A Death in the Rainforest

Anthropologist Don Kulick on the death of a Papuan language, life in a backwater swamp.

A Death In The Rainforest Don Kulick

Anthropologist Don Kulick first visited Gapun, a remote village in Papua New Guinea, in 1985. It marked the beginning of his more than three-decade quest to document the slow death of the village’s then-undocumented language, Tayap.

Earlier this year, Kulick published a grammar and dictionary of Tayap, one that documents a language that now has fewer than fifty speakers. The book discusses the nitty-gritty linguistics of what happens when a language dies—which kinds of verbs go first; what happens to things like gender and tense and vocabulary.

But Kulick also just published another title—one that provides a behind-the-scenes account of what it’s like to live in a place like Gapun, a tiny outpost in the middle of a tropical rainforest. That book is a riveting memoir titled “A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to End in Papua New Guinea” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill).

Over the course a total of three years spent living in Gapun, Kulick learned to deal with threats and discomforts like venomous snakes, black leeches, and omnipresent mosquitos, not to mention the rainforest’s oppressive, viscous humidity. The food was even more difficult to adjust to, he says, as the villagers’ staple, sago, has a texture akin to slime or phlegm, such that “some of a mouthful will be in your mouth at the same time the rest of it will be dangling down into your throat, like a long, thick strand of sputum.”

The local delicacies were apparently no less easy to get accustomed to, including brush-turkey eggs, which are served at any stage of development, “from a big orange yolk to a fully feathered boiled chick.” Never mind the raw and boiled insects, the maggot stew, and “larvae .... sprouting antennae, mandibles, and legs.”

Violence is an important part of his story, too. At one point, Kulick left the village for fifteen years following a personal attack motivated by robbery, one that led to the shooting death of a villager.

In recent years, the violence across Papua New Guinea has worsened dramatically, according to Kulick, in part due to the introduction of alcohol and the influence of western culture, the latter of which has irrevocably changed life in Gapun, though not always for the worse. In fact, most of what one reads in “A Death in the Rainforest” is decidedly uplifting, despite ominous developments that now threaten the villagers’ way of life.

With all this in mind, read on as Kulick elaborates on some of the questions and issues discussed above. Notably, he relates how he came to discover Gapun and how locals explained his arrival in their village, coming to the conclusion that he was a dead villager who had come back to life.

What is it like to live in a tiny village in a remote rainforest in Papua New Guinea?

It’s not an idyllic fantasy where you’re flitting through a lush landscape of pretty flowers and verdant trees, accompanied by swarms of butterflies and jewel-like hummingbirds. It’s actually pretty difficult. Gapun lies in a vast swamp in the rainforest. There is mud everywhere, there are a lot of things with spikes and spines on them, the heat is oppressive, and it’s not beautiful because you can’t really see it.

In films and documentaries, rainforests are usually seen from a very specific kind of perspective, often up above the trees looking down. When you actually are in the rainforest, though, you are surrounded by it. It seems more like a wall than a park. And there are no animals to speak of—certainly you don’t see any because most of them are up in the trees or hiding in the undergrowth. The only thing you can’t escape are mosquitos. Those you see everywhere. You hear their maddening buzz and you feel them everywhere too, including places on your body you’d really rather not.

How did you decide on Gapun as the place where you would study the death of a language?

I found the village by going to Don Laycock, an Australian linguist who had done a language survey of the area fifteen years before I arrived. Laycock was a grizzled, hard-drinking, old-school adventurer, and he had paddled a canoe around the lower Sepik River, basically accosting people he met and asking them how they said things like “man,” “pig,” “moon,” and so on.

At one point during those trips, he encountered two men from a village that was too difficult for him to get to, and those men told him, ‘We speak a language that is only spoken in our single village.” Laycock gathered a word list and realized that the language was indeed unlike any other he had heard in the area. But he never went to the village, Gapun, because it was indeed too difficult to get to.

When I arrived on his doorstep in 1985 asking him where he thought I might go to do a study of language death, he immediately suggested Gapun. The people he had met said it was very small and the language didn’t have many speakers. If that was true, he surmised, something must be happening to it.

I found Gapun by going to the area and asking people where the village was. After several days of travel, I basically just turned up in the village. I didn’t speak their language, of course. But neither did I speak the national language of the country—a pidgin language called Tok Pisin (the language the Gapun villagers are shifting to). I had instructed my guides in English to tell the villagers that I wanted to stay with them and write a book about their language.

