned between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. the same day. Those who remained behind were the very old, the children enrolled at the community school nearby, and very young children. Of further significance was the reported fact that these trips to Lae and back occurred six days a week. For all intents and purposes then, Labubutu seemed to function like a suburb of the city of Lae even though not physically within the city or suburban limits. The lingua francas in Lae are Tok Pisin and English. The shift of allegiance from the traditional Labu language to Tok Pisin was not surprising, particularly among the many who spent their days in Lae.

For application among speech communities in this country, the underlying questions of the remote-urban continuum are: Is the speech community located in or near a population center where its members would have contact with speakers of other languages? Do they have access to such a population center?

In the scaled breakdown of these questions that follows, a language remote from an urban community or congregation of other-language speakers would be the least affected therefore the strongest, and a language located within urban confines would be the most affected and thus the weakest. Thus, a four point scale might be:

Domains in which the language is used

Language (or dialect) choice can function as a mark of group identification and solidarity.[7] Thus, within the Melanesian context where multilingualism is the norm, accounting for vernacular choice according to the number of domains in which it is found is the second proposed indicator of ethnolinguistic vitality. Practically speaking this means identifying the domains of life where language choice becomes a factor and determining in just how many domains each language is used.

Fishman (1972:442) defines a domain as "a sociocultural construct abstracted from topics of communication, relationships between communicators, and locales of communication, in accord with the institutions of a society and the spheres of a speech community". In Papua New Guinea a number of social domains are found consistently in any language community. For domain analysis I have found it useful to break down these culturally relevant domains into variable subdomains. Speakers choose which language to use every time they interact within a given subdomain. The cumulative choices then suggest which of the languages in the community's repertoire is the language of choice for each domain.

The foundational social domain throughout Papua New Guinea is that of the home. Within the domain of home, there are the subdomains of instruction, correction or scolding, information, comfort, humor, and religious observance within communication dyads of spouses, adults with in-laws, adults with other adults who are not related, adults with children, and children with children.

After the home, the next most foundational domains are cultural events, followed by social events. Depending on how one slices the societal pie, such events as marriages, funerals, births, naming ceremonies, harvest, competitive feasts, public discussions or arguments, and singsings can be considered subdomains of cultural events. Social events could include such things as political campaigns, work parties, sport, and adjudication (called "courting" in Papua New Guinea). Within the domain of the church, there are subdomains of scripture, liturgy, sermon or homily, music, prayer, and announcements.

In many, but not every Papua New Guinean village context, there are additional domains where language choices are made. These include formal education, business, travel, and written communication. Within the domain of formal education, subdomains include the language of instruction, the language(s) of study, the language(s) allowed in recreation, and the language(s) that the faculty use to communicate to local parents about school matters. Within the domain of business there are subdomains of employment, private business (such as trade store operation), and marketing. Within the domain of travel one could identify three potential possibilities: using transport owned by relatives or speakers of one’s own language, using transport owned by outsiders, and using public transport. The final domain in some instances could be that of writing, when there is an accepted alphabet associated with the vernacular in addition to that of the language(s) of instruction within the formal education system.

Thus, the underlying question relative to the number of language use domains asks: Is there sufficient use of the target language throughout community life? In essence the more domains in which the vernacular is used the better. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the last domain to be lost in any potential language allegiance battle is that of the home. Thus, the home forms the anchor domain for this hierarchy. A suggested scaled breakdown indicating the relative strength of the vernacular language by domains could be as follows:

Frequency and type of code switching

Code switching is as common as speech. Technically, CODE is a neutral term that denotes any variety of speech within the repertoire of the speakers, from their language(s) to the dialect(s) within their language repertoire, and the various registers and styles within their dialect(s). However, in the context of the current discussion, we will focus on code switching that occurs between languages within multilingual communities such as those found in Papua New Guinea.

