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The ‘ecology’ of deaf sign languages in PNG

Alan Rumsey, Learning

Date: 2 April 2019

New Guinea is widely known to be a land of enormous linguistic diversity, containing 20 per cent of the world’s languages. What is far less well known is that it also home to many local sign languages used for communication between deaf people and hearing ones.


For the past three years, Centre research student Lauren Reed has been working with Chief Investigator Alan Rumsey, Associate Investigator Francesca Merlan and local advisors, to document these barely studied languages. Her research has focused on deaf sign languages used in the rural lower Nebilyer and Kaugel Valleys in the Western Highlands of PNG.

“Our fieldwork has involved 12 deaf signers in the region,” says Lauren. “Each of them has a network of interlocutors with whom they share communicative resources, which include signing, gesture, mouthing, speech and pointing.

“Some of the signs are widely used throughout the region and beyond, while others are specific to particular networks. The various local communicative repertoires vary widely in how elaborate and stable they are.”

Last October, Lauren and Alan presented an overview of these networks and their social dynamics at the ANU, then invited key adviser John Onga to reflect on his experience as a hearing user of aksen, as signing is known in this region.

The starring role in the video recordings presented by Lauren is by deaf user Kakuyl Kulup, who displays remarkable fluency and semantic range in conversations with his friend Simon Kaiya and close family members – in a sign language known to be used by only about 15 people. (Download the PowerPoint presentation to see clearly.)

“This is a fascinating case study of one local variety of sign language in its second generation of users which stands out for its complexity,” Lauren says.

The seminar closed with an update on the rise of PNG Sign Language, the national sign language of Papua New Guinea, which is used mainly in urban areas for communication among deaf people. The researchers briefly compare its social dynamics and associated ideologies with those of the local sign languages, which are used mainly between deaf people and hearing ones.

Alan Rumsey and Lauren Reed video interview

Alan Rumsey and Lauren Reed being interviewed about thier work in PNG.

DOWNLOAD the PowerPoint presentation used in this seminar. 

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