Native German speakers – in the South Seas?

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German in the South Seas

Would you ever have thought that a number of people in the South Seas speak German as their mother tongue? Admittedly, there are not many of them – only around 100. Nor is it the same German that is spoken in Germany. Known as “Unserdeutsch” (i.e. Our German), it is the world’s only German-based creole language. A language is described as creole if it emerged from several different languages – a phenomenon that was observed for example during colonial times.

A new language invented by children

Unserdeutsch is also a historical legacy: it emerged shortly before and after the First World War during the German colonial period in the Bismarck Archipelago, which today belongs to Papua New Guinea. Known also as Rabaul Creole German, it was invented by children in a missionary school. The language uses a mixture of German and local words: for example the German word “Mahlzeit”, meaning meal, is “malsait” in Unserdeutsch, while “vairau” is the Unserdeutsch word for “Weihrauch” (frankincense).

Only 100 native speakers left

Unserdeutsch remained stable until the 1960s, but then numerous native speakers moved to Australia. Worldwide, only around 100 elderly people in Papua New Guinea and Australia still speak Unserdeutsch.

German researchers keen to preserve this linguistic treasure trove

There are now plans to research the language before it disappears completely: in a three-year project, linguists at the University of Augsburg are collaborating with the Institut für Deutsche Sprache in Mannheim to document the endangered language, systematically describing its structure and reconstructing its history and formation. Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) to the tune of 367,000 euros, the project is headed by Professor Péter Maitz and Professor Werner König at the Department of German Linguistics in Augsburg and by Professor Craig A. Volker from the Divine Word University in Madang (Papua New Guinea).

The language had long been all but ignored by German studies scholars. The fact that Unserdeutsch, even among experts, “is to this day largely unknown and unresearched, and given that there are now only around 100 elderly speakers left who today live scattered across various islands of Papua New Guinea and in Eastern Australia, makes this a matter of some urgency”, believes Professor Péter Maitz. Together with his colleagues, he is determined to rectify this shortcoming.


Unserdeutsch research project

Unserdeutsch is the only German-based creole language we know of. In cooperation with the Institut für Deutsche Sprache in Mannheim, the University of Augsburg is exploring the language in a research project. Information about the current state of the research can be found on this dedicated website.