Hoenigman, “A Battle of Languages”

Hoenigman, Darja.  2012.  A battle of languages: Spirit possession and changing linguistic ideologies in a Sepik society, Papua New Guinea.  The Australian Journal of Anthropology 23(3): 290–317.

Abstract: In October 2009, a dramatic event shook the existing sociolinguistic setting in Kanjimei village in East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. Possessed by a Christian spirit, a woman harshly reproached the most important village leaders. The ensuing verbal fight between ‘the spirit’ and the village prayer leader became a battle of languages: the Christian spirit spoke the community’s native language, Awiakay, overpowering those in authority, who are the most frequent users of the national lingua franca Tok Pisin. As it was believed that it was the spirit of the Virgin Mary who channelled herself through the possessed woman, it was legitimate for people to discuss her words. The spirit possession thus enabled the otherwise condemned social practices: gossip and public criticism, which have the power of changing existing power relations in the village. The analysis of this event shows the complexity behind the ever-changing linguistic ideologies.