Back to listing

Compiling a grammar of Nungon

fieldwork, Learning, minority languages, remote communities

Date: 15 May 2017

Hannah Sarvasy says writing a grammar, despite all the frustrations that come with that process, is an immensely satisfying task.

Hannah’s A Grammar of Nungon has just been published by Brill and in launching the work, Professor Alan Rumsey described it as “extraordinarily comprehensive” and “beautifully written”. Nungon is a Papuan language of north east New Guinea.

Asked how she knew when she was finished, Hannah says, “It’s a very simple test. When someone speaks casually to you or tells a story and you know what every piece of the language is doing, that’s when you are done analyzing the grammar.”

CoEDL CI Alan Rumsey, Hannah Sarvasy and CoEDL Director Nick Evans at the launch of Hannah's 'A Grammar of Nungon'

CoEDL CI Alan Rumsey, Hannah Sarvasy and CoEDL Director Nick Evans at the launch of Hannah's 'A Grammar of Nungon'

 course, getting to that point of mastery did take some years but impressively, not as many as you might think. Hannah’s fieldwork on Nungon began in 2011 when she enrolled in her PhD at James Cook University. She completed her thesis in 2015 and after some revision managed to bring the publication of the comprehensive grammar to fruition in a total of just six years – six years that included a year of full-time teaching and the workload that comes with parenthood. But rather than focus on those things that might have made the task more extraordinary, Hannah points to the fact that in the USA she would have been expected to teach throughout her PhD, whereas working under Australian supervision she was more able to focus on her thesis proper. She also acknowledges the advantage of being a multilingual speaker prior to commencement of the grammar, “I have a background in a lot of language families and that definitely strengthens the way I look at Nungon. It has been helpful.” At home Hannah and her husband speak Berber and she is fluent in many other languages including Nungon. In terms of learning a language in the field, she’s a firm believer, if possible, in full immersion in the language from the start – a process she says was famously demonstrated by Kenneth Pike.

Husband-and-wife transcription team Stanly Girip and Lyn Ogate worked with Hannah to transcribe Nungon

Husband-and-wife transcription team Stanly Girip and Lyn Ogate worked with Hannah to transcribe Nungon.

And Hannah isn’t finished with Nungon yet. She believes it is imperative to bring her deep knowledge of Nungon grammar to bear on other linguistic sub-fields that have little to no input from languages of PNG (despite the disproportionate number of the world’s languages spoken there). She is near the end of data collection for her CoEDL project on child acquisition of Nungon, and is beginning, with CoEDL post-docs Rebecca Defina, Karen Mulak, and Alba Tuninetti, a series of psycholinguistic experiments using Nungon. One impetus for this was the cognitive difficulty she had using switch-reference marking appropriately within long clause chains: “As a non-native speaker, I stumble when trying to apply this because it requires prior knowledge of the subject of the next clause - which I haven’t yet planned, but which native speakers clearly have.”

A team of Nungon speakers worked with Hannah on transcription. They then travelled with her to the Summer Institute of Linguistics headquarters in Ukarumpa, PNG, to present the grammar to the SIL library. They are, L to R, Stanly Girip, Nathalyn Ogate, Lyn Ogate, James Jio.

A team of Nungon speakers worked with Hannah on transcription. They then travelled with her to the Summer Institute of Linguistics headquarters in Ukarumpa, PNG, to present the grammar to the SIL library. They are, L to R, Stanly Girip, Nathalyn Ogate, Lyn Ogate, James Jio.

Hannah Sarvasy is a postdoctoral fellow at CoEDL. Her new publication, A Grammar of Nungon  is available through Brill. Nungon is a Papuan (non-Austronesian) language spoken by about 1,000 people in the southern Uruwa River valley, Kabwum District, Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea.

Top image: CoEDL CI Alan Rumsey and CoEDL postdoc Hannah Sarvasy at the launch of Hannah's new book 'A Grammar of Nungon'

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University

Subscribe to our newsletter