Code switching within the multilingual context occurs when speakers use forms from one language (called the embedded language) in an utterance that is primarily composed of another language (called the matrix language) within the same conversation. Stretches of code-switched material may be INTERSENTENTIAL, where the switching occurs between thoughts—grammatically indicated as sentences—or INTRASENTENTIAL, where the switch of languages occurs within a thought—grammatically indicated as a single sentence. Intersentential code switching often occurs at major communication boundaries, when there are changes of participants or topics or any time the communication situation is being redefined (such as a change of domain). Intersentential code switching is also referred to as situational code switching. Intrasentential code switches may involve a single word, a phrase, or an entire clause. The key element is that the switch has occurred within a single thought group, defined grammatically as one sentence, and typically without redefinition of the communicative situation.

Code switching can also be differentiated by type. The code switching phenomenon can be (1) consistent across the community as in the case of diglossia,[8] (2) a stable form of multilingualism, as in situational code switching where domains determine the language of choice (though not everyone in the community controls the preferred language forms), or (3) unbounded code switching where language choice changes without notable pattern or consistency.

In my experience in Papua New Guinea, I have not yet found a classic case of diglossia. However, there are many examples of the second type of code switching, stable bilingualism or multilingualism. One example of stable bilingualism is that of the Bugawac, a language group located along the southern border of the Huon Peninsula, Morobe province. Until the 1960s the language of education and religious instruction among the Bugawac was Yabem. It seems that while students were expected to learn and use Yabem in these two domains, the use of Yabem did not untowardly affect Bugawac vernacular usage in any other domain. At least the evidence would suggest little or no impact, as almost 20 years later, my survey team found Bugawac was the language of choice in all community interaction, with the exception of the domains of education and religious instruction, where English and Tok Pisin had subsequently replaced Yabem.

There are also cases in Papua New Guinea of the third type of code switching. In extreme cases, the infiltration of the nonvernacular language has become so extreme that in reality the nonvernacular has become the matrix language and the traditional vernacular the embedded language. At this point we would say that language shift has taken place. A case in point may be Taiap, a language located in the East Sepik province near the Madang province border, documented by Kulick (1992). Such shift does not happen overnight. It begins with linguistic choices of individual speakers. Over the years the impact of many choices of both situational and unbounded code switching accumulates in such a way to undermine both attitude and use of the traditional vernacular, until the vernacular is no longer the language of choice.

As noted earlier, Myers-Scotton (1995) has argued that code switching is used as a momentary marker of group identification for the purpose of renegotiating role relations within the communication context. She argues that code switching is then a type of skilled performance, an ability used with communicative intent. This being so, code switching may also then be a marker of ethnolinguistic ambivalence. For as language choice is an indicator of momentary group identification for an individual communicator, and as language contact and use are mitigating factors toward language change for that person, so the frequency and type of code switching within the communication patterns of a community of speakers have an impact  on the strength of the vernacular code in that community.

This, then is the third indicator of relative ethnolinguistic vitality. The underlying question of this indicator asks: Is there linguistic ambivalence? In other words, do people characteristically switch between the normative code (i.e., local vernacular) and one or more other languages without any notable consistency, as opposed to more stable forms of bilingualism represented by situational code switches or diglossia? As such, a scale for ranking the effects of the frequency and type of code switching for any individual in the community may be as follows, with monolingual allegiance to the vernacular being the least threatening to that vernacular, and frequent individual unbounded code switching being the most threatening.

Population and group dynamics

One of the most commonly cited factors in the determination of potential viability is the matter of a critical mass of speakers. But the number of speakers defined as "critical" varies. In Africa and South Asia, for example, language communities of less than 10,000 speakers may not be given priority for language development projects by government agencies and some nongovernment organizations (NGOs)[9] because the languages are considered too small. However, ninety percent of the languages spoken in Papua New Guinea number less than 10,000 speakers. Yet among this ninety percent are many languages which have been targeted by the Papua New Guinea National Department of Education (NDOE) as well as SIL and other NGOs for language development projects such as orthography design, writer’s workshops, literature production, and literacy development. They are in fact viable languages, some with a speaking population of less than 500 people.[10] Thus, while there must be some number of speakers in a stable communication environment for a language to continue to be spoken, the actual number of speakers necessary for linguistic vitality may vary according to other factors within the society.

