Languages without subjects

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Courtney Handman. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.1.017


Languages without subjects

On the interior(s) of colonial New Guinea

Courtney HANDMAN, University of Texas at Austin

The Protestant interior linguistic subject expressed through language or speech is often predicated upon a contrast with languages or forms of speech that deny subjectivity. That is, linguistic subjectivity or interior depth is often produced through the contrast with linguistic surfaces, with languages that in one way or another are considered incapable of supporting subjectivity. In colonial Lutheran New Guinea early missionaries felt they had to cut through both a tropical rainforest and a linguistic forest. In the latter case they used church-promulgated lingua francas to do so, even though many speakers would not have the fluency that Protestant theories of spontaneous sincerity usually assume. The Lutherans hoped to establish the subject-making depth of their lingua francas through comparisons with and promulgation of a form of Pidgin English that they argued could never produce a (Christian) self. In this article I examine how Lutheran missionaries tried to construct Pidgin English as a despised semilanguage in order to contrastively shore up the possibilities of sincere spontaneity that they were so concerned about for speakers of their church lingua francas.

Keywords: linguistic subjectivity, missionaries, Christianity, pidgins and creoles, Melanesia

What is today known as Tok Pisin, a creolizing English-lexifier lingua franca of Papua New Guinea, was once referred to as Pidgin English, or just Pidgin. Like many colonial pidgin and creole languages with European lexifiers, Pidgin was despised by most of the colonizers of New Guinea as a bastard, mongrel form. Not just colonizers, either; linguists too (or, perhaps, colonial linguists too). Arthur Capell, founding professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney—the most prominent linguist in Australia in the early to mid-twentieth century—actively rooted for Pidgin’s eradication. He concludes his review of a dictionary of Pidgin with a delicious left-handed compliment of the work: “It is a pleasure to recommend the work as long as Pidgin is current. The only danger is that a work of this nature might by [208]its very excellence tend to prolong the life of a thoroughly objectionable form of speech” (Capell 1959: 235).

Despising Pidgin was entirely commonplace in the New Guinea colonial era (1884–1975), and, as with Capell, such disfavor usually coincided with efforts or desires to eradicate Pidgin or radically restrict its contexts of use. But the work of the Lutheran Mission in the colonial era presents an interesting contrary case. What makes the Lutherans unique is that they managed to both despise Pidgin and promulgate it widely. Lutheran histories describe a “reluctant” move to Pidgin (Hage 1986: 413), a language that was “a necessary evil” (Lehner 1930: 3). The most positive comment up through the end of the 1960s is that it was deemed “acceptable.” In an ethnographic sense, my goal in this article is simply to try to see what it looks like to actively spread a language that one despises. But in addition to contributing to the colonial history of New Guinea, I also hope that this case can help us theorize other kinds of connections between language and subjective interiority.

As a foundational tenet of so much thinking about both language and cultural difference, it is probably unnecessary to list all of the ways in which languages have been theorized as creating subjects. The idea that the structures of language, culture, or society “speak” the subject is present in writers from Durkheim to Saussure to Sahlins. In contemporary sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology the most commonplace link between language and subjectivity is through the concept of the linguistic performance of identity, particularly ethnic, racial, gender, or sexual identities (an early formulation is in Goffman 1959; see Bucholtz and Hall 2004 for a review of contemporary work; see Butler 1990 for a different genealogy of performativity). For the past few decades, linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics have been working very productively to make linguistic interaction necessarily a space for the performance and construction of identitarian selves.

In this article I argue that the interior linguistic subject expressed through language or speech is often predicated upon an important contrast with languages or forms of speech that deny or disallow subjectivity. That is, the sense of linguistic subjectivity or linguistic interiority is often produced through the contrast with linguistic surfaces, with languages that in one way or another are considered incapable of supporting subjectivity. Yet these languages of surfaces rarely get the attention they deserve. In order to understand how language and sincerity are connected within the anthropology of religion, we need to look at how language and subject are necessarily disentangled at various moments. I am not urging a return to thinking about language as a hegemonic, “anonymous” medium for conveying information (Gal and Woolard 2001; Woolard 2016), as in Enlightenment theories of rational speech. Rather, I am arguing that we think more broadly about the many different kinds of institutional and ideological formations through which language can be seen as not integral to but divorced from a self. This disentanglement is an important component of creating the interiors through which linguistic subjectivities are at other moments made.1[209]

In Webb Keane’s (2007) analysis of the Protestant concept of sincerity, “exterior” linguistic forms match, but do not fully capture, “interior” states. The Protestant sense of interior spirit is marked by the language of life, soul, and generativity and contrasts with the “dead” or “frozen” formulae of Roman Catholic practice. In linguistic terms, the living interior soul can only be expressed (to the extent it is imagined to be possible at all) through spontaneous speech, as close as one can get to the generative life of the soul within the constraints of linguistic form. To that extent, one can only be sincere (i.e., match interior and exterior) to the extent one can mimic, however partially, the generativity of the soul in generative, non-formulaic, spontaneous speech. The formula for sincerity is not having formulae.

Under this Protestant model, one of the necessary conditions for linguistic spontaneity (and therefore sincere speech) is linguistic fluency. Without native-speaker fluency, the Protestant speaker would be too focused on form—finding the right lexeme, conjugating the verb correctly, and so on. The language would dominate the speaker rather than the fluent speaker mastering the language. However, there are at least two senses of generative fluency that are central to the Protestant sense of spontaneous sincerity. The first is the speaker fluency that I have been discussing, imagined as a level of linguistic knowledge in which speakers generate forms without having to pay too much attention to them. The second is a language’s generative capacity, the sense that it has a stable order and is not just an ever-changing collection of unorganized words and phrases. Note that without this sense of language-level generativity there can be no sense of native-speaker generativity. That is, you can’t be a native speaker of a half-language.