The villagers’ first assumption was that I was a priest. Aside from Australian patrol officers, who stopped appearing in the village after 1975, when Papua New Guinea became independent, Catholic missionaries were the only kinds of white men who ever came to Gapun—once every few years, usually for just a single day. The idea that I would write a book about them and their village didn’t make a lot of sense to the villagers, because the only book they had ever encountered was the Bible.

The people in Gapun wanted to know why I had really come. Why did I come to them and not to some other village?, they asked themselves. Why had this strange white man suddenly appeared, wanting to stay with them? They conferred with one another and decided very quickly that I was a dead villager who had returned resurrected. They informed me of this a few weeks after I arrived. It flipped me out at first. But over the years, I came to understand the logic of why they believed that. Describing that logic is one of the main narrative nerves of the book.

What were you trying to accomplish?

I wanted to know how a language dies. That languages die isn’t anything new; languages have been dying throughout history. But the process of how that happens wasn’t well understood, and it interested me. I chose to go to Papua New Guinea because more languages are spoken there—about 800, spread throughout a population of about eight million people—than anywhere else in the world.

Basically, I wanted to go to a place where I thought that a language might be dying. When I got to Gapun I discovered that children under ten years of age weren’t speaking the language and that meant that the process had only just started.

Also, the language the villagers were abandoning—they call it Tayap—was dying for mysterious reasons. The usual reason why a language dies is because the speakers migrate to another country and parents decide they don’t want their children to learn their home language because they want their kids to get educated and get jobs. Or people get invaded and overrun by speakers of another language, and they have no choice but to shift languages.

But the people in Gapun weren’t going anywhere, and no one was invading their village. What was changing was not so much their material circumstances or the fact that they were leaving or people were coming in; something else was going on. Villagers wanted their children to learn the language, but they weren’t anymore. Why?

It can’t have been easy to learn Tayap.

It was fun—it’s a Papuan language with a totally different structure from anything I had ever encountered before. But it wasn’t written. I had to figure out everything from scratch. It ended up taking thirty years to figure it out and write a grammar of it.

How have you documented the language?

In June I published a grammar and dictionary [“Tayap: Grammar, Dictionary, and Texts of a Papuan Language” (De Gruyter Mouton)] with the help of Angela Terrill, a brilliant descriptive linguist. It’s a description of the language, and it’s also a tri-lingual dictionary: Tayap, Tok Pisin, and English.

What is lost when a language dies?

There are a lot of books coming out right now on language death and language loss. Linguists have begun focusing on that because they claim that ninety percent of the current languages spoken around the world are in danger of disappearing in the next hundred years. A popular way of asking people to think about language loss is to invite them to think about it in terms of species loss, and the loss of biodiversity. So dying languages get compared to pandas or condors.

I can see the rhetorical point of comparisons like those, but I think they are fundamentally misleading. The natural world is precisely where we should not look to understand language death. We should, instead, think of political shifts, of social change, of historical vicissitudes. The last thing we should think about when considering language death is species loss. True, living things like coral reefs die nowadays because of people, because of people’s actions, which of course occur in political and social contexts. But coral reefs don’t have agency and people do.

Language death occurs because people stop speaking a language. Sometimes they do that because they are more or less forced to do it. Look at what happened to Australian Aboriginal languages, or Native American languages. Many of those languages were the victims of concerted efforts by settler colonialists to stamp them out, to effectively exterminate them. None of that is a purely linguistic process. It’s anything but a natural process. It is more accurately described as a series of monstrous political acts.

A case like Gapun is more complicated in many ways, because no one has forced villagers to stop teaching their language to their children. And yet they have. The reason behind a shift like this can’t be found by looking at nature and thinking of Tayap like an endangered orchid or a rare bird. It has to be found by looking at the history and impact of colonialism, capitalism, and Christianity in the region. Those gigantic historical forces have left their imprint on how mothers talk to their babies.

The question I investigate in the book is how this has happened and what form it takes.

How long do you think Tayap will survive?

The youngest speakers are in their early thirties, but the youngest speakers don’t ever speak the language—though when I brought them to my house and asked them to tell stories, I discovered that a few of them were surprisingly fluent in Tayap. I call those young people passive-active speakers.

I predict that what will happen is that when those individuals get older they will probably speak Tayap more publicly, but the only reason will be to chastise people younger than them for not speaking Tayap. So it will be like scolding, which won’t be very encouraging [laughs]. We know from other contexts that scolding people for not speaking a local language actually hastens the language’s demise, because it makes young people feel ashamed.

When the people in their thirties who have some knowledge of Tayap die in thirty years’ time, Tayap will be pretty much gone. It’s such a small language that the chances of it being revived are pretty much zero. If a villager somehow gets it into his or her head that they should start reviving it I think that would be fantastic, and my grammar and dictionary would certainly be there to help them. But I see no indication that will happen.