Fishman (1991), speaking on the requirements for reversal of language shifty, and Dorian (1986), speaking on the mechanisms of language death, both address the issue of the need of a core of fluent speakers for the continuation of a language. One of the ways that core of fluent speakers is either supported or undermined is through the language use characteristics of those who immigrate to a speech community (whether through employment, trade alliances, or marriage patterns). In Papua New Guinea this is particularly applicable.Teachers, clergy, medical workers, and agricultural specialists are frequently assigned to language areas other than their own. Further, in today’s modern society, young people often find spouses from among peers at boarding school and/or through the experiences working away from their village setting. Thus, language use characteristics among those who come to live in areas outside of their traditional home is significant to the continuation or decline of the language of their adopted home. Their actions either support or undermine the future use of the local vernacular.

An example of this phenomenon can be drawn from the Turaka people of Milne Bay Province. In part because of a natural disaster that wiped out all but two couples of two clans, and in part through modern educational contact, as well as other factors, the vast majority of the Turaka have married spouses from among the neighboring Mapena, Daga, and Umanakaina language groups. Consequently, children from these alliances grow up minimally bilingual, but frequently with linguistic allegiance directed toward the language of their non-Turaka parent. As a result from the third descending generation the Turaka language is generally known only marginally if not passively, unless again there is a marriage alliance formed with a Turaka speaker. In this event the children of the new union grow up speaking Turaka as well as the primary language of their Turaka‑mixed parent. Depending on their subsequent choice of marriage partner, the Turaka language is supported or further undermined. Geneological records show that this pattern of crosscultural marriage has gone on for at least six generations. As a result, only a handful of fluent Turaka speakers remain today.

Thus, the underlying questions of the fourth indicator of ethnolinguistic vitality ask: Are there speakers of the language? How is that group of speakers impacted by the language characteristics of the immigrants who came to live among them? A scale relative to maintaining a critical mass of speakers follows, where the least undermining situation would be where the immigrants to the community become actively bilingual in the community’s language. By contrast, the most detrimental to the local vernacular would be the situation where immigrants chose to maintain their own mother tongue and insisted others in the community learn to speak it.

Distribution of speakers within their own social networks

In Landweer (1991), the findings of Milroy and Dow attest to the value of dense multiplex networks for the maintenance of a minority vernacular within a wider societal context. To review, a social network is said to be dense when each person to which ego is linked in some kind of relationship is also linked in relationship with one another. In most village contexts in Papua New Guinea the social fabric is very dense because of the actual and attributed wantok 'shared membership' relations. A social network is said to be multiplex when ego relates to other individuals in a number of capacities simultaneously. Thus, ego might be the neighbor of a man, who is his brother, who also serves as the local catechist for community children including ego's children. Of course ego and his brother are from the same clan and share clan obligations with the same group of people. Thus, in this example, ego and his brother share at least four relational links: parentage, neighborhood, religious instruction, and clan membership. The simultaneous nature of relationships across the community in a dense multiplex social network results in internal reinforcements of whatever cultural values are held dear across that society. Thus, the societal norms regarding language use are reinforced along with every other societal norm. In the case of a single language, such networks can serve to insulate speakers, isolating and protecting them from language contact pressures toward change.

The Vanimo people of Sandaun province provide a classic example of a dense, multiplex network functioning to support the traditional vernacular. When I worked among the Vanimo in 1989 (Landweer and Toivanen 1989a), I found that they were a highly educated and cohesive group. The vast majority of the population lived in the three coastal Vanimo communities. Further, Vanimo speakers served in every significant community role within those communities: teacher, aid post orderly, PMV 'public motor vehicle' owner or driver, trade store owner, catechist, club owner, and political leader (whether appointed, conferred, or elected). Marriage patterns were also supportive of the vernacular. Typically, Vanimo people married other Vanimo speakers, but even in the event of marriage to individuals outside of the Vanimo speech community, the immigrant was expected to attain at least passive bilingualism in Vanimo. Thus, except for the expatriate priests and brothers serving in the area, and for Vanimo people who were employed in town and thus were required to speak with those who were ethnically non-Vanimo, Vanimo speakers could use the Vanimo language throughout everyday life.

