Unserdeutsch (Rabaul Creole German)

Former students of the boarding school in Vunapope at a gathering in Brisbane in 2016 (Photo: Péter Maitz)

Unserdeutsch (ISO 639-3 language code: uln) is an endangered creole language in the South Pacific, nowadays spoken mainly in Australia and to a small extent also in Papua New Guinea. It represents the only documented case of a German-lexified creole among the numerous creole languages of the world. Unserdeutsch is a young language. It originated at the beginning of the 20th century in the environment of a missionary boarding school on the island of New Britain, the main island of the Bismarck Archipelago in the east of what is today Papua New Guinea.

Unserdeutsch is both the linguistic legacy and linguistic memorial to German colonial rule in the South Seas. About one hundred years after the collapse of the German colonial empire, however, the language is facing extinction. In 2020, there will be no more than 100 elder people in the entire South Pacific who speak Unserdeutsch as their first language. The number of speakers and the frequency of language use have been decreasing for decades, and a reversal of this trend is not in sight, at least not at present.

Trailer of SBS World News on SBS Australia from 2016

In 2014, the Department of German Linguistics at the University of Augsburg, Germany, led by Péter Maitz, together with representatives of the speech community have set themselves the goal of making joint efforts towards a comprehensive documentation and linguistic description of Unserdeutsch. First research activities started already the same year. Since the Augsburg team relocated to Switzerland in 2018, the project has been continued at the Department of German Linguistics and Sociolinguistics at the University of Bern. In agreement with the speech community and within the framework of given circumstances and possibilities, our research into Unserdeutsch pursues the following goals:

(a) Comprehensive, multimedia documentation of spoken Unserdeutsch in its social context;
(b) Documentation and reconstruction of the history of Unserdeutsch and the speech community;
(c) Comprehensive description of the linguistic structure of Unserdeutsch in the form of a reference grammar and an electronic, multilingual lexicographical database;
(d) Development of strategies and tools supporting identity and language maintenance.

After several fieldwork trips and extensive archival research, the documentation phase was substantially completed in 2019. In this first, crucial, and most urgent phase, the project was funded by the German Research Foundation and carried out in cooperation with the Leibniz Institute for the German Language in Mannheim, Germany, and the Language and Culture Research Centre at James Cook University Australia. This comprehensive language documentation provides an indispensable empirical basis for both an adequate linguistic description and potential successful revitalization of Unserdeutsch.

The project was funded by

and is being carried out in cooperation with

This website is designed to provide access to reliable information and data on Unserdeutsch and its speakers for all those investigated and/or interested: for community members, researchers, and the general public. At the same time, it informs about progress and important results achieved by the Unserdeutsch Research Project. Via the menu at the top left you can reach further information on the language, a selection of audio samples and images, a list of references to relevant scholarly literature including a selection of full texts, as well as an extensive list of media reports on Unserdeutsch from all over the world. Under FAQ you will find answers to frequently asked questions, followed by the latest and archived news about project events and results, and finally information about the project team.

It is our aim that this research project and the present website may contribute to the preservation of a largely forgotten cultural and linguistic heritage, to new insights within all relevant fields of scientific research, and to the memory and self-reflexive reappraisal of colonial history in Germany and far beyond.

The content of this website is regularly updated and extended. Despite regular checking, we assume no liability for the content of external links.

Written by Péter Maitz


Last updated: 16 February 2021