Lutheran missionaries in colonial New Guinea were caught in an unenviable position as Protestants intimately aligned with traditions of Bible translation into vernacular languages. They felt that there were simply too many languages in New Guinea to translate Christian texts into all of them. Instead of giving up on the evangelization of all the New Guinea groups in their area, however, they used a number of vernacular New Guinea languages, particularly Kâte and Jabem, as church lingua francas that they would teach to potential converts of whatever ethnolinguistic groups they evangelized. Yet this decision meant that the spontaneous sincerity of a speaker using her or his own language was ruled out. Missionaries’ reports and conference debates about language choice show a consistent worry that their flock was harmed by the use of these lingua francas. But in these reports and debates there is almost always a claim that at least they are not using Pidgin English, that half-language of the colonial plantations, for evangelism.

In this article I examine how Pidgin English is a constant presence in Lutheran documents and Lutheran practice during the colonial era. As a despised semilanguage, it works contrastively to shore up the possibilities of sincere spontaneity that Lutheran missionaries were concerned about for speakers of their church lingua francas.[210]

Not only did the Lutherans think that Pidgin could not support a subjectivity, they seemed to actively work to ensure that it could not come to have one associated with it. As merely an infrastructure of interaction, not a repository of selfhood, Pidgin was a language of surfaces unable to plumb the depths of personhood, or so the Lutherans tried to argue. The Lutherans spoke about the sense of generativity that underlies Protestant concepts of spontaneous sincerity through metaphors of surface and depth. The self could be articulated to the extent that the “soul,” buried deep within one, could be accessed through a language that was equally deep. An important question for me is how this formation of Pidgin as a language of surface was produced through the ways in which the Lutherans actually used it.

Below I argue that in colonial Lutheran New Guinea, linguistic interiority and the capacity for sincerity were products of the contrast between the interior depth of the vernacular languages and the surface shallowness of Pidgin. Yet Lutheran missionaries constantly shifted the boundary between surface and depth. Sometimes vernacular languages were deep and the vernacular church lingua francas Jabem and Kâte were shallow. At other points the church lingua francas produced subjective depth while Pidgin was terminally shallow. By the end of the mission period in the early 1970s, when the colonial administration was pushing universal English education, Lutherans finally started to think of Pidgin as local, a specifically Melanesian hybrid that contained the depth of regional identity in contrast to the surfaces of English. In that sense, then, the capacity to have a linguistically mediated interior from which Christian utterances could emerge depended upon a shifting field of infrastructures as Lutherans created their roads into New Guinea’s interior(s).

In the forest of language

The first Lutheran missionary arrived in New Guinea in 1886 just two years after Germany took possession of what became known as Kaiser Wilhelmsland. Johannes Flierl, a young man from the Neuendettelsau Mission Society in Bavaria, had gone to Australia to work with Aboriginal communities. But he was most interested in New Guinea: “I would rather go to a totally untouched heathen people, not yet trampled on, oppressed and pushed aside by white settlers, as is the case on the mainland of Australia. There, behind Australia, that large island of New Guinea, that would be my idea” (quoted in Wagner 1986: 35). He asked his mission society for permission to begin work there as soon as the colony was taken by Germany in 1884. Flierl and the other missionaries from Neuendettelsau who joined him worked to place mission stations, missionaries, and “native evangelists” across the Huon Peninsula and Morobe coast. Rapid, effective expansion was the constant refrain.

One of the most pressing issues complicating this expansion was what became known in colonial New Guinea as “the language problem.” Papua New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse place in the world. In the 1950s, linguists estimated that about eight hundred languages were spoken by a population that totaled roughly three million. The Huon Peninsula is a good example of this linguistic density. The first mission stations at Simbang and later Sattelberg were located in [211]the area of Kâte-speakers. The mission as a whole was based in nearby Finschhafen, in an area of Jabem-speakers. Although Sattelberg and Finschhafen are quite close to one another geographically, their inhabitants are separated by a language family boundary (see fig. 1). Kâte is a language of the Papuan, or non-Austronesian, language family; Jabem is a language of the Austronesian language family.

Figure 1
Figure 1: The Huon Peninsula showing languages of the Austronesian family (in peach) and the Non-Austronesian, or Trans-New Guinea, family (in green). Kâte is #531 and Jabem (or Yabem) is #560. Map via Ethnologue (Simons and Fennig 2017), used by permission.

Not only were Kâte and Jabem two of the first languages that the Lutheran missionaries used, but they became the lingua francas of the mission as its workers spread across the Huon Peninsula and points south. This meant that Lutheran missionaries and their “native evangelist” helpers not only had to teach local people about Christianity, but they had to also teach these populations one of two languages in which Christian evangelistic materials were prepared. In the early twentieth century most official mission literature was printed in either Kâte or Jabem, and many children in the burgeoning Lutheran school system learned one or the other language as part of their education. Likewise, when Lutheran missionaries from the German Rhenish Mission arrived in 1887 (one year after Flierl) and started work around Madang, they used a language known as Gedaged (or Graged, or Ragetta) as their mission lingua franca.

Which of the two church lingua francas—Kâte or Jabem—was used in any given part of the Neuendettelsau Mission was based on the vernacular language spoken there. If a non-Austronesian language was spoken in the area, Kâte was used; if an Austronesian language was spoken in the area, Jabem was used. This policy obviously required knowledge of local languages and language families, and some of the missionaries devoted considerable time to language study and linguistic [212]description. Otto Dempwolff, a medical doctor who read reports of the Lutheran Mission, was the first to posit that the Austronesian language family spreads across coastal New Guinea and throughout the island Pacific. These classifications became the basis of the administrative organization of church communities. All Kâte-language congregations belonged to the Kâte District and all Jabem congregations belonged to the Jabem District.

But why would Lutherans, of all people, decide to promulgate languages that people did not natively speak? After all, Martin Luther was the champion of vernacular-language Bible translation. Luther thought the Catholic Church’s use of Latin kept the laity from having knowledge of or even interactions with God. Luther advocated for “a priesthood of all believers” that could partly do away with Roman Catholic hierarchies that mediated between God and the faithful. Luther’s translation of the Bible into German set off the modern era of translation, in which the Protestant norm is that one is supposed to read a Bible in one’s own first native language. Flierl wrote that “only by acquiring a knowledge of the natives’ own language was it possible to completely understand and instruct him. Our Lutheran Mission holds to the principle of instructing the native in his own vernacular” (1936: 26). As Lutherans, the missionaries in New Guinea felt an obligation to evangelize as much as possible in terms of local categories and local languages.