The fifth indicator of ethnolinguistic vitality asks: Is there a network of social relations supportive of the local language? A possible scaled continuum of relative social systems supportive of the vernacular is as follows, where the most supportive of the vernacular would be contexts of crosscultural independence (such as the Vanimo), and the least supportive of the vernacular would be context where individuals were isolated by expected independence (such as in the case of individual indentured plantation workers of the 1800s).

Social outlook regarding and within the speech community

As language choice can serve as a marker of ethnic identity, so a strong ethnic identity can influence language choice. In his discussion of the American Sign Language community, Nash (1987) demonstrates how the local group’s strength of identity works to maintain their language choice. In other words, the perception a group has of itself can be supportive or can undermine the value associated with their language and ultimately their own use of their language. Bourhis, Giles, and Rosenthal (1981) have indicated various status factors that serve to reinforce ethnolinguistic vitality. How well a group is perceived by outsiders and whether or not it is supported by outsiders (e.g. by government funding of development projects) also has an impact on the value associated with the group’s language. Thus, the sixth indicator of ethnolinguistic vitality is a measure of a the language community’s social outlook both internally and externally.

Two examples come immediately to mind: the Anuki and the Enga.

The Anuki language community is located on the north coast of the Cape Vogel peninsula in Milne Bay Province. Though numerically smaller than their linguistic neighbors to the south (Gapapaiwa) and east (Are), and equivalent in size to their linguistic neighbors to the west (Jimajima), the Anuki people are still very self-aware. While working among the Anuki during July of 1998 (Landweer 1998), I was told how people of the peninsula used to fear the cockatoo feathers (Anuki warriors sported cockatoo feathers when going into battle), and I was also shown the old fight grounds. Further, I was told how in food fights (Young 1971) the Anuki align themselves with other winning groups, most recently with the Are and a segment of the Gapapaiwa people. Thus, by their cockatoo feathers and their winning ways, the Anuki are "known" on the peninsula. It was clear that the Anuki people I spoke to viewed themselves as a group in a very positive light.

The Engans hail from a province by the same name in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. The Engans are proud first of all because there are so many people who speak the Enga language. It is the largest language group in this country with nearly 165,000 speakers. They are known as hard-working people, good at both gardening and fighting. They also have a reputation of being very committed to one another. As one Engan speaker told me,[11] an Engan will not allow another Engan to die; that is, Engans will die (in order to adequately retaliate harm) for each other and for those they consider part of their group. Finally, the Moki exchange systems, feasting competitions, and sing-sings serve to identify Enga speech communities and to unify them by renewing relationships throughout the whole group and cementing relationships between potential marriage partners. Clearly Engans have a strong sense of ethnic identity. They are also considered positively by outsiders. For example, Heineman (1994:36), an SIL colleague working in the Lembena language just to the north of Enga territory, reports that in traditional Lembena stories Enga characters are portrayed as "noble and good".

The sixth indicator of ethnolinguistic vitality thus asks: Is there internal and/or external recognition of the language community as separate and unique within the broader society? Is there material or nonmaterial evidence of such a distinction? A suggested means of ranking language groups on this sixth indicator could be as follows. In it the greater the positive internal identity, external status, and cultural distinctions the better in the support of the vernacular language.

Language prestige

As I indicated in the introduction to this article, the populations of the more than 800 separate language and culture groups in Papua New Guinea vary from a handful to almost 165,000 people. Population, cultural characteristics (such as aggressiveness versus passivity, culturally outward looking and assimilative versus cultural contentment and protectionism, and trading versus isolationist), physical accessibility versus inaccessibility, and opportunity (such as commercial development, missionization, and education by expatriate groups) all have an impact on the relative prestige between language groups.

Dobu, the fourth largest people group in Milne Bay Province, is a good example of a language that has a measure of prestige especially, among speakers of languages located on the D’Entrecasteaux Island. That prestige is likely to have been developed and nurtured by a combination of many of the factors just listed, so that not only are the Dobu people prestigious, but their language is as well.

