Hiri Motu

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Hiri Motu
Police Motu
Region Papua New Guinea
Native speakers
(Very few cited 1992)[1]
120,000 L2 speakers (1989)[1]
Simplified form of Motu (Austronesian family)
Official status
Official language in
Papua New Guinea
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ho
ISO 639-2 hmo
ISO 639-3 hmo
Glottolog hiri1237[2]

Hiri Motu, also known as Police Motu, Pidgin Motu, or just Hiri, is an official language of Papua New Guinea.[3]

It is a simplified version of Motu, of the Austronesian language family. Although it is strictly neither a pidgin nor a creole, it possesses some features of both language types. Phonological and grammatical differences mean that Hiri Motu is not mutually intelligible with Motu. The languages are lexically very similar, and retain a common, albeit simplified, Austronesian syntactical basis.

Even in the areas where it was once well established as a lingua franca, the use of Hiri Motu has been declining in favour of Tok Pisin and English for many years.


Hiri Motu has two dialects, called "Austronesian" and "Papuan". Both dialects are in fact Austronesian in both grammar and vocabulary, due to their derivation from Motu; the dialect names refer to the first languages spoken by users of this lingua franca. The "Papuan" dialect (also called "Non-central") was much more widely spoken in the language's heyday, and was, at least from about 1964, used as the standard for official publications. The "Austronesian" (or "Central") dialect is closer to Motu in grammar and phonology, and its vocabulary is both more extensive and closer to the original language. For these reasons, it was the prestige dialect, regarded by speakers as more correct.

The distinction between Motu and its "Pidgin" dialects has been described as blurred – forming a continuum from the original "pure" language, through the established creoles, to what some writers have suggested constitutes a form of "Hiri Motu–based pidgin" used as a contact languages with people who had not fully acquired Hiri Motu.[4]


The language has a history long pre-dating European contact; it developed among members of the Hiri trade cycle (mainly in sago and clay pots) between the Motu people and their neighbours on the southeast coast of the island of New Guinea.[5] In early European colonial days, the use of Hiri Motu was spread due to its adoption by the Royal Papuan Constabulary (hence the name "Police Motu"). By the early 1960s, Hiri Motu had probably reached its widest use, being the normal lingua franca of a large part of the country. It was the first language for many people whose parents came from different language groups (typically the children of policemen and other public servants).

Since the early 1970s, if not earlier, the use of Hiri Motu as a day-to-day lingua franca in its old "range" has been gradually declining in favour of English and Tok Pisin. Today its speakers tend to be elderly, and concentrated in Central and Gulf provinces. Reflecting this situation, younger speakers of the "parent language" (Motu proper) tend to be unfamiliar with Hiri Motu, and few of them understand or speak it well, which was certainly not the case a generation or two ago.


Consonants in Hiri Motu
Labial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Plosive voiceless p t k
voiced b d ɡ
Fricative v s h
Nasal m n
Trill r
Lateral l
Approximant w

Vowel sounds are /i ɛ a ɔ u/.




  1. ^ a b Hiri Motu at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Hiri Motu". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Specific legislation proclaiming official languages in Papua New Guinea seems not to exist – but see Constitution of Papua New Guinea: Preamble – Section 2/11 (literacy) – where Hiri Motu is mentioned (with Tok Pisin and English) as languages in which universal literacy is sought – and also section 67 2(c) (and 68 2(h), where conversational ability in Hiri Motu is mentioned (with Tok Pisin or “a vernacular of the country”) as a requirement for citizenship by nationalisation (one of these languages required)
  4. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Hiri Motu Trading Eleman". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
    Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Hiri Motu Trading Koriki". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  5. ^ This is disputed by Dutton.
  6. ^ Chatterton, Percy (1975). Say it in Motu (PDF). Robert Brown & Associates (Qld) Pty Ltd.


  • Tom Dutton (1985). Police Motu: iena Sivarai (its story). Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea: The University of Papua New Guinea Press.
  • Lister-Turner, R and Clark, J.B. (1931), A Dictionary of the Motu Language of Papua, 2nd Edition (P. Chatterton, ed). Sydney, New South Wales: Government Printer.
  • Brett, Richard; Brown, Raymond; Brown, Ruth and Foreman, Velma. (1962), A Survey of Motu and Police Motu. Ukarumpa, Papua New Guinea: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
  • Chatterton, Percy (1975). Say it in Motu. Robert Brown & Associates (Qld) Pty Ltd.

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