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Massey Magazine Issue 13 November 2002

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Dr Martin Paviour-SmithLinguist helps 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 of a Marsden-funded three-person team which will collect and study languages in the Vanuatu islands, working with the people to 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 consequentially, 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 the vernacular.

“ 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 are not necessarily schooled in the same language. “But because children leave school around age 11, they are not proficient 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 continuing with the orthography. “There was great interest in my getting a dictionary together, but the real value lies in these 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 beyond grammar.

“ 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 oral tradition.”

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 ground.

“ 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.

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