Language prestige is manifested in many ways. One of them is in the expectations non-native speakers have regarding their own language in relation to the prestigious language. According to SIL linguist/translator Cliff Olson (personal communication 01-25-99 and 11-24-1999), expectations regarding the written form of the Gumawana language with reference to the Dobu language are a case in point. As the Gumawana people have approached translating literature from Dobu to Gumawana, they have frequently fallen back to the Dobu originals, particularly adopting Dobu grammatical constructions in their word-for-word translation, in spite of the fact that Gumawana constructions are quite different from those of Dobu. Olson proposes that this phenomenon is due to written materials being first produced in Dobu and then imported into Gumawana. Regardless of the reason, it is clear that in the minds of the Gumawana translators, Dobu has greater prestige than their own language.

The Lembena language group, mentioned above, provides another example of relative prestige as an indicator of language vitality, this time disparagement. While working among the Lembena people (Graham and Landweer 1989), I was told by leaders in that community that Enga would eventually "cover up" the Lembena language. I found this prediction interesting, since we observed that the Lembena people spoke Lembena in the majority of domains, regardless of age and gender. Thus, while the Lembena language is still strong, Lembena speakers hold their own vernacular in negligible if not low esteem when compared to the neighboring Enga language. Without other supportive factors, the Lembena language would be at risk.

Thus, the seventh indicator addresses the issue of relative language prestige. The questions asked are: Does the target language have prestige among other neighboring or regional languages? What is the relative prestige of the language within the linguistic repertoire of the speech community? A descending scale of relative prestige could be as follows with a nationally recognized language having the greatest prestige and thus a greater potential for use in the foreseeable future, and locally disparaged varieties having the least potential for continued use in the future (assuming other supports are also absent).

Access to a stable and acceptable economic base

One of the most common factors that leads a community to shift from one language to another is that the acquired language is thought economically beneficial by its adoptive community of speakers (Holmes 1997:65–66). Palmer (1997:5) suggests that this shift in language allegiance is a "consequence which hinges on the parents’ perception that adequate work environments using their mother tongue do not exist for their children". Although Palmer discusses this phenomenon in the North American context, the principle of perceptual adequacy is applicable in the Papua New Guinea setting as well. Like their counterparts around the world, Papua New Guinea parents want their children to prosper, that is to access material wealth and social prestige specific to their cultural setting. For those having exposure to the Papua New Guinean elite as well as expatriates, "prospering" would also likely include accessing more of the wealth and prestige associated with those two groups.

For some in Papua New Guinea (such as those who live in urban settings) facility in the lingua franca is not as much a matter of prospering but of existing (Romaine 1992:92). However, for others, living in outlying areas near but not in urban settings, subsistence gardening and hunting or fishing make it possible to live with a repertoire of traditional languages. The crux of the matter then rests in the parents’ perception of prospering and what languages are necessary for access to the prosperous lifestyle.

According to SIL ethnomusicologist/linguist/translator, Ginny Whitney (personal communication 11-27-99), the Akoye people of the Gulf province meet all of their personal needs through the use of their own vernacular and marginal use of the vernacular that surrounds them. There is little or no opportunity and no perceived necessity to learn English, Tok Pisin, or Hiri Motu.

The Maiadom people of northwest Fergusson Island have adequate fertile land, abundant clean water sources, sufficient rainfall, a bountiful sea, and the skill to enjoy a healthy lifestyle (Landweer, Miller, and McHenry 1999). The Maiadom language meets all the communication needs for accessing these resources. However, the Maiadom people also choose to trade with the Kiriwina and the Gumawana to obtain cash and trade goods. For this the Maiadom men have had to learn the lingua franca of the area, Dobu. To get ahead, Maiadom and Dobu are perceived as necessary.

Children growing up in urban communities such as Port Moresby, Lae, Madang, and Alotau inevitably must learn English, Tok Pisin, and/or Motu no matter what their ethnolinguistic heritage. Unless they come from a people group whose traditional land is under the city streets, they are dependent upon a cash economy for their subsistence. To access this cash economy, facility in at least one of the national languages is necessary.

Thus, the final indicator of ethnolinguistic vitality asks: Is there an acceptable economic base supportive of continuing use of the target language? A scale of descending support for the vernacular follows. The most supportive of the vernacular are situations where the vernacular is the code of choice in a stable and acceptable economy. The least supportive of the vernacular are situations where the people groups are entirely dependent on an economic system that requires the use of a language other than the vernacular.


