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Go ahead, try to "make my day" in Budibud. Or "surf the Net" in Bukiyip. Or "do a deal" in a dialect of Bo. Linguistically speaking, you aren't going to get there from here.

New Guinea's 1,300 languages come up short in the trite and trendy. But they make up for it with the treasures of timeless tongues: a wealth of words for nature's works, for myths and age-old rites and magic, and a complexity rich enough to turn a linguist's inquiry into a lifetime endeavor.There's just one problem: The timeless tongues are running out of time.

"To some extent, almost every language in the country is endangered," said Bill Staley, a linguist in Ukarumpa, a missionary outpost in Papua New Guinea's lush Central Highlands.

In fact, languages around the world may share the same fate.

Scholars believe 90 percent of human languages may disappear by the mid-21st century, pushed to oblivion's edge by the spread of English and other "world" languages via media, trade and migration and by the pressure of dominant vernaculars in their own homelands.

A thin, underfinanced line of linguists around the world is trying to hold back the tide and save - or at least document - many of these "small tongues."

Just as archaeologists flock to Egypt and art lovers to Rome, linguists gravitate to this corner of the western Pacific, where one-fifth of the world's 6,000 languages are spoken on a rugged tropical island the size of Texas.

"You'll find people living on hills in grassy swamp areas, and each hill has a different language, maybe 200 people each," said linguist Daryl Pfantz.

Staley and Pfantz are with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a U.S.-based, nondenominational Christian organization that translates the Bible into the world's minor tongues.

The translator-missionaries, usually husband-wife teams, typically spend 15 to 20 years in a remote village, learning the language, developing an alphabet, translating. Institute teams are working on 185 New Guinea languages and have completed Bible translations for 94.

To bolster tribal tongues, the government is urging localities to use their languages - not English - in the first three grades of school.

Internationally, UNESCO's 2-year-old Endangered Languages Project makes small grants to linguists to document dying tongues.

But it's an uphill struggle against a landslide of homogenization, typified by the first Papua New Guinea entry in UNESCO's "Red Book on Endangered Languages," which lists "Aribwatsa," and then notes, "One very old woman left."

"When the last person dies off," Pfantz laments, "it's like burning a library building."



The gift of tongues

Sample of Papua New Guinea's Olo language - translation of John 3:16:


Ma Ili, le ninge nelyeyetei lele, wolo le onom puwotei lir-ipe mete yeflipiye piti tef le le so watepe ninge nelyeyetei lele lepe. Ma Ili lolpepe soma wem mete yeflipi wuso pul-powo lepe, pe yeflipiye miso pa pelengi kolo olo, wolo pe miso kali nempi liti pratei pingi wem wem.

Literal English Translation

The Big One, he has only one son of his very own, but his heart remains very much upon all men of the ground, and he thus gave them his one only true son. The Big One did this, so that all men who believe in him, they all will surely not die completely, no, but they will be able to receive life-breath to remain alive following time and time.

New International Version

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.