Rescue mission for fading tongue

June 2010


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LAURA DIMOCK spent nine months on an island in Vanuatu documenting Nahavaq, a previously undocumented language in danger of extinction

There are still hundreds of undocumented languages worldwide, many of which are endangered, according to Dr Laura Dimock who graduated with a PhD in linguistics from Victoria University this year.

“I hope the Nahavaq language survives, despite the modernising changes affecting Vanuatu,” Dimock says.

Nahavaq is spoken by about 700 people in South West Bay, on the island of Malakula. There is no road access to that part of the island, no mains electricity and limited phone coverage.

Dimock spent nine months on the island recording Nahavaq speech and translating it. She helped create a new spelling system and teach it to some of the speakers, and it has begun to be used in local kindergartens. She also worked on story books, dictionaries and DVDs for the local people in their language, transcribing and editing where necessary.

“I did this by first learning Bislama, the national pidgin language, which was relatively easy to learn because of its similarity to English. I then interviewed various Nahavaq speakers in Bislama to find out how they say things, and slowly figured out a lot of patterns and systems within the language.

“One of the things about the Nahavaq language that interests me the most is the large number of labial consonants, that is the sounds made using the lips. For example, there are two sounds that would both sound like ‘b’ to English speakers, but in Nahavaq you could be saying two different words depending on which ‘b’ you use. The island of Malakula is also special for using ‘bilabial trills’, a sound made by flapping the lips together the way people sometimes do when they are cold. That sound is rarely used as part of the sound system of a language, but it happens on Malakula.”

The only previous documentation of the Nahavaq language was done by missionaries in the early part of the 20th century and by linguists doing survey work. The last researcher to spend a long time in this area, anthropologist Bernard Deacon, died of malaria in the field in 1927.

Dimock faced a number of obstacles herself, including ciguatera fish poisoning, tsunami warnings, broken solar panels and precarious boat rides, “but I lived to tell the tale”, she says.

The data from Dr Dimock’s research is deposited in archives as a record of the language. She hopes to get her thesis ‘A Grammar of Nahavaq’ published.

Dr Dimock completed her PhD with the assistance of a Victoria University PhD Scholarship/Assistantship, a Gerhardt Laves Scholarship awarded by the Australian Linguistic Society and a field trip grant from the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project. Her supervisors were Dr Elizabeth Pearce and Professor Laurie Bauer.

Living it up

Arriving in the village I was immediately adopted into a family. I stayed in their house, ate meals with them, and worked in the garden on Saturdays. I joined the local women’s soccer team. Most of the time, I was the only white person in the village, and I was always surrounded by friendly people. I certainly socialised with the local people. As time went on, I learned more and more about the soap operas of their lives, but I wasn’t there long enough to fully integrate into their society.

I shared a house with my adopted brother and his wife and daughter. The base and first metre of wall were concrete. The top half of the wall was woven bamboo over a wooden frame, and the roof was sago thatch. It was great for hot weather. The breeze could blow through the woven bamboo, and the concrete floor was usually pleasantly cool. I was lucky to have a raised bed with a clean mattress and a pillow. There was no indoor plumbing or electricity. There were long-drop toilets about 50 metres away from the house. Cooking was done on a fire. Bathing was done in a small hut by dumping bowls of water from a basin over one’s head. At night, people walk around with battery-powered torches. Some families have a generator to watch DVDs (usually music videos). The western side of Malakula doesn’t have roads. People get around by outrigger canoes, small boats with outboard motors, or walking. In the villages, women are required to wear skirts. In the village where I spent most of my time, there was one public telephone, but it was solar-powered and worked for a couple hours each morning provided it wasn’t raining.

Traditional food is laplap, a dish made of pulverised root vegetables (or bananas) mixed with coconut milk and steamed in leaves (or bamboo). I ate a lot of that, and I enjoyed it. I also ate a lot of rice, tinned fish, two-minute noodles, curries, bread, etc; food that has become part of the local diet in the last 100 years. I was always there in winter, which was grapefruit season. That was delicious.

A lot of people thought I was there to translate the Bible. And no matter how many times I denied it, the myth still prevailed. A lot of language work in Melanesia is done by missionaries. Many people expected me to be a refined ‘misses’ (white woman), insisting on fine foods, avoiding dirt and physical labour, wearing perfume and fancy clothes. And I think I surprised them with my canoe skills, weaving skills, language learning, and knowledge of electronics.

My partner Giles was with me when we got ciguatera poisoning. We started to have burning and itching feelings on our skin, particularly if it got wet, and strange bone aches would come and go. We thought it was the water, or a reaction to insect repellent. Eventually we were told we had been poisoned by some of the fish we had eaten. There is no common treatment for ciguatera, but we didn’t know that at the time. We didn’t have access to a library or the internet to research the disease when we had it. We had to go with what local people told us: avoid salt and any seafood. Eat sugary foods. And they gave us a tea made from the roots of ferns growing on tree trunks. I don’t know if any of that helped, but after a few weeks, the symptoms faded away.