Eight indicators of ethnolinguistic vitality have been discovered, developed, and documented in the Papua New Guinea context through the years of SIL’s experience in nearly 300 speech communities. These indicators are: (1) location and access of the speech community relative to urban communities or other population centers where people of mixed ethnolinguistic heritages congregate, (2) number of domains within the society in which the language is used, (3) the frequency and type of code switching behavior of speakers, (4) whether or not there is a core of fluent speakers and how that core is impacted by the language behavior of immigrants, (5) the network of social relations within the community, (6) the kind and strength of both internal and external prestige of the group, (7) the relative prestige of the language within the local repertoire of languages, (8) and the economic base perceived as necessary within the language group.

Each of these indicators has been broken down into a four-point scale, providing the reader with suggested criteria for assessing the position of a language relative to the indicator in question. While the scale for each indicator has four points, this is not meant to suggest that each point is equidistant within the indicator, nor that each indicator is equal in weight to every other indicator. The weight and variable impact of these indicators and subpoints with them has yet to be statistically demonstrated. They are, however, a way that the relative strength of a group’s language can be indicated, particularly through comparative use of these indicators between languages within the same national context. Any discussion or comments regarding these indicators or their use are welcomed by the author.


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[1] An earlier version of this article was presented at the UNESCO sponsored conference on Dying Languages in Melanesia, 7-10 December 1999, under the title Experience in Documenting PNG Languages: Useful Tidbits for Others: Indicators of Ethnolinguistic Vitality.

[2] An auxiliary language used to enable routine communication to take place between individuals who speak different native languages also known as a language of wider communication.

[3] SIL has been documenting the languages of Papua New Guinea since the organization was invited into the country over forty years ago. For example, in 1959 the national government of Papua New Guinea initiated an investigation of the country’s linguistic situation, asking SIL to implement a series of surveys to linguistically map the country. In order to gather the necessary data, SIL and other linguists traveled throughout Papua New Guinea gathering word lists from every geographic region. Then from 1980 onward, SIL began the work of documenting languages sociolinguistically.

[4] At the second Foundation for Endangered Languages Conference, 25–27 September 1998.

[5] Landweer (1991:49–67) introduced indicators of ethnolinguistic vitality for the Papua New Guinea context. At that time six indicators were proposed. The seventh and eighth indicator included in the present work are subsequent additions based on continued discussion, study, and experience with the maintenance and shift phenomenon within Papua New Guinea.

[6] This was the situation at the time of the sociolinguistic survey of the language group, completed in 1988.

[7] Compare for example the discussion of classic studies reviewed by J. K. Chambers (1995) in his chapter called Class, Network and Mobility, which gives examples of group identification marked by dialect differentiation. Carol Myers-Scotton (1995:106–107) has argued that speakers use distinct languages for the purpose of redefining role relations and as markers of group identification.

[8] Diglossia is recognized as a stable form of bilingualism, where two or more linguistic forms exist side by side, throughout the speech community. Cf. classical articles on diglossia by Ferguson (1959), Fishman (1967, 1980), and more modern discussions of the phenomenon such as in Romaine (1992)

[9] SIL survey specialists Douglas Boone reporting of his experience in both Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (personal communication 11-22-99), and Clare O’ Leary reporting of her knowledge in working with one NGO in India (personal communication 11-26-99).

[10] Jacqueline Van Kleef (personal communication 11-22-99) reported the smallest example of a living language with which I am familiar. The Van Kleefs have worked since 1983 among the Siroi people (population 1200) on the Rai Coast in Madang Province. In the middle of the Siroi people there is an enclave of 70 Arawom speakers, living in a village by the same name. According to the Van Kleefs, the Arawom people continue to speak their own language as a marker of ethnic identity, in spite of being bilingual in the Siroi language.

[11] Information from Elisabeth Thomas, an Engan speaker (personal communication 11-24-99).

Lynn Landweer joined SIL in 1983 and was assigned to the Papua New Guinea branch. She holds an M.A. in Linguistics from the University of Texas at Arlington.