Yet the definition of locality was extremely elastic, and based on the problem of “penetration,” a colonial term of art for the entrance into new localities. Because as much as the Lutherans were concerned with native-language authenticity, they were also concerned with how one actually arrived at the “natives.” Given the problem of access, the church lingua francas were both helpful and local enough: Kâte could stand in for all non-Austronesian languages; Jabem could stand in for all Austronesian languages; Gedaged could cover the entirety of the Rai Coast. For the Lutherans, there was a nonspecificity to New Guinea languages below the level of language family that made them interchangeable. As one Lutheran missionary put it, “All New Guinea languages have practically identical thought categories, ideas, and concepts” (Kuder 1959: 8; for a more extended discussion of this issue see Handman 2014).

Questions of penetrative access get more overt discussion when the Lutherans discussed infrastructural issues of transportation. The considerations here are less about Herderian self-expression and authentic conversion and more about the communicative pathways through a landscape that to colonial eyes was exoticized and eroticized as impenetrable, dark, mysterious, and difficult to traverse. We can get a sense of how landscape, language, and infrastructure are all connected as a complex whole by looking at an example of missions promotional material from roughly 1935 aimed at members of the Iowa Synod of the Lutheran Church in the United States (“This is for your information,” n.d.). American Lutherans supported a number of overseas missions in New Guinea, India, and sometimes Madagascar. Here India and New Guinea are presented in abbreviated form through a series of contrastive statistics that are meant to give the American reader a flavor of life “on the mission field.”

Described in terms of infrastructural problems and possibilities, the Indian mission field is depicted as a wide-open space of mobility compared with New Guinea’s impenetrability. For India: “Roads—Fairly good highways and railroads. [213]Considerable auto travel.” Note that for a population totaling “about one million souls” only fifteen missionaries are allocated to India at this point (ca. 1935). Things look rather different over in New Guinea. For one thing, travel is arduous and slow. “No railroads, driveways or bridges, except foot and bridle paths and an occasional hanging bridge suspended by vines, or a log laid across the deep ravine. Boats and canoes are used along the sea shore but very little on rivers, these usually being turbulent mountain streams.” Within this impenetrable zone live a relatively small number of people. Indeed, until 1933 the population for the Lutheran section of the Territory of New Guinea was counted at roughly 46,000. It was only a few years prior to this notice that another 200,000 “souls” were “discovered” in the highlands. The New Guinea field was difficult to access and had an extremely tiny population in comparison with the area around Madras, yet at this point twenty-seven missionaries had been sent out there, almost twice as many as were in India.

The discrepancy—aside from the romanticism of New Guinea that the young Johannes Flierl articulated—comes from the interconnection of the landscape and languages. Because, just like the dense foliage that kept the missionaries from evangelizing by “auto,” the density of languages kept them rooted to ever-smaller corners of the New Guinea field. In India, all is simple: “Language of the people—Telegu (which our missionaries learn in about two years).” In New Guinea, all is complicated:

Language of the people—Many different languages and dialects divide the people into countless tribes and clans. The language selected to become the universal one of our Mission is Ragetta [i.e. Gedaged], a Melanesian vernacular. In the far inland the Papuan or mountain language, Kâte, may have to be added. Every missionary is compelled to learn at least two native languages besides Pidgin English which is gaining ground right along.

Beyond just the distinction in number of languages—one Indian versus hundreds of New Guinea ones—is the fact that Telegu has a long literary history. In New Guinea the missionaries had to develop orthographies for all of these languages. Processes of recording and transcription are likened to pathways through dense jungle in a later internal history of the mission:

Already in 1886, the flying foxes of Finschhafen were well-equipped with ultra-sonic squeakers and echo-sensitive ears and wingtips to find a pathway through thick jungle in the dark, tropical night. By comparison, Senior [Johannes] Flierl was ill-equipped to penetrate the jungle of languages that confronted him. No tape recorders, no word processors, and no computers were available to him and his fellow missionaries. In their wisdom, they decided to make only a narrow pathway through this jungle by using one or two local languages, which they hoped everyone would learn. (Hage 1986: 409)

Kâte, Jabem, and Gedaged were these narrow paths, linguistic roads though a land and language situation that resisted colonial penetration.

Paths and movement are important themes of the early Lutheran years. Many of the missionaries equated the capacity for New Guineans to move freely with the quality of being Christian. Missionaries argued that prior to colonization, fear [214]governed movement. In a manuscript titled “The secular involvement,” which largely covers Lutheran infrastructural improvements in New Guinea, the equation of movement and Christianity, of movement as Christianity, is highlighted clearly. Prior to missionization, New Guineans were afraid of all outsiders, did not travel, and built the villages in hard-to-reach, easy-to-defend locations. But after conversion, according to the author, the impenetrable jungle opens up into communicative pathways.

The new-won freedom from fear had encouraged these young christians [sic] to build “roads on which the ‘miti’ [‘gospel’ in Kâte] could travel” as they expressed it. As time went on similar developments could be noticed in other areas. As the Gospel took possession of the minds of the people their old fears and hatreds disappeared. No longer felt they imprisoned in their tribal area. Now they began to move about. (Kuder n.d.c.: 14)

In this passage the difference between the miti (gospel) and the road on which it travels seems to collapse. The Lutherans vacillate between the sense that languages are communicative roads and the sense that they are key components of creating believing subjects. If languages are simply infrastructural, then any language might do, whether Kâte, Jabem, or the local vernacular for a given area. If languages are self-making, however, then each potential convert has to be addressed in terms of her or his native language, as when Flierl and many others argue for only using the local vernacular. The use of church lingua francas expressed both positions at once: they were roads through the dense and imposing jungle, itself an image of the opacity of the population’s linguistic forest, but they were also keyed to particular language families, Austronesian and non-Austronesian. Winter (2012: 109–22) argues that early (ca. 1929) support for the church lingua francas was an extension of German nationalist ideologies then ascendant in the Weimar Republic. Yet even a missionary like Georg Pilhofer, who was most vocal about wanting to create a Papuan “volk” through the spread of Kâte, realized that this required a steady project of inculcating a church lingua franca so that it could eventually become a nation-forging entity for speakers of other languages. As I argue below, the depth of the lingua francas—the sense in which they connect to native souls—was only secured through comparisons with Pidgin’s surfaces.

