Death in Papua New Guinea

Chronicling the disappearance of an entire language—and everything else that goes with it

Settlement of huts beside the Sepik River (Robert Harding/Alamy)
Settlement of huts beside the Sepik River (Robert Harding/Alamy)

The tiny village of Gapun in Papua New Guinea is home to an equally tiny language called Tayap. No more than a few hundred people have lived in Gapun, so no more than a few hundred people have ever spoken this isolate language, unrelated to any other on the planet. Our guest this episode, the anthropologist Don Kulick, has been visiting the village since 1985, at one point living there for 15 months to document the Gapun way of life, eat a lot of sago palm pudding, and study Tayap—which, even when he arrived more than 30 years ago, was dying. Today, only about 40 people speak it, and Kulick predicts that the language will be “stone cold dead” in less than 50 years. How did that happen? Perhaps more importantly, what cultural and economic losses paved the way? The answer might lie in the backward way we’ve been framing language death. This episode originally aired in 2019.

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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