Putting it in writing

Chara DeVolder is helping preserve an Indigenous language by putting it into written form for the first time. The fourth-year anthropology student at UBC’s Okanagan campus spent two months this summer in a remote village in Papua New Guinea (PNG), researching how words are created—the morphology—and how sentences are formed—the syntax— in the Kala language.

Under the direction of UBC researchers and anthropologists John Wagner and Christine Schreyer, DeVolder assisted in working with elders and community leaders from six villages to create a writing system for their language which, until very recently, was entirely oral. She spent the rest of the summer preparing the first draft of a dictionary that she plans to send back to the villages this fall for review.

“There are so many different languages in PNG that a common language was needed to communicate amongst one another easily,” says DeVolder. “That language is called Tok Pisin. But the problem is that younger generations are learning Tok Pisin instead of their native languages, and because there was no standard alphabet or writing system, elders worried their native languages could eventually be lost, along with all the traditional knowledge that is embedded within them.”

DeVolder’s study of morphology showed the Kala language classifies plants and animals through the use of morphemes (parts of words that have meaning). For example, most fish names start with “i”, most trees start with “e”, and most birds start with “mã”. These prefixes express what kind of plant or animal it is, while the rest of the word is usually a description of the species. So the fish name “imbiritambogadi” literally means “fish that has spear eyes.”

The language preservation initiative began after Professor Wagner, who has been doing research in PNG for more than a decade, was approached by village elders about their language concerns. He contacted Schreyer, who specializes in linguistics research and endangered language preservation, to see if she was interested in the project. DeVolder has taken a number of Schreyer’s classes and jumped at the chance to do undergraduate work with the pair in PNG.

“What I think made this project really special is that we didn’t go into these villages and say, ‘I think this is what you need to do,’” reflects DeVolder. “It was the people from the villages who approached John and said ‘these are our concerns; are you able to help?’”

DeVolder says the researchers met with everyone from the community and formed a committee with at least one man and women from each village. “People were so welcoming and grateful,” she says. “That made me feel like this project really meant something special.”

Before they left, the UBC researchers brought together local teachers, committee members, and anyone else who was interested in the writing system from all six villages and held a workshop on the written language and developing language curricula materials.

“This isn’t just something we did and handed over; we helped them learn how to use it and teach it and we provided them with some materials and tools so they could immediately begin teaching, learning and preserving the language,” DeVolder says.

DeVolder says her experience in PNG made a greater impression than she ever could have dreamed.

“It was so different there. We had to take a two-hour boat ride across the ocean to get to the village,” she says. “I had to walk down a beach and climb a tree to get cell phone reception. We cooked over a fire. I planted banana trees, dug up potatoes and walked around barefoot.”

After graduating in 2011 with her Bachelor of Arts degree, DeVolder wants to find a career that will allow her to continue working with people and their languages.