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Scientific ELDP Project Highlight: The documentation of Ambel, an Austronesian language of Eastern Indonesia

Today on the ELAR blog, we are featuring a scientific highlight from ELDP grantee and ELAR depositor Laura Arnold. Laura has deposited an audio-visual documentation of Ambel, an endangered language with around 1600 speakers spoken in West Papua province, Indonesia:

The house of Rosina Gaman, with Mount Nok in the background

The scientific highlight of this project was the discovery that Ambel has a system of lexical tone. Prior to this project, Ambel was thought not to have tone (Remijsen 2001: 161). At least two other Austronesian languages spoken in the archipelago, Ma’ya and Matbat, also have tone systems. The presence of tone in these three languages contributes to our understanding about ancient population movements and contact in the archipelago. Tone is very rare in Austronesian languages, but fairly common in Papuan languages – so the presence of tone in the languages of Raja Ampat is thought to have been caused by contact with a now-extinct Papuan substrate. I have recently submitted a paper in which I argue that tone was innovated twice in the Austronesian languages of Raja Ampat: once in Ambel, and once in a common ancestor to Ma’ya and Matbat. Tonogenesis due to contact generally occurs in situations where there is long-term and stable contact between two groups, including childhood bilingualism, suggesting that relations between Austronesians and Papuans in Raja Ampat were friendly at least some of the time.

Laura (R) doing elicitation work with Matius Kein (L)
Marta Gaman (L) and Miriam Gaman (R) talk about midwifery
Rosina Gaman tells a folk story called ‘Old Woman Sombersaw’
Daud Gaman (L) tells Alfred Gaman (R) the history of the Gaman clan
Darius Wakaf (L) works on transcription and translation (I’m afraid I don’t know the names of the two younger boys)

To learn more about Laura’s research and Ambel, visit her deposit, found here on the ELAR catalog.

Photos and highlight by Laura Arnold

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