Missionaries were so invested in the sense that Kâte, Jabem, or Gedaged was the language of the people (even when it was promulgated by the mission itself) that they refused to give up on the three different languages. In the post-World War II era, with American and Australian financial support very low and all former German support ruled out as a possibility, it would have made good economic sense to bring the nearly bankrupt mission together under a single lingua franca. Yet missionaries were too committed to their own lingua francas to do so. Theologically it made sense to unite the potential church under a single linguistic umbrella, so that only one Evangelical Lutheran Church of New Guinea might eventually exist. But the Lutherans could not decide on one language. Thus,

the introduction of three unifying languages [the lingua francas] did not produce a solution either of the problem of language, or of the problem of the unity of the Church. What happened was that three Churches had come into being. They were all Lutheran but they had nothing more [215]to hold them together than the fact that they had all grown out of the work of a mission, and that they all reflected the character of the Papuan people. (Vicedom 1961: 52)

According to Vicedom, the “controversy about languages was never settled” (ibid.: 53). It was in the context of this controversy that the members of the Lutheran Mission resolved at their 1956 annual meeting to “accept” Pidgin English in those emerging situations where a church lingua franca was inadvisable (Hage 1986: 413). But this move toward Pidgin was made with all the enthusiasm of a prisoner headed to the gallows. In Hartley Hage’s retrospective account of Lutheran education, under the subheading “Reluctant acceptance of Pidgin,” he writes: “If missionaries had been able to agree on the use of only one church vernacular, the practical need for using Pidgin would hardly have arisen within the church” (ibid.). Hage refers to the mission fathers like Johannes Flierl when he writes: “Little could these men know that the centenary of their arrival would be celebrated in a language for which they had the lowest possible esteem” (ibid.: 409).

How does a mission use a language it despises, especially a Protestant mission oriented toward the text? More importantly, what traces of that dislike might be left on the language? In the next section I argue that Lutheran missionaries’ negative attitude toward Pidgin enabled its success as an infrastructural force that united the mission as a whole. By using Pidgin as a desubjectivized language, whatever emphasis there was on interior subjectivity could reside contrastively in the Lutheran lingua francas, the linguistic-administrative units of congregational life.

Pidgin English in New Guinea

What is now known as Tok Pisin was initially a pidgin language with a reduced grammar and a vocabulary taken largely from English. It has its early roots in the trading jargons used on ships criss-crossing the Pacific. In the late 1800s, it was used for communication among indentured laborers on the plantations of the Western Pacific (see Mühlhäusler 1977, 1978). Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea all have lingua francas that stem from this Melanesian Pidgin source. Unlike the colonial languages of the Atlantic, which creolized quickly on slave plantations, the Melanesian pidgins were largely second languages that local men learned during three-year stints of labor. In this type of blackbirding labor system, men were sent to plantations but could eventually leave and were even dropped off somewhere in the vicinity of their home areas. These returning laborers spread the language unevenly through the territory.

The various colonial administrators of New Guinea would have liked to eradicate the language, but a combined lack of time and resources meant that little attention was paid to the issue. During the short-lived German era (1884–1914), administrators built one high school where they planned to teach German in hopes that it would be the colonial lingua franca rather than Pidgin. The high school was constructed in 1911, just three years before Australia took possession of the colony at the start of World War I. After the war, New Guinea was administered by Australia as a League of Nations Mandated Territory. During World War II the Japanese [216]Army occupied large swaths of the north coast, and from after the war until Independence in 1975, New Guinea was administered by Australia as a United Nations Trust Territory. During these brief, interrupted moments of administration, colonial officers wanted to introduce English, but no coordinated policy was set in place until the late 1950s. All of the United Nations Trust Territories had to have a concrete plan for movement toward Independence, and the Australian plan rested on education in English.

The earliest colonial proponent of Pidgin was the Roman Catholic Mission. In the 1930s the Catholics decided to make Pidgin a liturgical language and started to produce the necessary literature. They wanted to help create a “universal language” for the territory. Fr. Joseph Schebesta compiled a dictionary and was preparing it for publication when he was killed in World War II. The manuscript dictionary was published by Fr. Leo Meiser in a very limited run in 1945, but it was the basis of Fr. Mihalic’s influential and widely used dictionary published two decades later (Mihalic 1968).

Even Catholics who were working to promote the language were vocal about what appeared to them as Pidgin’s flaws. Chief among these flaws was its tendency toward constant and radical change. In Meiser’s preface he states “this dictionary cannot be considered as an exhaustive and final compilation, but only as a collection of words in current use among those who speak the language” (Meiser 1945: 2). It is unclear how this differs from any other dictionary for any other language, yet the rate of change is something for which Meiser had to apologize. The one thing that does not change in the history of Pidgin is the extent to which people comment on its constant change. But this change marked Pidgin as not a living but rather a dying language. Arthur Capell argued that later Australian policies were “definitely aimed at causing Pidgin to commit suicide, albeit as painlessly as possible, by taking more and more English over into it” (Capell 1955: 72). As he notes a couple of pages later, “It is only a question of time” (ibid.: 74).

The perceived instability of the language—and the possibility that it was in the midst of self-harm—provoked a strong contrast with the other New Guinea languages that missionaries dealt with. According to the missionaries, those vernaculars were deeply rooted in the land, so much so that they produced an impenetrable jungle that had to be cleared with focal languages that could stand in for all of the New Guinea thought categories. Pidgin, by contrast, looked like no language at all from the colonial perspective.

As Hage noted in the quotation above, the early missionaries “had the lowest possible esteem” for the language. Johannes Flierl was particularly adamant that Pidgin could not be used in missionary work. In commenting on other missions in New Guinea, Flierl writes that the Seventh Day Adventists

show their predilection for Pidgin English, this “horror of horrors.”2 The Catholics also favour Pidgin English very much. Bishop Vesters told the conference at Rabaul that it was a simple and easy vehicle of conversation with the native. The Lutheran and Methodist representatives opposed this statement of the Bishop. It was a superficial language. (1936: 26)[217]

Flierl disagrees with the bishop that Pidgin could be a “vehicular language” (another term for a lingua franca), implying that it is incapable of “penetrating” the dense jungle of New Guinea.

