preserve Vanuatu languages
As an anthropological linguist, Dr Martin Paviour-Smith immerses
himself in a language and its people.
A linguist’s work towards language preservation is
a misunderstood mission, he says. Dr Paviour-Smith is part
a Marsden-funded three-person team which will collect and
study languages in the Vanuatu islands, working with the
develop their own systems of conservation.
Vanuatu has the highest number of languages per person in the
world – 110 among 180,000 people at the last count.
Very few of the dialects have more than 1000 speakers, and
there are a high proportion of struggling or endangered languages.”
With Professor Terry Crowley from Waikato University and Dr
Liz Pearce from Victoria University, Dr Paviour-Smith, from
the School of Language Studies, will travel to the island of
Malakula for three months each year for the next three years.
Professor Crowley will focus on moribund languages (with fewer
than 20 speakers), Dr Pearce on the Unua dialect and Dr Paviour-Smith
on the closely-related Aulua dialect.
He has lived for several months previously in the Aulua village
for the first stage of his project developing an orthography
(writing system) that he hopes will one day be used in the
island’s schools. Missionaries first set an orthography
in the 1880s, which was later swamped when the Vanuatu government
legislated the use of English or French in schools.
Dr Paviour-Smith says the gradual introduction of international
languages has been responsible for a shift in the importance
people place on languages and the number of people who use
“ Traditionally people knew more than one language so they could
communicate between villages but now the prevalence of French
and English and the Creole language Bislama means most young
people are more confident speaking Bislama than Aulua.”
He explains that, depending on which year a child started
school, they may learn in either English or French, so siblings
not necessarily schooled in the same language. “But
because children leave school around age 11, they are not
in English, French or Aulua.”
When he returns to Malakula, and the village of Aulua, Dr
Paviour-Smith will help the people compile a dictionary while
with the orthography. “There was great interest in
my getting a dictionary together, but the real value lies
people taking control of their situation, setting a precedent
for other villages.”
Staying in Aulua (population 500) is crucial to his task; being
with the community for up to three months at a time will enable
him to collect a comprehensive set of language rules and patterns
“ Social factors, such as they way children are taught language
and stories, are integral to linguistic research. In Aulua,
children are prompted by their families to call out to other
families, in the dark at night before the village settles
down for the night. Other children will call back with the appropriate
response prompted by their families and so learn this particular
He says traditions such as story-telling, which is particularly
strong among the Aulua islanders, are vital when learning
and documenting a language. “It is really important to collect
big pieces of language like stories, to see how words are put
together. In Aulua when someone has finished telling a story
to a group they say ‘kusve kusve’, or ‘thanks
for listening and I hope you enjoyed it’ all in one.
The group will then yell ‘kusve kusve’ back.”
Dr Paviour-Smith is currently working on a collection of Kastom
(fables and histories) in the language and recently lectured
Massey staff and students on Kastom narrative features. He
has documented a recurrent theme within stories in which women,
or a female animal in a fable, burn their own houses to the
This is basically a trick used by the character to return to
her own family – when a woman in Aulua marries, she leaves
her home and family to live in her husband’s village.
To burn her house is to reject her obligations and duties,
it is a statement.” He will collect more stories and
Kastom over the next few years.