Language Politics and Language Contact in the German Colonies in the South Pacific

Stefan Engelberg

Institut für Deutsche Sprache (Mannheim)


With the arrival of German traders and settlers in the South Pacific from the mid 19th century on, the German language came into contact with languages spoken in the area. From 1884 until World War I the German empire claimed large areas of Western Oceania as protectorates. This attracted more German settlers and missionaries. Due to the presence of speakers of German, a number of contact-induced phenomena of language change were underway around the turn of the century: (i) There was a certain – albeit small – influence of German on the lexicon of the indigenous languages spoken in the German protectorates that differed considerably from language to language. (ii) The local German varieties of settlers and planters underwent a heavy influence from English and English-based pidgins. (iii) Some of the indigenous languages had a certain effect on German settler varieties. (iv) English-based pidgins spread considerably during German rule.

The aim of this talk is to show how an investigation of language politics and language attitudes can account for the distribution of these language contact phenomena. Questions of colonial language politics became an issue in colonial circles in Berlin from the 1880s on. The discussion about the intended role of German in the colonies was surprisingly diverse. Yet, finally, political decision-makers in Berlin favoured the spread of German as a lingua franca in the colonies. However, actual political decisions and measures were sparse. All the more important were those measures taken by the local governors that supported the spread of German to varying degrees. On a local level, they were confronted with other interest groups such as settlers, trading companies, missionaries, and the indigenous elites who often opted for other languages as a means of cross-cultural communication.

The attitude towards German, English, and the local languages as exhibited by German traders, planters, missionaries, and government officials as well as by the native population and the missionaries from non-German missions differed considerably across and also partly within these groups. The German traders showed a clear preference for English. In contact with the indigenous population, English-based pidgins were often used, in particular since the labour trade in the Pacific promoted pidgins as the primary means of communication on the plantations and in the German phosphate mines. Not only the missionaries but also some government officials were at pains to master the indigenous languages and were involved in documenting and describing the languages. The attitude of the missionaries towards the introduction of German into the curricula of the local schools as forced by the German government varied widely. Since most schools were run by the missions, this proved to be a crucial factor for the spread of German. Finally, German and English competed as foreign languages among the indigenous population that showed varying preferences at different places and times. These attitudes and the role the different groups of German immigrants played in the island societies account for the overall tendencies in the contact-induced changes as well as for the local differences observed.

Session: Paper session
Contact / Code-Switching
Friday, April 4, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 10