Fieldwork in Western Highlands, PNG

From March to April 2018, Alan Rumsey, Francesca Merlan and I spent four weeks working in Western Highlands province with deaf signers, supported by the Australian Linguistic Society and the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language. We worked with 12 deaf people living in a roughly 10km radius from Kailge, a community west of Mount Hagen, the provincial capital.

The situation is extremely interesting. There is no deaf community or sociality whatsoever: Deaf people in rural areas do not seek one another out for special communication or friendship. Sign languages are used principally between deaf and hearing people, in little networks of users centred on one deaf person. There is a great deal of lexical similarity in certain high-frequency signs, despite little to no contact between deaf people.

We worked most closely with Kakuyl Kulup, the only deaf person at Kailge. Kakuyl’s sign language is only one generation old yet has a number of sophisticated structural features, including past tense marking, a lexicalised way of expressing approximate number, possible topic marking, an interesting mouth action profile, metalinguistic awareness of “good” versus “poor” signing, a full set of minimal pairs along the commonly accepted four contrastive parameters in sign languages, and more.


We plan to return to Western Highlands in November to continue our work.