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ELDP Project Highlight: Documentation of Ulwa, an endangered language of Papua New Guinea

Today on the ELAR blog, we are featuring ELDP grantee Russell Barlow’s project, ‘Documentation of Ulwa, an endangered language of Papua New Guinea’. Russell’s collection with ELAR focuses on the Ulwa language (ISO 639-3:yla), a previously undocumented and severely endangered language spoken by fewer than 700 people in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea.

The deposit has contributions from the Ulwa community of Manu village, which is in the Keram Rural Local-Level Government (LLG) area of the Angoram district of the East Sepik Province. The dialect of Ulwa spoken in Manu is considerably different from that found in the three other Ulwa villages of Maruat, Dimiri, and Yaul. Manu village has 369 residents with about 70 fluent speakers of the Manu dialect of Ulwa.

The central area of Manu village in 2015

Russell gives us his community and scientific highlights from his research between 2015 and 2017.

Impact on the community and speakers:

“One highlight of this project has been the increased awareness of the need for language maintenance and revitalization. In particular, many community members are becoming increasingly interested in developing pedagogical materials to help children learn Ulwa.

Before my research began, there was no orthography for the language. Now, however, with the practical orthography that I have developed with community input, there is a burgeoning interest in writing Ulwa. One teacher at the Manu Elementary School, Betty, is planning to create her own school primer to use with her classes. She wants to put together a book of photographs, showing the process of harvesting and producing sago from start to finish, with short explanatory sentences written in Ulwa. She has asked me to help her in this effort, and I intend to do so.”

Linguistic highlight:

“The documentation of an otherwise undocumented language is always exciting because it can reveal typologically fascinating grammatical features. One such feature in Ulwa is its use of ‘syntactic passives’, valency-reducing constructions that are formed not through morphology, but rather through variation in basic constituent order.

Put briefly, passive sentences are sentences that demote the more agentive argument of a transitive verb, either relegating it to a ‘non-core’ oblique phrase or leaving it altogether unexpressed. While both synthetic and analytic passive constructions are widely attested among the world’s languages, there has been little or no good evidence of syntactic passives — that is, passives formed neither through verbal morphology, nor through periphrastic verbal constructions, but by the very positioning of the verb in its clause.

Through the documentation of Ulwa, however, I was able to uncover such syntactic passives. The analysis of this understudied language can therefore offer insights into the typology of passivization and thus into any possible universal features underlying these constructions. While (in active sentences) the language adheres to a fairly rigid SOV (APV) word order, the order of elements in passive sentences is (X)VS ((A)VP). I hope further to develop my research into this remarkable grammatical feature.”

People gather in Manu to bid farewell to a boat leaving the village

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