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Project Profile: Documenting Ramari Hatohobei, the Tobian language, a severely endangered Micronesian language

Today on the ELAR blog, Peter and Bobby Black discuss their  project documenting Tobian. Tobian (Ramari Hatohobei) is the language of Tobi, one of the Southwest Islands of the Republic of Palau, a Micronesian nation in the western Pacific. Severely endangered, Tobian is currently spoken by approximately 150 people. Tobian and the dialects of Sonsorol, Merir, and Pulo Anna, the other three Southwest Islands, are closely related to the languages spoken in the outer islands of Yap and Chuuk. Intensive work was done with [deleted elderly] Tobian speakers to document their language through collection of vocabulary, stories, poems, and songs in their relevant socio-cultural contexts before it is lost

  1. On the language ecology of the area:

Tobian is a small endangered language being redefined and subsumed daily as it coexists in a small community embedded within a larger society speaking an unrelated language that is dominant in everyday life. Members of the community speak or understand many other languages including English, Indonesian, Japanese, and, in the past, German.  All of these languages have left traces in Tobian.  Palauan and English are the national languages in the Republic of Palau; Tobian is only distantly related to Palauan.  

2. What is your research question and why did you choose it?

Working with Tobians to document their language arose naturally out of Peter’s 50+ year relationship with them starting when he was a Peace Corps Volunteer on Tobi Island. The Tobian language is incompletely documented although there is much archival material dating from American seafarers in the mid-19th century through German ethnographic researchers in the early 20th century and on to other work done mid-20th century.  Peter was engaged in the documentation of Tobian from his first days in the community and Bobby’s work on it began in 1990.  

Tobian is at the extreme western end of a dialect chain beginning far to the east that spreads across many islands, and as such has attracted spasmodic interest from various researchers, all of which was useful to us in our project.    

The ELDP grant gave us the opportunity to attempt to capture as much spoken Tobian as possible, along with traditional knowledge in various areas.  

3. Why did you want to work with this community?

A highlight for us throughout this project was how pleased many community members were with this documentation effort.  They were very eager to participate and help.  An abiding concern is for their language, Tobian, to be available for their children and grandchildren.  Community members were especially pleased with the illustrated children’s stories in Tobian and English, particularly one in the form of a colouring book illustrated by a young Tobian boy.

4. What’s been a challenge in this project and why?

Challenges arose because neither of us is a trained linguist.  Moreover, there is lots of variation in Tobian which made transcription difficult.


Peter:  We took an early decision to refrain from attempting the production of an authoritative Tobian system for spelling.  I learned to speak Tobian in 1967 at a time when only a few of the islanders were literate.   Many Tobians now view my Tobian as archaic, but it is well known to most of them.  I had one course in descriptive linguistics as part of my graduate training.

Over time as more and more Tobians became literate, a loose set of writing conventions emerged.   Because literacy was first achieved in English for most people, their representation of Tobian was heavily based on English spelling.  Since our work on documentation grew out of my years of work with the Tobians and was primarily directed at community building, there was little need or interest in achieving phonetic accuracy in recording speech.  The transcriptions that we did produce relied heavily on assistance from native speakers.  

Bobby:  For the most part, I never felt my lack of fluency (to put it mildly) in Tobian was a major barrier.  Tobians were well aware of my limitations and helped me immensely.  During my sessions of filming and recording, there was almost always at least one Tobian present who understood English and could convey my questions/comments to the rest of the group.

I had read as much as I could find about documenting languages before we got started, although I read much less in linguistic analysis and theory.  I had also looked at the available language documentation and dictionaries for related languages. And, of course, Suzanne Romaine, Merton Professor of English Language in the University of Oxford 1984-2014, was always available to answer questions about best practices.

Peter and Bobby:  In our 3100-word ‘Toward a Tobian-English Dictionary’, there are no doubt many errors.  We tried to cast as wide a net as possible and where possible noted in each entry the progression and changes in words and language from the mid-19th century until today, including words recorded by American whalers, German ethnographers, and more recent scholars.  Many entries are words borrowed from English and German as well as  Spanish, Japanese, and Palauan. Where possible, we noted the original word and its meaning.  The primary entries, of course, were provided by contemporary speakers.   We captured as much variation as possible from today’s speakers of Tobian—old, young, monolingual (very rare), bi-, tri-, and quadruple lingual—all of which affects how people spell words and capture sounds.  This document is currently being managed by a member of the community and will be placed in the archive.

5. If you could start the project again would you do anything differently?

If we were to start again, we would attempt to include more extended periods of time spent with the community.  

6. What still needs to be done?

Much remains that could be done with the Tobian community vis a vis documenting their language—it depends entirely on the imagination and energy available on the part of the community and those attempting to document the language.

Additional video documentation of more traditional skills such as canoe-building, fishing, weaving, and more would be very useful and welcomed by the community.

We think an extended project along the lines of Edvard Hviding’s work with Marovo speakers in the Solomons would be incredibly valuable as a cultural and environmental and linguistic resource for the Tobian community and, especially its children. [Edvard Hviding, Reef and Rainforest: An Environmental Encyclopedia of Marovo Lagoon, Solomon Islands (in Marovo and English with scientific identifications and colour illustrations), UNESCO: Paris, 2005.]

7. What is the current level of documentation?

Ample opportunity remains for documenting the Tobian language, especially in areas of traditional culture which are in danger of being lost as the last generation to be born on Tobi Island is aging.

Thank you to Bobby and Peter for sharing a look into their project! To learn more about Tobian, visit Peter and Bobby’s ELAR deposit page, found here.

Further information can be found on Peter and Bobby’s Friends of Tobi Island website http://www.friendsoftobi.org

The Friends of Tobi Island Facebook page also reflects some of their work: https://www.facebook.com/Friends-of-Tobi-Island-115063481856708/

Blog post by Peter and Bobby Black

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