ELDP Project Highlight: Documentation and description of Vamale, an endangered language of New Caledonia

By Francesca Brown|October 24, 2019|ELDP Project Highlight|0 comments

Today on the ELAR blog, we are featuring ELDP grantee Jean Rohleder’s project ‘Documentation and description of Vamale, an endangered language of New Caledonia‘. Jean’s collection with ELAR focuses on the Vamale language, an almost undescribed language of New Caledonia with around 100 speakers. 

The newly founded association.

Jean Rohleder, from the University of Bern, gives us his community and scientific highlights from his research from 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Community Highlight:

‘These pictures are from late June, when I started to organise weekly language workshops. It’s built the basis for the newly-founded “Association Vamale”, led by representatives of the three speaking tribes We Hava, Wanaa/Theganepaaik, and Thexhwaade. The Bureau de l’Aire Coutumière Paici-Camuki (Customary Area Paici-Camuki) decided to recognise Vamale as their fourth official language, and thus make it possible to create language programs in primary schools. A writing system has been suggested, a lexicon is begin reviewed by the association, with whom I also left a Zoom Q8 camera. With my main consultants, we worked on an introduction to the language, which has been eagerly shared and which I was asked to expand. All in all, it seems that people are taking an renewed interest and pride in their identity.’

Members of the Kanak Language Academy working with locals on translating songs.

Members of the Kanak Language Academy working with locals on translating songs.

Linguistic Highlight: 

‘We know very little about the inner workings of the Northern Caledonian language family. Location of speakers does not help, because of the catastrophic changes in post-contact New Caledonia (8095% population decline, collapse of societal structures, exodus of tens of thousands etc). Vamale comes from a now deserted mountainous region between Touho and Koné. Phonologically, a Vamale innovation is that all aspirated velar plosives are followed by nasal vowels.

‘The aspectual system is stable, with irrealis, verbal aktionsart and a future marker bo working together in interesting ways. Durative verbs use bwa for an imperfective meaning, bo for a future one, whereas punctual verbs use both for future meanings, though with different degrees of certainty. The distinction between durative and punctual verbs influences the entire aspectual system.

Children drawing pictures and writing the names of things in the language.

Children drawing pictures and writing the names of things in the language.

‘The language is not, like other Northern languages, split-ergative. It does, however, have split-S, that is, verbs with a more agent-like subject inflect differently from verbs with more patient-like subjects. The distribution of the different paradigms does not match Western ideas of agent and patient. The perception of space is also different from the West and permeates every description of movement. “Right” and “left” are less important than going up or down a slope, a river, a coast, or towards a house.

The writing system with examples.

The writing system with examples.

‘The nominalisation patterns of Vamale and closely-related Bwatoo, as well as the possessive constructions, argue in my opinion against a cluster of dialects, and in favour of separate languages, the number and the relationship of which would be a fascinating and fertile ground for more fieldwork.’

Community members cutting thatch for a new house.

Community members cutting thatch for a new house.

Thank you, Jean! You can see Jean’s online collection on Vamale here.  

 

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