Book Review: A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea by Don Kulick
Book by linguistic anthropologist about his experiences documenting the Tayap language, spoken in Papua New Guinea. Tayap is a language isolate, spoken by less than a hundred people in a remote village called Gapun. When the author first came to Gapun in the 1980s, the language was already in the process of dying: children under 10 no longer spoke Tayap, instead speaking Tok Pisin. He then spends several decades on and off studying the language and culture.
While sparse on the technical linguistic details (there’s a 500-page grammar of Tayap if you’re interested in that), the book talks a lot about the villagers’ attitudes towards the world and belief systems. Despite being white and an outsider, the author was treated well by the villagers. The villagers believed he was a long-dead ancestor who came back from the afterlife, explaining his white color. They generously built him houses and cooked him food, while asking him for various goods like knives, lighters, batteries, etc.
After WW2, contact with colonialists and missionaries resulted in a pidgin language, Tok Pisin, becoming the dominant language in Papua New Guinea. It was more convenient to speak Tok Pisin than the dozens of local languages that were unique to each village. Young people used Tok Pisin in all aspects of their lives, including writing love letters to each other, and only used short phrases in Tayap mostly for comedic value. Surprisingly, when the author dug deeper, he found that some of the young people actually spoke Tayap quite fluently.
At several times during his stay in Gapun, the situation got tense and violent. One drunken night ended in men from outside the village robbing his house and murdering a villager with a shotgun. The villagers are superstitious: when an old man falls ill, they blame sorcerers from another village, or an ancestor whose funeral was not properly held. They even destroyed the whole village and rebuilt it in a grid layout following their ideas of what a western suburb should look like, believing that it would bring them wealth and prosperity.
The book concludes that Tayap’s demise is probably inevitable, a symptom given that their traditional way of life has changed forever. The language no longer serves the speakers’ communicative needs, and the speakers don’t feel any strong urge to preserve it.