Saving threatened language through literature

30 April 2018

A group of linguists from the Faculty of Arts travelled to Bougainville recently to run a workshop on producing literature in a local vernacular.

Dr Jason Brown, Dr Keith Montgomery and masters student Brittni Smith put the workshop together at the request of Allan Gioni, the manager of Haus Stori — the library established in Arawa with the help of author Lloyd Jones in 2012.

Allan, along with the Bougainville Heritage Foundation, have partnered with them in preserving the Naasioi language. Naasioi is a Papuan language spoken in the central mountains and southeast coast of Bougainville. It has an estimated 20,000 speakers and is suffering encroachment from English.

Aside from work by linguists in the 1960s and 70s, almost all previously existing documentation of the Naasioi language was deliberately burnt by invading troops during the Bougainville conflict from 1988 to 1998.

The only existing pre-war Naasioi text the trio have managed to locate is a single prayer book, written in a mixture of Naasioi and pidgin.

Keith says that Haus Stori is an excellent facility, but is predominantly stocked with English books donated from New Zealand. He explains that "getting anything there is enormously expensive," so there are conspicuous gaps on the shelves.

One of these gaps is books in the Naasioi language. To counter this the local elders are eager to establish a literary tradition to supply the library with books in their local vernacular.

"We're the catalyst that helps them generate texts in Naasioi," Keith explains.

The trio's first step towards preserving the language was to run a week long writing workshop in the library with local chiefs, elders, teachers, students and community leaders. This included working to create a children's book based on a tale told by a community elder. Participants translated and illustrated the story, with the aim of publishing it in hard copy and pdf.

They also worked with Naasioi speakers to define an alphabet for the language. Brittni was able to draw upon this work to create a laminated version of the alphabet using illustrations drawn during the workshop.

"They looked and saw that their work had come back to them," says Keith. "One elder almost cried when he saw it."

They also initiated a project to create a Naasioi dictionary in conjunction with the community, which will be a long-term project.

"It will take us years to get this dictionary up and going," says Keith.

Jason and Keith are committed to the overall project long-term. A writing network has formed out of the initial workshop, and the pair have agreed to help with editorial work.

"It only works if you keep doing it," says Jason.

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