The Lutheran position on Pidgin remained negative well into the twentieth century. Otto Theile, the Australia-based head of the New Guinea mission, spoke about pidgins spoken in both New Guinea and Aboriginal Queensland as useless in missions work. In a speech titled “Missionary methods,” Theile condemns anything but “the vernacular”:

Among themselves they [meaning, Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans] use the vernacular, and I am convinced that if we would understand their innermost thoughts we must be able to converse with them in the vernacular. We can therefore, not support the proposals that for primitive natives Pidgin or English be adopted as a means of bringing to them the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They must hear the message in their own tongue. (Theile n.d.: 10)

Theile’s speech provides us with a clear sense that Pidgin was seen as a language that could not reach the soul. It was not a language that constituted a perspective from which to speak, which for Theile is reserved for those innermost thoughts that had to be turned inside out in order for the conversion process to take place. Instead of the linguist Capell’s image of a language that was committing suicide, we get here the Lutheran missionary image of a language that was simply never alive. This Pidgin lacks any dimension, staying at the surface of evangelism rather than plumbing the soul’s depths.

What Theile leaves out, however, is that the church lingua francas like Kâte and Jabem that the mission was using in New Guinea were vernacular languages but not the vernacular languages for most of the converts in their domain. Kâte and Jabem only had about a thousand speakers each at the time of Flierl’s arrival in 1886. But in 1959 the Lutherans estimated that over 200,000 people spoke or could understand some amount of Kâte (Kuder 1959). Theile plays with the meaning of vernacular here, assuming that anything vernacular and local was also intimate and interior. The possibility that Kâte or Jabem as lingua francas could reach the souls of converts only emerges contrastively when put in relation to Pidgin’s deficiencies.

The threat of desubjectification of the lingua francas is explicitly addressed in Stephen Lehner’s paper presented to the annual Lutheran Mission conference in 1930. Lehner disparages Pidgin as a language of evangelism for several pages. He gives examples of what he thinks are the most ridiculous circumlocutions (“hat belong finger—thimble; trousers belong letter—envelope”) and an extensive quote from what he says is the Proclamation of Annexation read to local people when Britain took possession of Germany’s Pacific colonies after World War I (“British new feller master, he like him black feller man too much he like him alsame you picanin alonga him”). Pidgin is the language of last resort, for example “when as a result of mixed marriages Pidjin [sic] will be the language of the newcoming generation.” The only real option is using a vernacular if one wants to actually reach the innermost self where Christian conversion happens, a space of subjectivity inaccessible to Pidgin’s this-worldliness.[218]

If he [the missionary] has an opportunity to use a New Guinea language, which is so rich in detailed expressions, there should be no doubt as to which is to be used. May traders use Pidjin and may Governments even give Proclamations in it, and may an Anthropologist use it to find out facts:—a missionary cannot use this language if he wants to arouse the hearts of the people. (Lehner 1930: 2)

Against the gibberish of Pidgin, Lehner holds up the native language as the only route to real conversion. But he has to catch himself at the end of the paper: the Lutherans do not in fact use the “mother tongue” languages of their potential converts.

I hope that these pages do not give some people the idea regarding the introduction of one or two centralized languages, for which many of the tribes should give up their mother tongue. I admit that doing this is only a compromise forced by the fact that there are too many different languages, but not the ideal solution to the problem. Unfortunately it is impossible to cultivate 20 to 30 languages and produce school material and literature in all of them. But the introduction of another New Guinean language, even if it is not of the same structure, is still quite different than introducing a European language in order to get away from the difficulties that the many tribal languages present. (Lehner 1930: 3)

Lehner has to apologize for a Lutheran policy which seems to go against all of the principles he laid out in his opposition to Pidgin. He implies that the use of the lingua francas is a logistical issue only—if they could use all the native languages, they would. But even the nonlocal lingua francas are superior since they are less different from a local language than Pidgin or English would be. Moreover, Lehner thinks that learning any local language is enough to show one’s good intentions. Not only do church languages share in the sense of generalized New Guinea-ness that allows missionaries a route to the potential convert’s heart, but they also reveal the hearts of the missionaries as being filled with good intentions toward their colonial charges.

Lehner is not the only one who equates the use of Pidgin with colonial domination and church languages with salvation. Georg Pilhofer (1938) reports on a conversation he had with an administrator in the highlands in which the latter urges him and the rest of the Lutherans to use Pidgin rather than Kâte or Jabem. Pilhofer replies, “No Protestant Mission will teach the Gospel in Pidgin. Only the Catholic Mission can do that. For they are, first and foremost, concerned with acquainting their followers with ritual forms and formulas. We are not against Pidgin as a means of communication between white and black. However, for the actual mission work we decline to use it” (ibid.: 3). Ritual forms and formulas, administrative proclamations, anthropological inquiries: these are all acceptable uses for Pidgin since they do not depend upon reaching the depths of the person.

Keeping Pidgin in flux

As the India–New Guinea comparison revealed, all Lutheran missionaries learned and used Pidgin. But for a long time Lutheran approaches to Pidgin were disorderly [219]and slapdash. In contrast to the Catholics, who started early on in the 1930s with creating a Pidgin orthography, the Lutherans seemed to actively work to keep Pidgin in a state of disorder. Two documents that have been filed next to one another in the Lutheran archives demonstrate the extent to which Lutherans wrote the language idiosyncratically.

The first is a Pidgin translation of the famous hymn “Nearer my God to Thee,” which appears to have been translated by Jerome Ilaoa, a Samoan Lutheran missionary, in 1933. Spelling or grammar that differs from what became the standardized form of Tok Pisin is underlined. I have tried to produce this hymn using standardized Tok Pisin underneath each line.

