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ELDP Project Highlight: Documentation and description of Vamale, an endangered language of New Caledonia

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. 

Jacob OuÈ puts out a line (“yavo”) on the lagoon. Photo taken by Jean Rohleder

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

extent.

Kukwe Pei and Jean during a weekend trip. Photo taken by Adriano Gohoupe

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

system.

Kito / Christophe Pei casts a net (“vua”) on a school of sardines. Photo taken by Jean Rohleder

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.

AndrÈ Kalen (left) and Jean-Philippe OuÈ take a break from thatching a hut. Photo taken by Jean Rohleder.

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

more fieldwork.

Jean-Philippe OuÈ (left) and AndrÈ Kalen dig out the hull of an outrigger canoe (“w‚ng”). Photo taken by Jean Rohleder.

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. 

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