Project Highlight: Waima/Roro Dictionary

Today on the ELAR blog we will showcase some highlights from Colleen Hattersley’s ELDP project which resulted in the ELAR collection Waima/Roro Dictionary Phase 2.

George Akauma and Ikupu Paru working on the Maeka Tohana Digital Dictionary

When French scholars arrived on Yule Island in 1885, they started noting features of the local language. While the long-term goal was evangelisation of the population, the immediate task was to understand the existing culture and the mentality of the people. The accumulated notes of at least five learned men over time culminated in Dictionnaire Roro Française assembled by Paolo Coluccia and bound at the Port Léon (Yule Island) printery in 1939. Coluccia must have been a keen linguist as he went on to produce a comparison of French, Roro and neighbouring language Pokao by 1945. These, and many other fragile documents of the time are archived at the Catholic Diocesan Office, Bereina. The explanatory language of these documents, and many others, was French, thereby rendering them inaccessible to modern day English speakers.

In 2015, using printouts from microfiche images, activity began in earnest to make available to modern people the original, culturally rich information contained in the Coluccia Dictionary. At that stage the activity was unfunded and relied on the goodwill of all who showed interest – and there was much interest.

The Project

The methodology consisted of training technologically aware first language/English speakers with recognised cultural seniority to use a lexicographic computer program. Lexique Pro was chosen. Three volunteers came forward – one survived the experience.


Ikupu Paru and Joseph Ovia enjoy transcribing a text in PNG, 2015. Photo by Colleen Hattersley

Most of the work was conducted electronically between Papua New Guinea and Australia with occasional visits either way by the linguist (Colleen Hattersley) and main consultant (Ikupu Paru). The linguist had a long-term connection with a family from the village of Hisiu which helped to make re- introduction into the community a smooth experience. The ELDP-funded part of the project began with the consultant in Australia at the end of 2019.

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the completion of the work was achieved via electronic hook-up between the two countries over the following 18 months.

Impact on Community

The project was to make historical information available to modern people. It was not an elicitation project in the general sense. However, it did need a culturally aware fluent speaker who was also fluent in English, to work with a linguist to unlock the knowledge contained in the old documents.

In PNG, senior members of the three main dialect groups showed keen interest and volunteered information about the language from their perspective. In Australia the interest is on behalf of expatriates who are raising their children away from home and who are not surrounded by people speaking their native tongue. In both circumstances, knowledge of the project is creating anticipation and a sense of pride and identity.

The original documents archived at the Bereina Diocesan office of the Catholic Church were never presented to learned societies and therefore did not come to the attention of the academic community. They are stored in archive boxes but have not been professionally catalogued. The Maeaka Tohana Project team is most appreciative of being granted permission to access these delicate historical documents.

Thomas Momo, village magistrate and parishioner was not aware that this treasure trove of information existed at the Bereina office. He was delighted to learn about the resources and that two younger men were working with a linguist to unlock the information for modern people. He pledged his assistance to see the project realised.


Consultant Fred Ovia demonstrates the electronic dictionary to Magistrate Thomas Momo, 2015. Photo by Ikupu Paru

Scientific highlights

Of special interest to the consultant was the realisation that words can be broken into component parts. As a fluent speaker from birth, he had not considered that aspect of his language.
Also of interest is a feature we call ‘the passive [i]’. At first glance it functions to change active verbs into passives. It also generates a noun from a verb and may have other applications, as we have noticed it in some of the historic sentences. This could well do with further investigation.

Not since Monsel-Davis’ preliminary study in 1971 has there been any scientific study of the three main dialects which are still discernible, and a feature that most speakers are keen to point out to visitors.

The following topics may be candidates for academic consideration:

  • In 1898 le père Victor commented that (translated from French) “The language possesses a large number of idioms which would be impossible to fit into the rules of syntax or even to translate literally.” The context for many idioms has been lost now, and it is possible that some of the more problematic sentences in the 1939 work may have been idioms. However, the language is still richly idiomatic and a study of the feature might be worthwhile pursuing.
  • Verbal prefixes belong to a small, closed, strictly ordered class. Verbal suffixes belong to an open class. Is there an order for verbal suffixes?
  • What determines whether adverbs are verbal suffixes or stand-alone words? Is there any implication for meaning?
  • What is the extent of the application of the “passive [i]”?

Much attention has been paid to reflecting acceptable natural speech in the sample sentences and texts of the updated dictionary with the intention of providing a reliable corpus upon which to base further studies.

The Maeaka Tohana Team wishes to express sincere thanks to ELDP and ELAR for their generous support of this project during 2019-2021 and is now working towards publishing a printed version for use by the language-speaking community.


Cultural leader ’Oa Hotoa maintains language by teaching songs to young people. Photo Colleen Hattersley 2016.

Thanks Colleen for this in-depth discussion of your project!

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