The Only German-based Creole — Unserdeutsch (Rabaul Creole German)

Here on this site, we have covered several creoles based on various languages, from Japanese-based creole called Yilan Creole Japanese spoken in Taiwan, to the Portuguese-based creole, Papiah Kristang spoken in Malaysia and Singapore. In this post, we will cover yet another special creole, this time, the only known German-based creole spoken in the world, Unserdeutsch (Our German), or Rabaul Creole German.

This creole is unique for several reasons, not just because it is the only known German-based creole. For one, this creole is historically spoken in Papua New Guinea, one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world. However, since Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975, most of the Unserdeutsch speakers have migrated to Australia, with about 100 speakers currently residing in Australia, and less than 10 remaining in Papua New Guinea, according to field studies in 2014-2017. Another interesting thing about Unserdeutsch is that the grammar of this creole is based off another creole, this one an English-based creole spoken in Papua New Guinea, Tok Pisin (New Guinea Pidgin), with most of the lexicon based off German.

Considering the number of remaining native speakers of Unserdeutsch, it is quite expected to learn that most Unserdeutsch speakers are bilingual, and that this creole is no longer learned as a first language, as of 2007. Nevertheless, it has in turn, also influenced the development of Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea.

This creole, like several creoles spoken in the world, are somewhat obscure, with Unserdeutsch not quite documented or discovered until the 1970s by Professor Craig Volker in Papua New Guinea. However, academic drive to study and document the creole, as well as understanding the history of development of Unserdeutsch is growing, with the German Research Foundation providing thousands of euros in funding to help these academics.

While Unserdeutsch was never quite formally standardised, there are certainly notable differences between the creole and German. For one, the sentence structure of Unserdeutsch is way more rigid than in German, only following a subject-verb-object order. This order is still preserved in yes/no questions, showing a rather strong influence by Tok Pisin, which does have such word orders.

If you have learned German, or are learning German, you may have struggled quite a bit on German noun cases and things like that. But not for Unserdeutsch, for the plural form is almost only marked by the marker alle, and no noun cases exist! Remember the various forms of the definite article “der-die-das“? This is reduced to only “de” in Unserdeutsch. This inclusion of a definite article however, makes the creole a bit different from Tok Pisin, besides the fact that almost all Unserdeutsch words come from German.

Verbs might be another aspect of German learners might struggle with as well, but marking tenses in Unserdeutsch is generally considered optional. If one still wants to distinguish tense, however, the past tense can be formed using “hat + ge-verb infinitive”, while the future tense can be marked by “wit“, derived from the German “wird“. So you might encounter sentences like:

  • Du wit sehn ihm morgen.
    You will see him tomorrow
  • Wi hat gegeht.
    We went away.

However, the aspect system in Unserdeutsch is rather complex, often using a range of preverbal markers to denote how the verb extends (in meaning) over time and things like that.

Denoting possession in Unserdeutsch, curiously, draws influence from three languages — English, Tok Pisin, and German, although the English form is much less commonly used than the other two. The Tok Pisin form uses a preposition “fi“, much like the Tok Pisin “bilong“, to express possession, as in:

Haus fi Bob — Bob’s house

Secondly, would be the German way of expressing possession, formed by juxtaposing the possessor immediately before the possessed item, as in:

Diese Car, de Tyre is heruntergegangen. — This car’s tire is flat (literally “This car, the tire is flat”)

Lastly, comes the English expression, by attaching “-s” to the end of the possessor to denote possession, something like:

Bobs Waesche — Bob’s washing

There are a lot of other features that Unserdeutsch has that distinguishes it from both German and Tok Pisin, and to a lesser extent, many other known creoles spoken globally. You could find amazing academic articles documenting Unserdeutsch, such as the one linked here:

Maitz, P. & Volker, C. A. (2017) Documenting Unserdeutsch, reversing colonial amnesia. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 32(2) 365-397. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1075/jpcl.32.2.06mai.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s