Some words will remain—words for birds or plants that have no equivalent in Tok Pisin, for example. A few swear words, too. But I predict that in fifty years’ time Tayap will be dead. That is almost unbearably sad, but I’m not going to bemoan the fact that villagers didn’t pass their language on to their kids. That would be too close to blaming them. In “A Death in the Rainforest” I talk about why they really should be regarded as blameless in this process.

What led you to discontinue your work in the village?

In Papua New Guinea the state unfortunately has receded to almost nothing outside the capital city of Port Moresby. There is no law and order in most parts of the country. And there is little healthcare or education.

Arguably, that is what it was like before the colonial era when Australians “pacified” the villagers. To say that people in Papua New Guinea were pacified sounds very condescending. But basically it means that they were forcibly disarmed. Before the colonial era, villagers throughout the country were in constant warfare with each other. That meant that everyone was in danger of being abducted or killed as soon as they left their village. Villages could be raided and invaded, there was lots of murder and lots of anxiety and fear.

A friend asked me just this morning, Do I think it was better in Gapun and the rest of Papua New Guinea before colonialism and capitalism and Christianity? And I answered honestly that from what I know, I honestly don’t think it was better previously. Most of the country would have been a hellish place to live. But I also think that at least the problems the people had then were their problems. They solved them in the ways they wanted. I think they were often pretty dismal solutions, but at least they were their solutions. What was entirely missing was the ghastly, demeaning racial hierarchy that colonialism introduced, where black Papua New Guineans were at the bottom, and belligerent and often cruel white overseers looked down at them from the top, braying commands.

It seems to me that one way of thinking about current events in the country is to partly see them as a twisted return to the kinds of violence that largely were held in check from after World War I until Papua New Guinea became independent. The check on that violence is very tenuous these days, and violence is surging. In the highlands region of the country, people are dismembering women publicly and burning them alive; there was a case a few weeks ago of villagers there slaughtering thirty or forty women and children in a revenge raid. It’s hard to see a bright future.

One reason why the violence has worsened is because people throughout the country—the young men, in particular—are deeply dissatisfied. Their parents and grandparents were promised “change”—basically, “development” —by colonial administrators, by missionaries who converted them to Christianity, by capitalists who bought their land to plant coconuts or dig mines, and later by their own government. But most people not only didn’t get anything; they have actually seen their quality of life erode during the past few decades. So young men are fed up, and unlike their parents, they don’t intend to just sit and pray that the heavens will open and the good promised by white people will rain down on them. They are now taking what they can get, through violence.

Have you been back to the village recently?

I went back in March of this year to give the villagers a copy of the grammar and dictionary. I discovered that the village is basically gone. There was a drunken brawl last September and a young man shot another young man in the ear with an arrow. Unsurprisingly, he died. The villagers were afraid of repercussions and they dispersed. Some went deeper into the rainforest and built houses there; others took their families and fled to villages on the coast where they had relatives.

In 2014, when I was Gapun for two months, there were about two-hundred people living there. Now in March of this year there were fewer than fifty. Who knows whether the village will ever regroup? As far as the language is concerned, the dispersion of the village will cause Tayap to fade even faster, since there is no longer a strong concentration of Tayap speakers anywhere at all.

How did the villagers react to seeing “Tayap: Grammar, Dictionary, and Texts of a Papuan Language”?

Ha! I had hoped that they would be . . . what? Interested, I guess. Enthusiastic. Happy. But they had other things on their mind—the fact that one of their young men had recently been murdered with an arrow through his ear, for example. People paged through it for a few minutes, looked up swear words in the dictionary and laughed, and then they said, ‘Uh huh,’ and politely set it aside.

I was bit crestfallen, truth be told. I mean, the damned thing took me thirty years to gather data for and write. But I get it. At the end of the day, what are the villagers supposed to do with a formal linguistic description of their language written in English, a language that none of them can read?

That’s the thing with anthropology; we’re always exhorted to “give back” to the people we work with. But just because we might congratulate ourselves on giving back, we are not necessarily giving back anything of particular value to the people we congratulate ourselves for giving back to. Writing a grammar of Tayap has always been my project, not theirs. They frankly don’t really care that much about their language today. The reason I persisted in documenting it was for them. I hope that at some point in the probably distant future, someone who has some connection with the village will find the grammar and dictionary somewhere and say, ‘Wow, so this is what my ancestors spoke. How cool.’

But none of this is something they sought out and asked me to do. I “gave them back” something I thought they would like. Their response was a collective shrug.