The Languages of Pentecost Island  
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Frequently Asked Questions

Why did you start to write down Pentecost's languages?

While working as a schoolteacher on Pentecost, I felt bad that my students were struggling so hard to learn my native language, yet I was ignorant of theirs. It also seemed wrong that the school library had hundreds of books in a foreign language but not a single one in any of the students' own languages.

Education in Vanuatu is done almost entirely through the medium of English and French. Whilst the brightest pupils master these languages well, the rest struggle desperately. The result is a generation of young people who are not fluent in the language that they are literate in, and not literate in the language that they are fluent in. Needless to say, the results achieved in Vanuatu's schools are extremely poor by international standards.

Of course, knowledge of English and French opens up vital opportunities to young ni-Vanuatu, and these languages must remain a key part of the local curriculum. However, hard evidence from other former colonial countries shows that placing greater emphasis on vernacular languages in schools brings great educational benefits without sacrificing students' ability to learn additional languages.

What do you hope to achieve through this work?

Promoting literacy by encouraging local young people to read and write in their own languages is one major aim of my work. Other aims include:

  • Supporting primary school and adult literacy teachers who are now beginning to introdue vernacular literacy.
  • Documenting endangered and recently-extinct languages that will be forgotten forever if they are not written down.
  • Providing data that will help linguists carrying out general studies of the region's languages.
  • Helping tourism and conservation by allowing local guides to translate the names of plants and animals.
  • Helping visitors to Pentecost who wish to learn the local languages.

Are you a linguist?

Not formally, although during the course of my work I have sought the advice of professionals including Cindy Schneider, Murray Garde, Kay Johnson, Catriona Hyslop and David Walsh. I am immensely grateful for the kind help and support provided by these people, although none of them are formally affiliated with this project and any mistakes are most likely my own.

Does your work have a religious motive?

No. Although many of the people and organisations I worked with while on Pentecost were deeply religious, I myself am not. However, I have done my best to support those who wish to use their native languages in church (for example by typing up translations of prayers and hymns), since this is a good way to promote literacy in these langauges and is something that matters deeply to many people.

If you are interested in native languages, why do you refer to Pentecost by a Western name?

Because it doesn't have a single, authentic local name.

Historically the island was known by different (though related) names in each of its languages - "Vanu Aroaroa" in Raga, for example, and "Vini Aruaru" in Apma - but few people know or use these terms nowadays.

"Raga", a name used by some people today, was not the original name of the island in any language. This term is exclusive to the north of the island, and refers to a people and to their culture and language, not to a place.

"Pentecost" (or its Bislama equivalent "Pentikos") is the name by which most of its people know their island today.

How can a small island have so many languages?

Melanesia in general has the highest language density of any region in the world. Until recently the region's population lived in very small, isolated communities which had limited contact with one another. Each tiny community developed its own language as a result. In some cases, language differences may have been deliberately reinforced as a way of maintaining group identities.

This situation changed following the arrival of Europeans. The massive depopulation of Vanuatu that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, due to the introduction of diseases to which the islanders had no immunity, led to the extinction of several smaller languages and dialects. The population is now recovering, but the island is continuing to lose linguistic diversity through the increased mixing of communities and the influence of introduced languages such as Bislama.

Are all these languages really distinct?

The degree of difference between Pentecost's four extant languages is roughly the same as that between English, French, Spanish and Italian. They are related and do have a lot of words in common, but are clearly different languages. They follow different rules and are not mutually intelligible, and their cognacy figures (the proportion of words that are identifiably similar) are much lower than the 80% which is considered to be a rough dividing line between 'languages' and 'dialects'.

Some other language divisions on Pentecost are borderline between 'separate languages' and merely 'separate dialects': standard Apma and its northern neighbour Suru Kavian, for example, or Ske and its extinct cousin Sowa. Following the historical precedent set by both locals and linguists, I've treated Sowa as a separate language but classified the other dubious cases as dialects of one of the major languages.

How endangered are these languages?

All of Pentecost's languages are being slowly but noticeably eroded by Bislama, Vanuatu's national language. Local youngsters increasingly mix their languages with Bislama, often without realising that their words are borrowings. Bislama is also the first language of a few young people whose parents have different native langauges or who have spent time off the island: these people usually understand their parents' languages, but do not speak them confidently. The number of such people is likely to increase in the future, and when they reach a certain proportion in a communnity, Bislama becomes the standard language of the entire community. This has already happened in one Pentecost village, Hotwata, where speakers of Ske, Sa, Apma and other languages have long mixed together.

However, the most immediate threat to Pentecost's smaller languages and dialects such as Ske and Suru Kavian is their larger neighbours. Members of small language communities tend to know neighbouring languages, whilst members of larger language communities do not. When intermarriage occurs between the two communities, the family will therefore use the larger language (or Bislama), and bring up their children speaking that language. The net result is that larger languages and dialects expand at the expense of smaller ones.

Today it is still possible to find children on Pentecost who are fluent in each of its extant languages and dialects. However, in some communities these children are now in a minority, and the chances of them passing these languages on to their own children are probably not high.

On a more positive note, Raga and the major dialects of Apma and Sa are still thriving in their heartlands (albeit in an increasingly-Bislama influenced form), and the number of people speaking these languages is actually growing as a result of recent increases in population.

How well documented are Pentecost's languages?

Out of Pentecost's nine surviving dialects, three or four (Raga, the Suru Mwerani dialect of Apma, and a couple of Sa dialects) have received significant study. A few examples of writing are available in these languages, and basic descriptions have been written by missionaries and linguists. The others have hardly ever been written down, either by locals or by outside researchers. And Pentecost's many extinct dialects are scarcely even mentioned in the available literature.

The only previous linguist to take an interest in all five of Pentecost's languages was David Walsh, who travelled around Pentecost in the 1960s and noted short vocabulary lists in the major dialect of each one. This data was used in Darrell Tryon's 1976 survey of Vanuatu languages. Tryon's survey was an impressive achievement, although since the author was unable to get to know each of the country's hundred or so languages in detail, considerable errors in the vocabulary lists were inevitable.

See the individual pages on Raga, Apma and Sa for details of previous work on these languages.

I am planning a trip to Pentecost. Do I need to know any of these languages?

Schoolteachers, tour guides and other educated islanders speak English and/or French, so for a brief visit to Pentecost you do not need any other languages. However, I recommend that you learn a couple of phrases in the language of the village where you will be staying ("Good morning", "Good night" and "Thank you" perhaps) - the locals will appreciate it immensely.

Volunteers who will be working on Pentecost for a significant period should learn Bislama (Pidgin English), which is easy to pick up and is spoken by most people on Pentecost. To help integrate well into the community, I cannot over-emphasise the importance of making an effort with Bislama, even if your colleagues all speak English. Long-term volunteers who have mastered Bislama can go on to learn the local vernacular if they wish - it isn't essential, but will definitely enhance your experience of Pentecost. However, I recommend that you focus initially on Bislama, not only because it is easier and more widely spoken but because it provides a useful 'bridge' between English and the native languages, which often resemble Bislama in the ways that they express concepts.

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© Andrew Gray, 2008