Nearer My God to Me [sic]. By Jerom Ilaoa. 1933

1 Klos tu, o God, long yu,
  Klostu, o God, long yu
  Near, oh God, to you
2 Klos tu long yu,
  Klostu long yu
  Near to you
3 Kuros e kin bring im mi
  Kros i ken bringim mi
  The cross can bring me
4 Klos tu along yu
  Klostu long yu
  Near to you
5 Trabel en pen i kam
  Trabel na pen i kam
  There is trouble and pain
6 Mi no kin lusim yu
  Mi no ken lusim yu
  I cannot leave you
7 Mi laik i go along yu
  Mi laik go long yu
  I want to go to you
8 Klos tu along yu
  Klostu long yu
  Near to you
9 Insaid long santu hart
  Insait long bel holi
  Inside your sacred heart
10 Mi laik i haid
  Mi laik hait
  I want to hide
11 *Jesus yu dai for mi
  Jisas yu indai pinis long mi
  [alternately: Jisas yu indai pinis long kisim bek laip bilong mi]
  *Jesus you died for me
12 Mi no kin fraid
  Mi lo ken poret
  I cannot be afraid
13 Taim soul i karim pain,
  Taim sol [tewel] i karim pen
  When [my] soul is pained
14 Mi ken i kom along yu
  Mi ken kam long yu
  I can come to you
15 Klos tu long yu o God
  Klostu long yu o God
  Near to you oh God
16 Klos tu long yu
  Klostu long yu
  Near to you

With a significant but not enormous number of changes, this looks roughly similar to contemporary Tok Pisin (so much for the argument that it is changing at an extraordinary rate). I have underlined the words that would have to be corrected to make it conform to contemporary use; the changes are largely minor. Word final voiced obstruents are usually devoiced in Pidgin and contemporary spelling reflects that (haid/hait in line 10; fraid/poret in line 11). The phrase in line 9 “sacred heart” rendered as “santu hart” both ignores the Pidgin word for heart, “bel,” that is used in a later stanza in this translation, and displays the Catholic tendency to render theological terms in Latinate form (“santu”).3 Within this largely phonemic spelling, there is a lack of standardization: the preposition long is sometimes along (lines 4, 7, 8, and 14); the transitive marker -im is sometimes not connected to the verb (line 3). The predicate marker “‘i” is used with first-person verbs, although this is not done in standard Tok Pisin. The worst problems are in line 11, where (1) the English preposition for is used for the benefactive construction “died for me” rather than using a purposive construction belong kisim bek laip bilong mi, “to save you [lit. to get your life back],” or something similar; and (2) the [221]completive marker “pinis” is left out, rendering it Jesus passed out rather than Jesus died “for me.”

If the Lutherans regularly used an orthography and grammar that matched the hymn translation above, one could talk about a regular Lutheran Pidgin norm emerging. However, right next to this document in the archival record is a version of the Our Father in Pidgin, translated by a German-speaking Australian missionary (undated, but a similar version of the prayer is in Lehner 1930: 2).

Das Vater-unser in Pidgin [The Our Father]

1 Pappa belong me fellow he stop on top,
  Papa bilong mipela i stap antap
  Our (EXCL) father is above
2 Name belong you he tamboo,
  Nem bilong yu i tambu
  Your name is taboo
3 fashion belong you he come,
  pasin bilong yu i kam
  your ways came
4 something he stop along bell belong you all he make him on top all the same you me make him down below,
  samting i stap long bel bilong yu ol i mekim antap olsem yumi mekim daunbelo
  something that is in your heart they do above like we (INCL) do below
5 Kaikai belong me fellow, all time you give him me fellow,
  kaikai bilong mipela oltaim yu givim mipela
  you always give us (EXCL) our food
6 loose him trouble belong me fellow past time all right,
  lusim trabel bilong mipela pastaim, orait
  first remove our (EXCL) troubles, then
7 you me loose him trouble belong brother belong you me;
  yumi lusim trabel bilong brata bilong mi
  we (INCL) remove my brother’s troubles
8 you look out, Satan he no try him me fellow too much,
  yu lukaut Seten i no traim mipela tumas
  watch that Satan does not test us (EXCL) a lot
9 alltogether something havy he stop belong skin belong me fellow you loose him;
  olgeta samting hevi i stap long skin belong mipela yu lusim
  remove the burdens from our (EXCL) bodies (skins)
10 alltogether bush, alltogether strong, alltogether light too much belong yu all time.
  olgeta bus, olgeta strong, olgeta lait tumas bilong yu oltaim
  all the forests, all the powers, all the light really always yours
11 Him he true.
  Em i tru.
  It is true (amen)

Not only is the orthography completely wedded to standard English, but several lines are ungrammatical or semantically questionable. Line 10 lacks a verb. The translator does not seem to understand the distinction between inclusive “we,” which refers to speaker and addressee (marked INCL in the text above), and exclusive “we,” which refers to speaker and others but not the addressee (marked EXCL in the text above). For example, God is included in the “we” that creates God’s will on earth (line 4) and who forgives those who trespass against us (line 7).4 Orthographically, the language is presented as nothing more than bad English, and if one is reading from an English vantage point it reads as close to gibberish. It follows none of the more phonemic spellings that were in the hymn. But if you put it in an orthography that obscures the etymological links to English that are so transparently presented in the original document, the language starts to look much more familiar, as can be seen in the transliteration I put beneath each line. Unlike the Catholic dictionary, which early on adopted an orthography much closer to what appears in the hymn, Lutheran missionary attempts at employing Pidgin kept the language verging on the edge of linguistic suicide.

In the mid-1950s the Lutherans were starting to face off against the administration, which was decidedly opposed to the church lingua francas. Yet the administration was also deeply opposed to Pidgin. When it threatened to cut off subsidies for mission schools using church lingua francas, mission President John Kuder tried to recruit the administration in common cause against Pidgin: “Pidgin would be a very miserable substitute for an indigenous church language, and its general adoption as such would mean a disastrous impoverishment. . . . The man who teaches or preaches in Pidgin will find it very hard to dip below the surface of things” (Kuder 1959: 7).

