Tanah Papua

[Note: the following blog post is about a specific and rather parochial issue of geographical terminology, but since it pertains to the region of the world with the greatest linguistic diversity, about which many of us have had occasion to speak and write, I thought it might be appropriate for Diversity Linguistics.]

I am writing this from a beautiful little town called Manokwari, in a part of the world that is of great interest to linguists, being located on the island of New Guinea where some 15% of the world’s languages are spoken.  However, within New Guinea, Manokwari finds itself situated in a region which, although clear and well-defined, has no straightforward way to refer to it.  Or, in other words, a place without a name.

Some years back, Matthew Dryer asked for my opinion on how one should refer to the western half of New Guinea, the part of the island under Indonesian control, formerly constituting the province of Irian Jaya.  At the time I had no answer to his question, a fact which bothered me somewhat.  However, in the meantime, an answer has presented itself, in the form of a term that has recently gained currency as a designation for the region in question.  The term is Tanah PapuaTanah is the Malay and Indonesian word for ‘land’, so Tanah Papua means ‘Land of Papua’.  My aim here is to answer Matthew Dryer’s question by proposing that we, as linguists, adopt the term Tanah Papua when speaking and writing about the region in question, in English or any other language.

But first a little bit of background information.  During the colonial era, the region was a Dutch colony known as Netherlands New Guinea.  In 1963, it was incorporated into Indonesia, where it became the province of West Irian, and then later, in 1973, Irian Jaya. In 2002, during the brief period of liberalization associated with former president Gus Dur, the province was renamed Papua.  But in 2003, the province was split into two, with the eastern one retaining the name Papua, and the western one getting the name Irian Jaya Barat (barat means ‘west’ in Malay and Indonesian).  Soon after, in 2007, Irian Jaya Barat was renamed Papua Barat, which is where things stand today — though further changes are being mooted.  Thus, the way things are now, the region in question does not constitute a single administrative entity, but rather consists of two provinces, whose official names are Papua and Papua Barat.

So how should we refer to that part of New Guinea under Indonesian control, comprising the two provinces of Papua and Papua Barat?  Circumlocutions such as the part of New Guinea under Indonesian control are too much of a mouthful. The term Irian Jaya has completely disappeared from current usage: good riddance.  In common parlance, both within the region and throughout Indonesia, people use the term Papua to refer to the region in question, but this is problematical for a number of reasons. First, because Papua is already the name of a province that forms part of the same region;  secondly, because across the international border in Papua New Guinea, Papua is also used to refer to a particular region, comprising the southern half of that country, the part originally under British control; and finally, because amongst linguists, the adjective Papuan is commonly used to describe languages of non-Austronesian affiliation spoken in a significantly broader region, extending from the Maluku and Nusa Tenggara regions of Indonesia through the entirety of New Guinea and into the Solomon Islands.  An obvious option would be Papua Barat, or, in its English version, West Papua.  But once again, this is already the name of a province that forms part of the region in question — one begins to wonder whether these new province names weren’t concocted for the express purpose of creating the terminological quandary that we’re being faced with here.  In addition, the terms Papua Barat and West Papua, when used to denote the entire region, have acquired political associations which may potentially render their use inadvisable by foreigners, such as us linguists, who wish to be able to continue working in the region and helping the local population from the inside.

Which brings us to Tanah Papua, ‘Land of Papua’, a term that has, in the course of the last decade or so, gained in currency throughout the region, and is now encountered in a variety of contexts ranging from hip-hop to religious sermons.  Its reference is clearly and unambiguously to the region in question, that is to say, to what is colloquially known as Papua, and administratively consists of the two provinces of Papua and Papua Barat.  It also clearly excludes those parts of New Guinea across the international boundary in Papua New Guinea, this being reinforced by the explicitly Malay/Indonesian word Tanah ‘land’.  In addition, the term Tanah Papua succeeds in striking a delicate balance, popular with the people while tolerated by the authorities.

I therefore propose that the community of linguists adopt the term Tanah Papua when referring, in speech or in print, to the region in question.  I know it may sound a bit funny to adopt a term containing what is essentially a common noun in a foreign language, but there are plenty of precedents to this — e.g. Nusantara, used to denote the Indonesian archipelago — and the strangeness quickly wears off.  Besides, in the case at hand, this is a term born of necessity: can anybody think of an alternative and equally appropriate way to refer to the region in question?

Greetings, therefore, from Tanah Papua, the ‘Land of Papua’, and the home of linguistic diversity.


The sign below, providing an example of current usage of the term Tanah Papua, was put up in commemoration the 159th anniversary of the arrival of the first missionaries to Tanah Papua on the 5th of February 1855.  Note to the right the map depicting the region of Tanah Papua.

"Congratulations on the anniversary of the revelation of the gospel in Tanah Papua"

“Congratulations on the anniversary of the revelation of the gospel in Tanah Papua”

2 thoughts on “Tanah Papua

  1. “West(ern) New Guinea” is not an entirely bad alternative. But there are two problems with it. First, it is simply not in current usage anywhere; “Tanah Papua” thus has the advantage of incumbency (albeit at present only locally). Secondly, it is not clear that the boundary of “West(ern) New Guinea corresponds precisely to the international boundary between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. In fact, in a recent article, I use the term “Western New Guinea” to refer to a somewhat more loosely defined region centering on the Bird’s Head and Bomberai Peninsulas and Cenderawasih bay region and thus wholly contained within “Tanah Papua”; thus, for example, the Baliem Valley, within “Tanah Papua”, would not be part of “Western New Guinea”. Of course, mine is just an ad hoc usage of the term “Western New Guinea”; other authors may choose to use it to delimit somewhat different regions. But for this reason, I feel that it is less suitable as a precise geographical term.

    (In this respect, “Western New Guinea” resembles other geographical terms such as “Western Sumatra”. Sumatra Barat is a province of Indonesia whose conventional rendition into English is “West Sumatra”. The term “Western Sumatra” is useful if one wishes to refer to a particular geographical region in the western part of Sumatra without wishing to commit to it being coextensive with the provincial boundaries of West Sumatra.)

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