Today on the ELAR blog, we are featuring a scientific highlight from ELDP grantee and ELAR depositor Jean Rohleder. Jean is researching Vamale, one of the smallest languages in New Caledonia.
We know very little about the inner workings of the Northern Caledonian languages. Location of
speakers does not help, because of the catastrophic changes in post-contact New Caledonia (80-
95% population decline, the collapse of societal structures, the exodus of tens of thousands, etc.).
Vamale comes from a now deserted mountainous region between Touho and Koné. Phonologically, it
shows rhinoglottophilia (nasalization after aspirated vowels) in the same environments as Jawe, a
language to the north not currently in contact with Vamale. This could be a hint at old ties, as no
other language of Voh-Koné or then Hienghène area seems to show rhinoglottophilia to the same
The aspectual system is stable, with irrealis, verbal aktionsart and a future marker bo working
together in interesting ways. Durative verbs use bwa for an imperfective meaning, bo for a future
one, whereas punctual verbs use both for future meanings, though with different degrees of
certainty. The distinction between durative and punctual verbs influences the entire aspectual
The language is not, like other Northern languages, split-ergative. It does, however, have split-S.
That is, verbs with a more agent-like subject inflect differently from verbs with more patient-like
subjects. The distribution of the different paradigms does not match Western ideas of agent and
patient. The perception of space is also different from the West and permeates every description
of movement. “Right” and “left” are less important than going up or down a slope, a river, a coast,
or towards a house.
The nominalization patterns of Vamale and closely-related Bwatoo, as well as the possessive
constructions argue in my opinion against a cluster of dialects, and in favor of separate
languages, the number and the relationship of which would be a fascinating and fertile ground for
Thank you, Jean! To learn more about Vamale and Jean’s work, see the Vamale deposit on the ELAR catalogue.
From July through September, ELAR will be taking a summer blogging break! During this time, we will be blogging bi-monthly, in order to curate and archive more data and prepare for our annual ELDP training in September.