Yet already in 1954, it is clear that the president of the mission was contemplating such a shift, even while maintaining his negative attitude toward it: “Because Pidgin gives us access to so many people the question arises whether we should not cultivate it rather than use it merely as a necessary evil?” (Kuder 1954: 9). They had already developed a partial Pidgin liturgy, but this was meant only for “the use of laborers on plantations or near the towns,” that is, the Melanesians who were already alienated from their native contexts by being in multiethnic labor camps (Kuder n.d.b.: 5). For the “in situ” natives, they passed a resolution at their annual meeting that certain new areas could be evangelized in Pidgin, but should not be used in older areas to take the place of the church lingua francas.

Lutherans discussed two main reasons for this official recognition. First, they were battling with other denominations for dominance in the highlands. Teaching the Lutheran lingua francas to potential converts during year-long confirmation classes was taking too long. Other missions were picking off the students by offering immediate baptism. Reluctantly, in 1956, the Lutherans allowed the use of Pidgin in these hotly contested new highlands areas in an effort to keep as much [223]of their “flock” as they could. Second, the missionaries were starting to make more concerted efforts to turn the mission into a church, and to have local people take over for the American, Australian, and German missionaries. Yet because these expatriate missionaries were never able to decide on a single church language, the New Guinea Lutherans had no single language with which to communicate. Pidgin was partly accepted because it was the only language in which synodal meetings among members of the Kâte, Jabem, and Madang Districts could take place.

Soon after deciding to accept Pidgin, one of the Lutheran missionaries began to work in limited ways with the Catholic Fr. Mihalic on standardizing Pidgin and translating the New Testament into it (see Cass 1999). The New Testament was published in 1969, an official orthography in 1970, and a grammar and dictionary in 1971. Yet even when codifying the language, the missionaries’ orienting horizon was always an English-language future with Pidgin on a modernizing suicide mission. Fr. Francis Mihalic, the Catholic missionary most responsible for standardizing Pidgin, writes in the preface to the first edition of the dictionary that the codification of Pidgin is just meant “to span the gap to that farther shore” of English-language fluency (Mihalic 1968: ix). In other words, missionaries do not suddenly disagree with the anti-Pidgin rationales that were articulated in earlier decades. They continue to disparage Pidgin in familiar ways even as they start to use it.

The extent to which Lutherans worked to maintain Pidgin outside of the realm of stable linguistic subjectivity even as they used it is most clearly on display in 1971 correspondence between John Kuder, the head of the mission, and John Sievert, who before his retirement was the first Lutheran assigned to work with Mihalic on Pidgin. Kuder complains about Sievert’s replacement in the Pidgin work, Paul Freyberg. Freyberg was taking too long with his Pidgin translation of the Lutheran statement of faith. Before getting to Kuder’s comments, it is important to note that Kuder had been working on the statement of faith for at least five years. Hammering out the theological differences among the different Lutheran mission societies was a seemingly never-ending task. Kuder also worked hard to make the statement of faith specific to and appropriate for the New Guinea context. It was something of a parting gift, as the mission was formally in the process of being nationalized, going from a Euro-American-run mission to a church that would be run by New Guineans. This final stamp of theological authenticity and truth in the statement of faith was meant to set the new church on the right path. Kuder had been worrying over it for years and yet he notes that Freyberg is taking too much care with the Pidgin translation.

I can’t see that this is going to be done in the immediate future. What seems to me would be a much better solution would be that a few of us who are not quite so good in Pidgin as Paul is [come together] and that we should get it out the best we can. Then it can be worked over and revised where necessary to bring it into line with our changing use of the Pidgin itself[—]to have somebody prepare what we think is a perfect copy is like Sisip pushing the stone up the mountain. He never reached it. (Kuder n.d.a: 38–39)5[224]

Even though Kuder was deeply concerned about this document, he is getting ready to insist upon what he thinks will be a middling translation into Pidgin. One will always have to “bring it into line with our changing use of the Pidgin” because the Pidgin itself is always changing to an extent that does not seem to be true of other languages. That is, trying to get a Pidgin translation into proper order is Sisyphean because of the instability of Pidgin itself.

As is clear from Kuder’s comments, a few Lutherans like Paul Freyberg did think that Pidgin could be a language of the self, or at least worked under that assumption. Certainly after Kuder left and the leadership of the church moved into New Guinean hands, Pidgin—or what is now called Tok Pisin—came to be an important part of Lutheran practice. In many places Tok Pisin took over from Kâte, Jabem, and Gedaged. But in the mission era itself, there is an ongoing ambivalence about Pidgin. It is recognized as incredibly useful to unite the mission given the missionaries’ incapacity to find a single church lingua franca, and yet it was kept separate from those lingua francas and the vernacular languages of the people. Kuder’s refusal to let Freyberg work on the translation—his refusal to even admit that a proper Pidgin translation was possible—points to the ways in which Pidgin was maintained as a language without subjective depth. Even with Kâte and Jabem sidelined and Pidgin English on its way to becoming the main Lutheran language by the time of Papua New Guinea’s independence, many Lutheran missionaries maintained a sense that Pidgin was incapable of producing a sincere conversion.


The separation of subjectivity and language has most often been tied to Enlightenment and positivist scientific practices. To the extent that language can be purified of various infelicities or biases, it can be a transparent medium for the communication of truth. The view from nowhere is made possible here (or is imagined as possible here) because language can be perfected. What is especially interesting in the Lutheran case is that Pidgin was delinked from a subjective self not because it was perfect—a laboratory instrument—but because it was so deeply flawed. It changed too quickly, it did not have its own center, it was committing suicide by slowly being eaten up by English. And for about seventy years the Lutherans both used the language and left it in that imperfect state. Without semantic or subjective depth, it was imagined by the Lutherans to be a language of infrastructure and no more. But in providing this linguistic shallowness, missionaries could point contrastively to the relative depth of the church lingua francas, which were so ambivalently connected to particular communities of speakers.

