Reviving the spirit of vernacular languages in Solomon Islands
By Debra McDougall
Since I first began doing research in the rural Solomon Islands more than twenty years ago, I’ve admired the way communities organise themselves for church meetings, rallies and celebrations. Planning starts months in advance as people raise money for buildings and transportation, weave mats, and make carvings as gifts for visitors. Cooking begins before the sun rises and programs continue late into the night.
‘Understanding our languages: Solomon Islands’, held in the capital Honiara on 19-23 August 2019, gathered some 100 people speaking 44 Solomon Islands languages. We called it a ‘workshop’ and the Christian God was invoked only in opening prayers, songs, and the blessing of meals. Yet, to me, it felt more like one of the religious gatherings I’ve spent years researching than any ordinary workshop. Participants spoke of joy, sorrow, and hope, saying their ‘eyes were opened’ and ‘hearts pierced’ by a renewed sense of the value of language.
Like so many of our own academic ancestors, our hosts and many participants came to language work through Biblical translation and exegesis. The force behind the gathering was Dr Alpheaus Zobule, who translated the New Testament into his own first language, Luqa, which is spoken on Ranongga Island of Solomon Islands’ Western Province.
Participants in Solomon Islands language workshop, 23 Aug 2019.
Beginning with basic materials on vernacular literacy, Zobule developed a vernacular metalanguage language for describing Luqa’s grammar in terms unschooled villagers could understand. For years, many well-educated Ranonggans scoffed at the idea of studying their own language rather than English. By the mid-2010s, however, secondary students, their parents and their teachers had begun to realise that understanding the structure of their own language helped immensely in the study of English and started flocking to the Kulu campus.
Meanwhile in Honiara, Zobule founded Islands Bible Ministries school, which offers courses in Biblical exegesis, Biblical languages and English grammar. Focused on critical thinking, this might be thought of as Solomon Islands’ first liberal arts college. The demand for intensive language study in Honiara convinced Zobule that the time was ripe for drawing together others around the country to study their own languages. When last month’s workshop was advertised, he was inundated with applications to participate.
As an eminent retired minister suggested, the Bible is a collection of wise stories. We ought to collect stories to make a Bible from Ranongga.
During the workshop, the enthusiasm and engagement of participants was remarkable. Each day focused on a different set of topics. Bethwyn Evans (CoEDL, ANU) and Aurélie Cauchard (University of the South Pacific, Fiji) led sessions on the historical and contemporary connections among Solomon Islands languages; Alpheaus Zobule (Islands Bible Ministries and Kulu Language Institute) explored the structure of local languages; Nick Thieberger (CoEDL, UM) described archival material and introduced audio recording and transcription techniques; Deborah Hill (University of Canberra) and Nick Evans (CoEDL, ANU) focused on dictionaries.
On the sidelines, I organised video recordings in which participants interviewed one another about their linguistic repertoire and what they value in their own languages.
Short talks and ample time for hands-on work allowed participants to build on their knowledge of their own and others’ languages as they gained new insight into the history of their people and lands. Schooled primarily in English, many Solomon Islanders approach Indigenous languages and Solomon Islands Pijin from the perspective of a deficit, focusing on the sounds, concepts and structure found in English but not in local languages. Over the course of the week, there was a subtle shift as people began to focus more directly on the kinds of knowledge embedded in the small languages that link people to one another and to ancestral lands.
Nick Evan’s keynote lecture on the value of linguistic diversity struck a chord with many Islanders who lament the loss and rapid transformations of Indigenous languages and ways of living. During the week, this sorrow about the loss of local language with urbanisation and globalisation was tempered by new interest in the linguistic landscapes and soundscapes emerging in Honiara.
Speakers of Teha (mln) of Central Guadalcanal describe their dictionary entry for 'kei', a woven basket.
The Kulu Language Institute stood as an example of what can be done with no external support or expertise from non-Solomon Islanders. In his public lecture Alpheaus Zobule outlined the work of Kulu, linking it to the vernacular language policy of the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development, which acknowledges the right of children to be taught in a language that they understand. The government has struggled to implement the policy, but Zobule suggested that communities of speakers themselves lead the way in vernacular language education and thus help to bring the policy to fruition.
Plans are afoot for an Islands Language Institute to serve as a meeting point for all interested in the work of linguistic analysis and documentation. In the weeks following the Honiara workshop, the Ranongga contingent began applying some of the skills and ideas as part of an ELDP Legacy Materials Grant ‘Digitising recordings and texts from Ranongga Island, Solomon Islands’. Teachers and students at the Kulu Language Institute have begun to record stories about ways of life from the island they think are worth keeping.
In urban Honiara, and in rural Ranongga, people seem to be embracing the opportunity to document and investigate their own languages. To quote a praise chorus popular at the height of the Christian revival of the last decade, ‘the spirit is moving again’ — the immanent spirit of people, not the transcendent spirit of God.
The ‘Understanding our languages: Solomon Islands’ was hosted by Islands Bible Ministries and the Kulu Language Institute with support from ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, the Faculty of Arts and Research Unit for Indigenous Languages at the University of Melbourne, and the Australian National University. Download the presentations from this post on the PARADISEC Blog.
View the public lecture by Dr Alpheaus Graham Zobule about the journey of the Kulu Language Institute at our Summer School last year.
All words and images by Centre Affiliate Dr Debra McDougall, who is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Melbourne.
Miriam Zeke practicing audio recording with Sister Cecilia Legani.