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ELDP project Highlight: A comprehensive documentation of Bine – a language of Southern New Guinea

Today on the ELAR blog, we are featuring ELDP grantee Christian Döhler’s  project ‘A comprehensive documentation of Bine – a language of Southern New Guinea. Christian’s collection with ELAR focuses on Bine, an underdescribed language of Southern New Guinea spoken by around 2000 speakers.


Christian Döhler, from the Leibniz Zentrum für Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft, Berlin, gives us his community and scientific highlights from his research from 2017-2019.

Community Highlight: computer literacy

As part of the project, we have started to train members of the community in computer literacy. For  two students, Solomon Girisa and Meggie Sabba, this has become an intensive course with for two half day-sessions per week. Neither Meggie, nor Solomon, had used a computer before. We began with basic concepts like a “double click” or an “active window” and worked our way slowly to more advanced topics such as creating a text document and backing up data. Meggie and Solomon made great progress and by the end of the fieldtrip they had mastered all the basics like the editing of text and image files and handling periphery devices. Currently Solomon is transcribing audio files of Bine recordings. We hope to continue these courses in the future.

Language highlight: linguistic structure

Many languages in Papua New Guinea show a high degree of complexity in the way how words, especially verbs, are constructed. This level of linguistic structure is called morphology. There can be numerous building blocks or morphemes in a verb, which are prefixed or suffixed to the verbstem. The verbstem itself can be involved. For example, in some languages in Southern New Guinea a given verb lexeme may have several verbstems which are used for different aspect classes, that is how an event is being portrayed, for example: ongoing versus momentaneous event. Languages like Komnzo, Mian and Nen have such systems. In Bine, some verbs have two stems, which are used to express the number of the argument. However, they do it in a rather peculiar way. An example comes from the verb arkemiti ‘to stand’. I may say irkemitenige or urkemitenige depending on whether it is a man or a woman. I may say arkemitenige when I am talking about two people standing. At first sight, the initial vowel, the prefix, can be i- for singular masculine, u- for singular feminine, or a- for dual. Suppose I want to say that plenty of people are standing. I would have to say irkemitnademenige. We can see that the verbstem changes. It was rkemite for singular and dual, but now we have rkemitnademe for a plural. The -nige suffix on the verb expresses tense and aspect. Note that the same prefix i- is used for singular and plural. We can add another number value, namely a paucal, which is used if there is only a few people standing. The inflected verb would then be arkemitnademenige. This is the same verbstem as the plural, but the same prefix a- as the dual. We can think of these as tools in two toolboxes. We have the two prefixes (i- and a-) in one toolbox and the two verbstems (rkemite and rkemitnademe) in the other toolbox. They allow for four combinations. The structure of Bine employs all four possibilities to express the four number values: singular, dual, paucal and plural. Such a system seems optimal because it exploits all the tools in the box.

Such a system poses a problem for the traditional definition of morphemes in linguistic theory. Part of this definition is that each morpheme has a clear meaning, even if it is an abstract meaning like past tense or first person singular. But how should we label the difference between the two verbstems? One is used for singular and dual, while the other is used for paucal and plural. How should we label the a- prefix? It is used for dual and paucal number. Languages of this “toolkit combination type” like Bine (or Komnzo or Nen) are best understood by changing our definition of the morpheme.


Documentation highlight: traditional ecological knowledge

We have collected traditional ecological knowledge in the  domains of plants, fish and birds. For the domains of fish and birds, we used picture stimuli in addition to spotting the animal in the wild or in the fishing net. The pictures for the identification of fish species were taken from a book on the Fly River system (Allen et al. 2008). For birds, we were lucky to have a set of 150 pictures of birds prepared by a colleague, Aung Si. The picture set contains birds that are commonly found in Southern New Guinea.

Equipped with these stimuli, we ran several elicitation and discussion sessions. In this way, we could match more than 80 Bine names to one or more bird species. For fish, we were able to match around 40 Bine names to one or more fish species. Collecting these lexemes is important because they constitute endangered ecological knowledge. Especially for fish, I observed what types of fish end up in people’s nets and ultimately on their plates. Of the 40+ fish names that we collected, only three account for 95% of people’s catches, and all three are invasive species. These species have already pushed out many indigenous fish species. With the loss of these fish from Bine speaking territory, the knowledge about them is highly endangered. One has to conclude that the Bine words and all the knowledge that comes with them are moribund.

Cultural highlight: string figures

Almost by accident we discovered that the people in Irukupi are making string figures. This is usually something that women show their children or something that children make during school. We recorded an hour of material consisting of several people showing the procedures and figures while discussing different techniques and stories that go along with the figures. In the image below, Tina Tube is making a picture-style figure. There are also story-style figures that involve a narrative part.
The final picture made by Tina is called podo ‘hill, mountain’. I asked people, what they mean by this, because the flat, swampy land of Southern New Guinea features no hills and mountains. She replied that the hill refers to Dawan Island in the Torres Strait, a volcanic island. Dawan Island can be seen in the distance when traveling along the coast further west.