ELDP Project Profile: Documenting Ahamb, a Small Island Language of Vanuatu

Today on the ELAR blog, Tihomir Rangelov is writing about his current ELDP project documenting the Ahamb language in Vanuatu.

View over the Malakula mainland from Ahamb as a storm is passing over

  1. Can you give us some background on the language ecology in your area?

Ahamb is one of around thirty languages spoken on Malakula and its offshore islands. With a population of around 25,000, Malakula is one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world. Ahamb is most closely related to other languages in the southeast part of Malakula, including Uluveu (spoken on the Maskelynes islands) and Lamap. In the past twenty years, some families from Ahamb have moved to the Malakula mainland, where other lects are traditionally spoken. While some of these lects are very similar to Ahamb and mutually intelligible with Ahamb (especially in the village of Okai and the nearby small island of Avok), Ahamb people do not normally consider them as dialects of their language.

There is considerable pressure from Bislama, which is the more prestigious and the dominant language. Bislama and English are the languages of choice in the church and primary schools and use of the vernacular is rarely encouraged in those settings. Some families use Bislama at home, whereas others prefer Ahamb.

The island of Ahamb covers only 0.4 sq km and is home to around 650 people. To make matters worse, its territory has been rapidly shrinking in the past years due to seismic activity and climate change. Rising sea levels and stronger cyclones mean rapid coastal erosion, especially on the northeastern side of the island. The island is very low lying and large parts of it get flooded during heavy rains. During times of draught, water supply becomes very problematic. The people of Ahamb need to travel daily to the mainland to tend to their gardens and bring food and fresh water. Overpopulation and worries about climate change contribute to other social problems, too. The overall situation leads to rapid migration to the mainland and urban areas, which puts the Ahamb language at even greater risk.

One side of the island is eroding very rapidly and large trees fall victim of the advancing seas

  1. What is your research question and why did you choose it?

The project involves the documentation of Ahamb speech on audio and video with annotations (transcription, translation, morphological analysis, PoS tagging etc). My PhD dissertation will be a grammar of the language. I will also produce a wordlist and literacy materials to help promote Ahamb’s status.

Back in 2014, I travelled around Melanesia for a few months. One day in Port Vila I met Dr. Tom Bratrud from Norway who was doing anthropology research on Ahamb. He talked passionately about the island and when he found out that I had studied Linguistics, he asked me if I could help design a consistent writing system for the language. He had been trying to get the Ahamb people to write down some of their stories and legends in the vernacular but everyone would write the words differently. Little did I know at the time that designing a good orthography for an undescribed language takes months, if not years. The next day we found ourselves at the Port Vila market over lunch with John, an Ahamb native speaker, trying to figure out the sounds of the language. I was intrigued to find out that the Ahamb language had a bilabial trill – a sound produced with vibrations of the lips.

Those two hours at the market in Vila did not result in a functional orthography for Ahamb. Neither did I get a chance to visit the Ahamb island on that trip. But a couple of months later I found myself in New Zealand talking to Dr. Julie Barbour at the University of Waikato about how languages are documented and how to apply for funding for a PhD project. A lot of reading, a funding application and two years later I found myself back in New Zealand preparing to document and describe the Ahamb language.

  1. Why did you want to work with this community?

Even though I had not visited the community before I went there for my first field trip, I had met one Ahamb man and Tom had told me a lot about the community, their way of life and customs. I found all of it fascinating.

During my travels, I had spent some time in remote parts of Melanesia, particularly, Vanuatu, and I fell in love with it. The genuine happiness and friendliness of the people is contagious. I thought spending a few months on a small remote island in the Pacific could only do city boy like myself some good.

Meeting my now-supervisor, Dr. Barbour, also boosted my motivation to work on Ahamb. Dr. Barbour runs the Malakula Languages Project at the University of Waikato and I was confident I would get very good support. Besides, in my previous studies I focused on Phonetics and Phonology, so I liked the sound and vibe of a typologically rare bilabial trill.

And lastly, judging from Google Earth images, I expected the snorkelling to be not too bad and, indeed, it has not disappointed. Oh, and my second field trip in 2017 coincided with the mango and pineapple season. Yum!

  1. What’s been a challenge in this project and why?

I have found the living conditions on the island quite challenging. The lack of clean fresh water and electricity supply make planning extremely important. For example, charging my laptop requires good sunlight and access to one of few good solar systems on the island, which is not always possible. The island is also overcrowded and noisy, which sometimes makes it difficult to get good sleep or find a quiet place to work (especially when recording data for phonetic analysis!).

Another challenge has been transportation. Getting to Ahamb is quite expensive, the flights to the nearest airstrip are a bit unreliable. And then Ahamb is a two-hour speed boat ride away, if the seas allow. Otherwise it is a one-long-day walk to the nearest Malakula mainland. There are cargo ships that visit Ahamb once in a while but schedules are non-existent.

  1. What still needs to be done?

So far, I have collected a good amount of data, which I am processing and analysing at the moment. I am planning to go back to Vanuatu in July for another three months of fieldwork. When I go back I will bring with me drafts of some literacy materials. The community is looking forward to seeing the practical results of the project. I will bring a short version of the word list and a book with photos of plants and animals and their names in Ahamb, Bislama and English. The kindergarten teacher has asked me to make themed picture books. For the primary school, I will bring some readers. I will also take with me some of the stories I have recorded printed on paper, so that the respective storytellers can read and edit them before I include them in a final version of an Ahamb story book.

The final versions of these literacy materials will be ready towards the end of 2019 and the grammar and final wordlist are due in 2020.

During my next field trip I will also collect more data, which means more processing, analysis and archiving. It is a lot of work but it involves various tasks so I am never bored and I need to acquire many new skills, which is very exciting.

  1. How does this project relate to other topics in the linguistic field?

The primary goal of this project is to document the Ahamb language, archive the collected data properly and publish a comprehensive description of the language. Since Ahamb is a previously undocumented language, the project will hopefully provide data for most fields of linguistic research – from purely grammatical topics to sociolinguistic topics such as language endangerment and revitalisation. Or even beyond linguistics to vernacular language education, for example.

Typological research relies heavily on descriptions of as many languages as possible. Some topics that have been of interest in Oceanic linguistics are possessive marking and serial verbs, among others. Data from Ahamb will boost research on these topics.

I have also found out that the prenasalised bilabial trill, which is typologically very rare but somewhat common in Malakula languages, is phonemic in Ahamb. What is more, it appears to have a non-prenasalised friend, which is even rarer. Ahamb also appears to have a larger-than-normal vowel inventory than the typical Oceanic language. So hopefully this project will also contribute to research in the field of Phonetics and Phonology.

Thank you, Tihomir! To learn more about Ahamb and Tihomir’s work, visit his deposit page, on the ELAR catalogue.

 Post and photos by Tihomir Rangelov

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