Where Is that Papua New Guinean Village?

The following are some suggestions for finding the location of a village in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and placing the village within a linguistic group. If you have corrections or improvements, please let me know.

General method:

Given that one knows a village name and little else, the best place to start is with a gazetteer. A gazetteer lists the latitude and longitude for geographical place names such as villages, rivers and mountains. For PNG, the best gazetteer is Peterson et al. (1982) (reference / Web page). Two other gazetteers are Anonymous (1943) which is small and outdated, and Anonymous (1974) which is scarce and purported unreliable. A new Web gazetteer is the Global Gazetteer which also displays the village location on magnifiable maps. This Web site is a demonstration model, but fairly complete.

Once one knows the longitude and latitude of the village, one can then use Wurm & Hattori (1983) to determine the linguistic group to which the village belongs. The linguistic group in PNG generally corresponds to the culture group or tribe. If the linguistic group to which the village belongs is small, there may be some uncertainty as to whether the village belongs to one of a few neighboring linguistic groups, and it would be necessary to find some sort of corroboration. Two ways to find corroboration are to look for ethnographies or linguistic studies on the possible linguistic groups, or to use checklists that map village to language. Such lists exist for the following areas in PNG: West Sepik (or Sandaun) and East Sepik Provinces (Laycock, 1973), Madang Province (Z’Graggen, 1985), the Papuan (or non-Austronesian) languages of the Huon Peninsula of Morobe Province (McElhanon, 1975: 531-543), the whole of Morobe Province (McElhanon, 1984), and Northern (Oro), Milne Bay, and Central Provinces (Dutton, 1973).

Similarly, there are various surveys which show the locations of villages in relation to language boundaries: Bougainville Province (Allen & Hurd, 1963), Simbu (or Chimbu) Province [Deibler & Trefrey, 1963], New Ireland Province (Lithgow & Claassen, 1968), Manus Province (Schooling & Schooling, 1980), the Mount Hagen District of Western Highlands Province (Bunn & Scott, 1962), Gulf Province (Franklin, 1973), and the Markham District of Morobe Province (Holzknecht, 1989).

Other useful references are the PNG Village Directory which locates villages within districts and census divisions, Keket and Ivara (1982) which lists the islands of PNG and the topographic map on which they appear, Ward (1970) which shows the major changes in PNG political divisions, volume 3 of the Ethnographic Bibliography of New Guinea which lists many place names, both current and historic, and the 3 volumes of the Historical Atlas of Ethnic and Linguistic Groups in Papua New Guinea. This last reference is also useful for finding the current place names for old German New Guinea names. The Ethnologue links many PNG villages with language names and is an excellent resource; it is available for searching on the Web and is also available in a printed edition.

Some problems and possible solutions:

Since PNG is primarily an oral society, there is often orthographic confusion. Some of the common interchanges among letters are: “p” with “f”, “b” with “p”, “d” with “t”, and “g” with “k” (see Mihalic, 1971). The letter “k” is much more common in place names than is the letter “g” (Peterson et al., 1982). Another interchange worth trying is “i” preceding a vowel with “y” preceding the vowel. It is worth remembering the etymological adage, “Consonants count for very little, and vowels count for hardly anything at all.” If one is having trouble finding a village, it is worth trying as many sound-alike names as possible, but be wary of immediately accepting a sound-alike name without some corroboration. Some place-names occur multiply in PNG, for example, there is the well-known town of Wau in Morobe Province, as well as lesser-known villages called Wau in East Sepik and Madang Provinces. Another possible point of confusion is that sometimes a name is given for a village, but is actually a language name, or is also the name for a larger political division. For example, Telefomin is the name of both a village, and a district containing the village. As far as villages being confused or conflated with language names, it may be worthwhile checking the indices in Wurm (1975) and Wurm (1976).

Finally, if one knows that a village is near some other known place, one can look up the known place on a topographic map (e.g., Anonymous, 1977 and 1988) and search for nearby village names that sound plausibly like what one is looking for.

Unfortunately, many of the materials listed here are not in print and may be hard to locate. Try the links to Amazon.com for each entry or Alibris.com (see bottom of page).

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© 2005 by Thomas H. Slone.

Last modified May 5, 2005.