Languages in Context

Merauke Regency, the easternmost end of Indonesia directly bordering Papua New Guinea, forms part of the largest wetland in the province of Papua. The south-eastern half of its area is the Wasur National Park, famous for its astonishing high-value bio- and linguistic diversity. It is home to three known ethnic groups, each with their own languages: the Marind, Marori and Kanum people. Other neighbouring languages, associated with different ethnic groups, include Yelmek-Maklew and the Kolopom languages (Kimaghima, Ndom, Riantana) to the west, Awyu languages (Vries et al. 2012) to the north and the Yam (Maro-Morehead) languages (Evans et al., to appear) to the north-east and east stretching to areas in PNG. To the south and south-west is the Arafura Sea.

Sociolinguistically, as in other parts of Indonesia, there is a complex multiglossic situation in Merauke. Indonesian (and its local variety, Papuan Malay) is the most prestigious language, threatening minority languages, and being used in almost all domains. Furthermore, the political dominance of the Marind people, compounded with Javanese transmigration and recent development in modern Indonesia (Arka 2013a), has profoundly affected the current sociocultural and sociolinguistic landscape of the polities, ethnic identities and languages in this region (Note that Marind and Kanum are ethnic names; both consist of several sub-ethnic groups). Marind has become the assumed identity in Merauke, and the variety of Marind spoken in downtown Merauke has become the local inter-ethnic lingua franca, alongside Indonesian.

The languages of the minority ethnic groups, Marori and Kanum, are now endangered, with Marori classifiable as critically endangered, moribund or nearly extinct (cf. Ethnologue Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale), Unesco’s levels of endangerment (Moseley 2010), Grenoble & Whaley (2006:18), Krauss (2006:1), Evans (2009:211)) as there are around 12 fluent elderly Marori speakers (out of a total of 119 ethnic members) and Marori is no longer transmitted to children. Documentation of Marori is therefore urgent while these speakers are still alive. While Kanum (a general language label consisting of related languages (Donohue 1998, Carroll 2014a, b) is slightly better off than Marori, having more fluent speakers (80 speakers for Ngkâlmpw Kanum; 80 speakers for Smärky Kanum; 100 speakers for Sota Kanum), it is also definitely endangered, as Kanum children e.g. in the coastal areas no longer acquire Kanum as their first language. Documentation of these Kanum languages is also urgent, particularly for coastal Smärky in Kondo as their fluent speakers are elderly and numbered.

The Papuan languages of the Wasur National Park belong to different genetic affiliations, although their precise wider affiliations remain unclear. Marind belongs to the Marind family, generally considered a branch of the Trans-New Guinea (TNG) family (Ross 2005, Pawley 2006) whereas Kanum languages belong to the Yam (or Morehead-Maro) family (Evans 2012). Marori is considered a subgroup-level isolate (Ross 2005:35), though there is evidence linking it with the Kolopom languages within the TNG (Usher 2014). The languages of SNG are shockingly under-documented (Evans et al. to appear); the proposed project promises more information to establish more precise genetic affiliations of the SNG languages.

Current research on Marori (Arka 2011a, b, 2012b, c, a, 2013c, b, 2014) and other SNG languages (Evans et al. to appear, and the references therein) reveals properties that pose typological and theoretical challenges in linguistics. These include counting number systems, constructed strategies in encoding grammatical categories (e.g. constructed dual and constructed middles), complex valence systems, highly syncretic verbal paradigms, and clausally complex structures, such as internally-headed relative clauses. The Merauke Languages Project will collect further data on Marori, and fresh data on endangered coastal Smärky, to gain deeper understanding of these grammatical complexities.