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Project Profile: Simon Tabuni on Western Lani

Today on the ELAR Blog, new SOAS MA Language Documentation and Description student Simon Tabuni is talking about his prior work at the Center for Endangered Languages Documentation (CELD) in Manokwari on the Western Lani language.

 Can you give us some background on the language ecology in your area?

According to SIL, there are “more than 250 languages in West Papua” and they are basically classified into two major groups – Austronesia and Non-Austronesia/Papua. Both are distinct in many ways. For example, regarding word-order: Austronesia typically is SVO with subject bound to verb e.g. Byak language: ya-nan fas “I eat rice”; however, typically many Papua languages are SOV with free subject e.g. Dani language: an mbi nengge “I rice eat”. Geographically, Austronesian languages are associated with the communities which live in the north coastal and islands areas of West Papua e.g. Byak, Ansus, Wooi, Irarutu, Yaur, Wandamen, Kuri, and many more. Papua languages are associated with communities which live in the mountain (Dani, Meybrat. Yali, Mee, Wano, Arfak groups, etc) and Southern coast area of West Papua (Iha, Sebiar/Arandai, Asmat, Kamoro, etc).

Westen Dani wear a head ornament called ‘meli when welcoming a guest for the first time in a long time.

Western Lani is a multilingual community; some of the community (based on the location) could speak a few languages such as Walak, Nayak (upper, lower, and Great-valley), Wano, Damal, Moni, and Bahasa. Western Dani also shares border with languages like Nayak and Walak in the Eastern; Muyu and Ndo’a in the South; Moni, Damal, and Mee in the West; and Wano/Lemwano in the North. Western Lani speakers can be found in the areas of Illaga, Tiom, Illu, Kanggime, Karubaga, Kelila, Mbuwa, Mugi, Geselma, and Yigi.

The family of Western Lani is part of the Trans-New Guinea family that occupied the West (highland) of Papua island and is a part of the Dani languages family (Ethnologue, 2010).

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

The project aim was to investigate how and why the Dani language names and classifies animals and plants (in regards to morphology and semantics) through an ecological and anthropological linguistics study. The motivations were to find out the morphological processes and semantic notions behind the naming and classifying of animals and plants. The data was then used to evaluate how Dani speakers value their environment. This study might also be useful for language documentation, description, and revitalisation to address the environmental destruction due to massive development, immigration from other islands of Indonesia, palm oil and rice plantation projects exploitation, modernisation, and other issues. These issues will eventually lead to the erosion and extinction of traditional knowledge. For revitalisation, the study could be used to encourage the establishment to create a cultural-ecology-policy. 

A traditional house of Dani, called “Honai”
  1. Why did you want to work with this community?

 I work with this community because not all native speakers have knowledge of animals and plants. Although Dani is not an endangered language, knowledge regarding animal and plant naming and classifying systems is critically endangered. Because of lack time to interact with nature, many young people do not know specific names of animals and plants, even though they fluently speak their own language.

Traditional cooking “Barapen” of Dani people. The women place vegetables ‘mbingga’ in the 50 to 1 m-hole depth as the men chop the hot-stone “yugum”.
  1. If you could start the project again would you do anything differently? 

I think yes… I would probably do in the different critically endangered language community in West Papua. This is because many Papuan languages are endangered now because of the erosion from deforestation, agricultural plantation, multinational/national companies, conservation activities, and modernization. It is pointless to just devote all energy and time in a particular area (language) while the others suffer and need quick action. Secondly, although there is much language descriptive data from missionaries and linguists, the language documentation data (story records, etc.) is less common.

I would say that I prefer to do research while, at the same time, empower locals – training them to record their language – thus the documentation could be continued by them.  

Traditional Dani cooking “Barapen”.
  1. What’s been a challenge in this project and why?

The first challenge is the accessibility to the village where I conducted the data. Geographically, the place is mountainous and I need to walk for four to five hours to get there. Another challenge was when I annotated the Elan – it was difficult to decide the end of a sentence and literal translation. The real challenge was when I did Toolbox. This is because W. Lani is an agglutinative language, thus it is difficult to decide how to break words into morphemes.

Some Western Lani people live in valley of ‘Kwiyawage’.

Thank you, Simon! A clip from Simon’s documentation work is available on the ELAR vimeo channel: 


Blog post by Simon Tabuni

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