In analyses of the history of Malay (the precursor to Bahasa Indonesia), many scholars suggest that the Dutch colonial forces did not want to have anything to do with the language (Meier 1993; Siegel 1997; Errington 2003). It was out of the colonizers’ neglect that Malay was able to transform into a language of an incipient nationalist identity. Without the elaborate honorific registers required in Balinese or Javanese, or the deference required in speaking to a colonial officer, speaking Malay to other inhabitants of the Dutch East Indies felt like one was speaking outside of the prevailing social demands for status and order, where one could imagine [225]a new political world. But in the case of Pidgin in the Lutheran Mission, we see that even in the process of using the language, the Lutherans worked to make it a language without subjective force. Rather than characterize their engagements with Pidgin as negligence, it is better to think of it as a series of refusals, a kind of antiattention that kept Pidgin in a subordinate position as Lutherans policed the boundary between the interior and the exterior, the place for conversion and the place for mere information transfer.

Given their Lutheran inheritance, it is especially surprising that the missionaries discussed here were at best ambivalent about the relationship between vernacular language and the possibility for the sincere expression of conversion. In certain contexts, the Lutheran missionaries tried to create a kind of denominational unity that avoided language almost entirely (see Handman 2014). For the missionaries hoping to penetrate the seemingly impenetrable forest of languages on the Huon Peninsula, the church lingua francas became the discrete paths for doing so. Yet their status as vernaculars that penetrated both the forests of New Guinea and the interior souls of the people was made possible through the contrast with Pidgin. Pidgin circulated as a language of surfaces, but did so in order to provide depth to the lingua francas.

Richard Bauman and Charles Briggs (2003) contrast the theories of Locke and Herder as the two main apostles of modernist language ideologies, the one advocating a rational and transparent language of logic and the other describing the particularistic languages of ethnonational groups. While these two modes of imagining language are often opposed to one another, the extent to which they are dependent upon one another is not often attended to. Yet the languages of particularism, the heart languages of sincere speech, contrast with the imagination of language as divorced from the production of a self. The Lutheran use and abuse of Pidgin—the missionaries’ capacity to despise the language that they helped promulgate—suggests that we ought to plumb both the linguistic depths and surfaces.


Research for this article was supported by a Summer Research Assignment from the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. I thank the archivists at the Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, in Elk Grove, IL, for their guidance and help in locating a number of documents that I discuss here. I presented an early draft of the manuscript at the 2016 SALSA conference at the University of Texas at Austin, and I thank the organizers for that opportunity. I thank Niloofar Haeri for organizing and inviting me to participate in a set of panels at the American Anthropological Association meetings in 2014 and 2016 that was the original basis of this special section. The other participants in this special section—Niloofar Haeri, Ayala Fader, Sonja Luehrmann, and Matt Tomlinson—all provided extensive and insightful criticisms. Ilana Gershon, Paul Manning, Robert Moore, Joshua Reno, and James Slotta each read and very helpfully commented on drafts of the manuscript. Finally, I thank the editors and anonymous reviewers for HAU.[226]


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Langues sans objets: Des intérieur(s) de la Nouvelle Guinée coloniale

Résumé : Le thème protestant du sujet intérieur exprimé dans la langue ou le langage présuppose souvent un contraste avec des formes langagières qui nient la subjectivité. Cela veut dire que la subjectivité linguistique, la profondeur intérieure, est souvent produite par l’intervention d’un contraste avec des surfaces linguistiques, avec des langues qui d’une façon ou d’une autre, sont considérées incapables de servir de socle à la subjectivité. En Nouvelle-Guinée, à l’époque coloniale, les premiers missionnaires luthériens semblent avoir eu l’impression de devoir débroussailler deux jungles, l’une constituée d’arbres, l’autre de signes linguistiques. Pour cette dernière, ils utilisèrent les lingua franca autorisées par l’église, même si bien des interlocuteurs ne possédaient pas l’aisance linguistique que les théories protestantes sur la sincérité spontanée présupposaient. Les luthériens espéraient établir la profondeur de leurs lingua franca et leurs capacité à susciter des subjectivités par la comparaison avec une autre forme plus institutionnalisée de pidgin-English qu’ils n’estimaient pas capable de produire un sujet (chrétien). Dans cet article j’examine comment les missionnaires luthériens ont tenté de faire passer le pidgin-English pour un peudo-langage déprécié, afin de mettre en valeur, par contraste, les possibilités de spontanéité sincère contenues par la lingua franca parlée par les fidèles de leur église.

Courtney HANDMAN is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. She has conducted field and archival research in Papua New Guinea since 2002, both with Guhu-Samane communities in Morobe Province and with members of the Bible translation organization SIL International. Her work focuses on the religious publics produced through missionary discourses and ambivalences about institutions in Protestant practice. Her book Critical Christianity: Translation and denominational conflict in Papua New Guinea was published by the University of California Press in 2015.

Courtney Handman
Department of Anthropology
University of Texas at Austin
2201 Speedway, Stop C3200
Austin, TX 78712


1. See also Rosa’s (2016) recent analysis of “languagelessness,” a racializing way of disparaging particular speakers in the contexts of standardized national languages. In making this move away from performativity and the performance of identity as the dominant trope for linguistic anthropological analyses, I follow a group of scholars who examine alterity, effacement, abjection, or animation as modes of speaking that are not subject making (Hastings and Manning 2004; Inoue 2006; Silvio 2010; Manning and Gershon 2013; Nozawa 2016).

2. Flierl is referencing a comment he had cited earlier in his essay from another colonial administrator who had called Pidgin that “horror of horrors” (see Flierl 1936: 13).

3. The Roman Catholic Society of the Divine Word mission, active in the neighboring Madang District, was the first to use Pidgin for catechetical and liturgical texts. The fact that Ilaoa uses a Latinate term here suggests that this is in fact a very early attempt at using Pidgin within a Lutheran context when the theological vocabulary would have been extremely small and in flux. It may also be important that Ilaoa, as a Samoan missionary, did not feel the kinds of deep-seated antipathies toward Catholics that his fellow German, Australian, and American Lutheran missionaries felt, although this is only my speculation.

4. In contemporary Tok Pisin versions of the Our Father prayer, only the exclusive first-person plural pronoun mipela is used.

5. This is from a written transcript of Kuder’s responses to Sievert’s written questions that Kuder recorded by audiotape. I have added in material in square brackets to help correct for the disfluencies of his off the cuff remarks.