Prof. Dr. Maitz, Péter

Unserdeutsch (Rabaul Creole German)

What is Unserdeutsch?

Students of the Vunapope Missionary School in 1927 (National Archives of Australia, Serie A6510 157)

Unserdeutsch, just like most other creole languages, has its roots in the colonial past. It originated in German New Guinea, a vast island world in the Western Pacific that was ruled by the German Empire from 1884 to 1914. Shortly before the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, at their Vunapope headquarters in the northeast of the island New Britain (then: New Pomerania) German Sacred Heart Missionaries (MSC) founded a boarding school for the numerous children born in the wider surroundings of the Mission from relationships between European or Asian men and indigenous women. The children were socially isolated by the missionaries and educated to become German-speaking European-like Catholics. When they grew up, they were married to each other and continued to live and work at the Mission, either the Vunapope headquarters or one of the surrounding outstations. In this way, in the first two decades of the 20th century, an ethnically and linguistically heterogeneous group of preadolescent boarding school children in Vunapope grew together into a new, closed ethnic group, referred to as the Vunapope mixed-race community ever since. Its members had two salient traits in common that clearly distinguished them both from the colonizers and the colonized indigenous population. They were all mixed-race and among themselves, they all spoke Unserdeutsch, the creole language that developed over the years from the intense contact between their first languages, mainly Tok Pisin, and the German spoken and taught by the missionaries.

The new generations of the Vunapope mixed-race community grew up with Unserdeutsch as their first language until the 1960s. In its glory days in the 1950s and 60s, the speech community will most likely have counted between 400 and 500 members – a quite common community size among the over 830 spoken languages of Papua New Guinea. After the end of German colonial rule and especially after World War II, however, the linguistic dominance of Australian English became stronger and stronger both at the Mission and throughout New Guinea. And when after the independence of Papua New Guinea (1975) almost the entire linguistic community moved to Australia and scattered there, Unserdeutsch has almost completely lost its former functions and thus its value in the linguistic marketplace. It is these developments, which are responsible for the language obsolescence and language shift, that largely shape the current linguistic image of the Vunapope mixed-race community.

In far most households of the Vunapope mixed-race community, Unserdeutsch remained the spoken language of everyday life until the 1960s and 70s. Unserdeutsch was, however, never used in written communication. The most common written language within the community was first German, and later, from the interwar period onwards, more and more English. Before the exodus from New Guinea, written communication with outgroup members was processed mainly in English and, to a much lesser extent, Tok Pisin. The language of written communication in Australia has always been English.

The linguistic structure of Unserdeutsch shows the fundamental features typical for creole languages. First, Unserdeutsch is a new language in that, despite the considerable amount of language-internal variation, it has a consistent linguistic structure that is distinct from both German and Tok Pisin, the two source languages from which it took the bulk of its vocabulary and grammar. It is also typical for creoles in that the grammatical structure and vocabulary of Unserdeutsch point to different source languages. While the bulk of its vocabulary (far more than the meanings of words) is predominantly based on German, the dominant European language, its grammatical structure inherited much more from Tok Pisin, the subordinate local language that most of the children had already acquired and spoken at home before they were brought to the mission. (For further details on the “creole typicality” of Unserdeutsch see Lindenfelser & Maitz 2017).

Unserdeutsch represents a particularly interesting case among the creole languages of the world in a number of respects. First, as already mentioned, it represents the only known creole lexified by German. Furthermore, it is one of the very few documented creoles that emerged in the environment of boarding schools. Unserdeutsch is also unique in that its local linguistic parent is itself a creole, namely the nativized Tok Pisin, that was apparently acquired as a first language and spoken as a home language in mixed households of the Rabaul area as early as around 1900. And last but not least, it is also an unusual, albeit not a singular phenomenon that the original distribution area of the language in New Guinea has almost completely relocated to another area, namely Australia.

In 2020, the vast majority of the last 100 or so active speakers of Unserdeutsch live scattered in the metropolitan areas along Australia's east coast. Most of them are based in and around Brisbane and the Gold Coast, the rest mainly in Cairns and Sydney. Only a handful of speakers still live in Papua New Guinea today, scattered on various islands of the Bismarck Archipelago.

An article in the magazine of the German Research Foundation provides some further information on the history, present and future of the language and its speakers. A segment on Unserdeutsch in SBS World News from 2016 can be seen here.

Written by Péter Maitz