Lucinda Robb worked for 15 years for the Teaching Company and is working on a book about the suffrage movement.
If a little-known language of a remote people dies, should we care? That is the heart of the issue raised by Don Kulick’s “A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea.” While it doesn’t give the reader a neat answer, it will leave you thinking about how cultures everywhere break down and evolve, and the role we unwittingly play in their demise.
Over a 30-year period, Kulick, an anthropologist, lived intermittently among the people of the exceptionally remote village of Gapun (population less than 200), documenting their unique — and fading — language, Tayap. Some of his visits lasted as long as a year and a half, others a mere six weeks. But each time it was enough to plot the gradual march of linguistic extinction.
This is not a romantic, idealized tale of life in the rainforest brought to you by Disney nature films. Kulick hopes to tell a more honest story. For starters he prefers the term “jungle” instead of “rainforest” to describe the raw Gapun environment, even though it’s less politically correct. No golden light shining through the trees, with exotic bird calls echoing in the background, in his account. Gapun is unbearably hot, sticky, impossibly muddy; there are eight different kinds of mosquitoes (which are still preferable to the deadly poisonous snakes), and it is an eight-hour slog to get to the nearest, equally remote village.
In fact, the great strength of the book is Kulick’s candor. It’s closer to a memoir than an academic tome, and a more accurate subtitle might be “True Confessions of a Cultural Anthropologist.” Just the description of his diet in the field will give you pause. Even if he could afford to pack a six-month supply of Clif Bars, the most basic requirement of his job is to eat the local food, not only because sharing a meal fosters friendship but because refusing to do so would insult his hosts. Unfortunately for Kulick, sago jelly, a delicacy the villagers proudly prepare for him, reminds him of phlegm flavored with furniture polish. While freely admitting that every culture has its own acquired tastes, Kulick’s no-holds-barred food descriptions will make you grateful that your job does not require you to pretend to enjoy eating mum, a turkey embryo that looks like “the early life cycle of the creatures in Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ film.”
What makes the whole experience bearable from his point of view are the children, whom he finds delightful and remarkably self-sufficient from the age of 4. He chalks this up to the fact that they are constantly lied to, can go anywhere and in their first years of life are given pretty much anything they please. If the baby wants the butcher knife, the baby gets the butcher knife. This novel approach may not sound like appropriate parenting, but Kulick observes that the children acquire their self-sufficiency by learning to seek out their own answers and by carefully navigating their surroundings at an early age.
Hanging out with children also allows Kulick to see how a language disappears in real time. Although the younger generation clearly understands Tayap, the children are reluctant to speak it. The harsh grammatical corrections of their elders create a clear disincentive. More than that, in their eyes Tayap is backward and old-fashioned. The few Gapuners who leave the village return speaking Tok Pisin, the national language of Papua New Guinea. Given the wider employment opportunities it represents, not surprisingly it is seen as superior.
Yet while Tayap may have only a few dozen speakers, it is a more fully developed and mature language than Tok Pisin, a pidgin created by native tribesmen who worked on white plantations.
Kulick illustrates this point effectively with a chapter on swearing, which would earn the book a hard R if it were a movie. Gapun women — who have less exposure to Tok Pisin than the men — are the real masters of the art form, with a creativity that tough-talking Captain Haddock of the Tintin comics would appreciate. Private parts and bodily functions are well represented in both languages, but the syntax of Tayap allows for far greater agility of expression. While few of the women’s artful phrases in Tayap can be reprinted in a family newspaper, Kulick finds their swearing poetic and believes that something is lost in the less-eloquent forms of swearing that Tok Pisin commands. If it seems odd to mourn the decline of inventive swearing, it’s also an insightful, decidedly unscholarly way to show cultural changes.
Throughout the book Kulick reveals the practical, insider secrets of his profession. Yes, the Gapuners are friendly and warm, but he is generally tolerated because (1) he brings a lot of gifts, (2) he provides a certain amount of novelty, and (3) he is presumably a dead relative, now white, come back to live among them. But while the villagers may get something out of their relationship with a visiting anthropologist (most notably knives, balloons and newspaper for rolling cigarettes), his presence also creates problems.
Kulick clearly wrestles with the knowledge that although his intentions are benign, his impact is not. His second-to-last visit ends abruptly when a rumor spreads in the surrounding area that Kulick is hiding $40,000 in his hut. This results in an inept and ultimately tragic robbery attempt by intruders with a gun, who shoot a villager before they flee. A shaken Kulick arranges to be evacuated at great expense, but he can’t escape the fact that a Gapuner is dead because of his presence. In the end he can always leave — which he does — when things become too dangerous. The villagers don’t have that luxury.
A recurring theme in the book is the ongoing toll that contact with the outside world has on the small community, as Gapuners are lied to, exploited and cheated by virtually every external entity they come in contact with. Crooked politicians try to get them to sign away their land (the skepticism they are taught in their youth comes in handy here). They are persuaded to grow “commercial” crops that they are never able to sell because they are too remote. The village church is a perfect metaphor for how poorly Western customs graft onto life in Gapun. Built in the colonizer’s traditional style, on the ground instead of on stilts, the church floods after big rains, and parishioners must stand in stagnant pools throughout the service because their benches are underwater.
At the end of the book, Kulick tackles why — or even if — the reader might care that this tiny language is about to go extinct. Should cultures around the world cling to languages of declining utility because we might someday find value in them? Will they really help us identify a rare plant that will someday cure cancer? After reviewing the evidence, Kulick is honest enough to admit that he doesn’t know. Ultimately, though, he cares more about the Gapuners themselves than their language. He’s haunted by the idea of what they have learned from Western “civilization,” noting that the only villagers whom he’s ever seen beat their children are the ones who left to attend Catholic school. He struggles to justify his role as an anthropologist and wonders: Did he do a good thing embedding himself in their lives to record Tayap? He thinks the answer is important, not just for anthropology but to us as humans. In the end he turns to the lessons that he has learned from his experience: We are all more alike than we are different.
If you want to experience a profoundly different culture without the exhausting travel (to say nothing of the cost), this is an excellent choice. It’s entertaining, plus you can read it while curled up on your couch. But the lasting impact for a reader may be the insights — rather than answers — it offers for our future. Like a Rorschach test, any parallels you draw are up to you.
By Don Kulick
274 pp. $26.95