Ancient Language Lives on Thanks to UVa Linguist

April 6, 2012

Most of the people who spoke Arapesh when University of Virginia linguist Lise Dobrin conducted field work in Papua New Guinea about 15 years ago have died of old age. Their children no longer speak the language, and their grandchildren have almost no knowledge of their ancestral tongue, she said.

But Arapesh has a chance to live on through a digital archive Dobrin has created with the help of UVa.'s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and an emerging collaboration with some middle-aged and younger Arapesh.

Dobrin, an assistant professor of linguistics in the College of Arts & Sciences' anthropology department, began the archive in 2005 and is focusing on it this year with support from the institute's residential fellowship. The "Arapesh Grammar and Digital Language Archive" also has support from the Documenting Endangered Languages program, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.

Papua New Guinea, half of a Pacific island and slightly larger than California, lies north of Australia. One of the most culturally diverse countries on Earth, it is home to more than 800 languages, none of which traditionally was written down.

What is lost when a language falls into silence? A treasure trove of cultural information that has been passed down from generation to generation, Dobrin said. Endangered languages have properties only the speakers know, such as classifications of the natural world, for example.

In addition, there is a lot to learn from diverse systems of oral expression. Dobrin first went to Papua New Guinea in 1997 to study the system of noun categorization of Arapesh for her University of Chicago dissertation. Despite all of the strides in research, scientists and scholars still only partly understand language, she said.

From 1998 to '99 in the village of Wautogik on the northern coast, Dorbin recorded Arapesh conversations to document speech patterns. She used a portable analog stereo cassette recorder and lavalier microphones to record villagers telling stories, talking about how they did things in everyday life, such as gardening, and describing events like First Communion.

Many Arapesh villagers today use Papua New Guinea's lingua franca, Tok Pisin, as their medium of communication in daily life. Tok Pisin comes from the English "talk pidgin," pidgin being the term for communication developed between people with different languages.

English is taught in schools.



 
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