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Aceh islands language survey

Date: 24 October 2016

A brief overview of language diversity on two islands within Indonesia’s Aceh province has thrown up a myriad of research opportunities, but time is running out.

It’s the ever expanding eco-tourism market and the arrival of roads and better communication that means indigenous language speakers on islands like Simeulue (population 85,000) and Pulau Banyak (population 7,000) are now increasingly exposed to more widely spoken languages.

The Indonesian islands Simeulue and Pulau Banyak. Map data: Google Dr Rob Amery (The University of Adelaide) and Dr Zulfadli Aziz (Syiah Kuala University) used a grant from the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language to conduct a survey of indigenous language speakers from Simeulue and Pulau Banyak.

“We’ve only scratched the surface, but in the process we’ve obtained data that allows some comparisons and provides some insights into the connection between Sigulai, Leukon, Devayan, Haloban and Nias,” says Dr Amery.

Dr Amery working with speakers of SigulaiThe research has shown that Indonesian and Jamee (a language derived from Minang originating from Padang in West Sumatra now  spoken mostly along the western and southern coast of Aceh) have made major lexical inroads into the languages of both islands. For example, local language speakers use Indonesian terms for most internal body parts, several colours, winds and directions whilst Jamee numbers complement Indigenous numbers resulting in complex counting systems where the number itself changes depending on what is being counted.

“With the opening up of Pulau Simeulue and Pulau Banyak to the outside world as a result of improved communication and transportation, it is clear that these languages are under immediate threat,” says Dr Amery. “This is most clear in the case of Haloban, where language shift to Jamee and Indonesian is already well advanced.” He says that Pulau Banyak especially looks destined to become a major tourist destination, “This could be a major increased threat to these languages but equally it could be an opportunity to ensure they have a role within the developing eco-tourism in the area.”

The researchers say the comparative data that they were able to collect points to Nias as the origin of the languages of both islands. “We feel that this linguistic evidence is compelling but further studies with other disciplines, including genetics, archaeology and anthropology are needed,” says Dr Amery.

The project was able to identify a number of urgently needed linguistic projects, including projects focused on enumeration and descriptions of many of the languages, analysis of sound changes, and language competence within the younger generation.

Photo at top: The village of Haloban, Palau Banyak 

The local catch

Sigulai Fish don’t swim!

In Bahasa Sigulai, Dr Amery says there is a term for what people and animals do when they travel across land ‘mofaneu’. This is true of people, buffaloes, crocodiles, turtles, snakes and so on. When these land-travelers enter the water they ‘lumalangi’, which in English would translate best as ‘swim’. Interestingly though, Dr Amery says that fish are an exception and in Bahasa Sigulai, fish do not ‘lumalangi’, rather they ‘mofaneu’.

He says with this in mind, it would be dangerous to translate ‘mofaneu’ as 'to walk', when perhaps it means something like 'move in the usual fashion'. He says people who speak Bahasa Sigulai reluctantly accept the fact that fish might ‘lumalangi’, but only if they swim on the surface.

“Even in our short time looking at these island languages, we have encountered some very interesting lexical semantic puzzles,” he says. Devayan has two terms for red of precisely the same hue. Bala refers to a solid block of red, whilst afala refers to a distributed red such as ripe red fruit on a tree or red writing on the cover of a book. However, this distinction is made only for red, and not for other colours.

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