Next stop of the “Mutis en Atan” book tour: Vanuatu Cultural Centre, Port Vila, Vanuatu.

Today was a keystone in my language and culture documentation career. I had the opportunity to deliver the result of a several year long project in the form of a book for children to the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Accompanied by my adoptive Paamese father, Chief Kunde Toka, I handed over copies of the book to the Museum Director Richard Shing, Nelly Celleb, Head of the National Library, Office Manager Henline Mala, and Digital Marketing Officer Len Tafau.

The book is entitled “Mutis en Atan”, which means “writing/drawing in the ground” in Paamese, an Austronesian language spoken in Vanuatu. I received several research grants which funded an intensive fieldwork expedition to Vanuatu in 2019, where, among other valuable material, I documented the vanishing art of Vanuatu Sand Drawing. There were only 4 sand drawers left on Paama in 2019, and the four of them agreed to share this invaluable knowledge with me.

The Paamese Chiefs’ Assembly gathered on March 3rd 2020 and unanimously decided that a book should be published to safeguard what is listed by the UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This book is the result of this collaborative work. It is a creation story inspired by traditional Paamese narratives, written in Paamese, and illustrated with sand drawings. The second half of the book consists of sand drawing tutorials, which shows how to perform these complex geometrical patterns.

From today, November 9th, the book is now available from the Vanuatu Public Library in Port Vila. In two days, I am flying to Paama island to deliver 50 books with 250 others on their way to primary schools and the local tribes. The Paamese community can be proud of this achievement. I certainly am grateful to have been part this wonderful journey.

Ihuri meatin tenaut Vaum!

We need more emic/etic collaborations

Thank you Nick Enfield and colleagues for the invitation and interesting discussion on kinship, gestures, and meaning! A very welcoming research group at the University of Sydney. I was also honored by the presence of uan onak Johnny Obed, a Paamese man living in Sydney, who came to the talk on Paamese kinship. It was truly special to have someone in the audience who could fact-check our “etic” interpretation of the results and enrich the discussion with his “emic” perspective. I wish emic/etic collaborations were more the rule than the exception, and that indigenous people would be more systematically included in research on indigenous languages and cultures.

Kinship gestures – Talk at the University of Sydney, November 4th, 12:00 (local time)

If Marie is your mother, that Tom is your mother’s brother, and that Jay is Tom’s first born son, who is Jay to you? …. your cousin of course! Well actually it depends. But more on that later. You probably did not notice, but when you solved that riddle you employed a number of relatively complex cognitive processes: a combination of perspective-shifting processes (your mother’s -> your mother’s brother’s –> your mother’s brother’s son’s) and relational thinking (if X is Y’s S, and that Y is M’s B, then X = my cousin). Do these complex cognitive mechanisms leave traces in the way we speak, gesture, and draw about family relations? That’s the question I will address tomorrow at the Sydney Centre for Language Research, University of Sydney, with a case study on Paamese kinship systems. I will give this talk in person, but it is also possible to join on zoom. More information here.

New paper on Vanuatu sand drawings!

The Australian Journal of Anthropology recently published an article that I wrote on Vanuatu sand drawings. The paper is an analysis of a collection of sand drawings documented on Paama island, Vanuatu. It proposes a number of methodological tools for the systematic analysis of this fascinating, UNESCO-listed, but also vanishing cultural practice.

I filmed the performances with two cameras: a bird-eye view camera to get the drawer’s perspective and a wide-angled camera to capture interactions with the audience
Old Sam from Nau draws the Vetah ‘breadfruit’ sand drawing. Sand drawings are the intellectual properties of the sand drawer and their clan, and were exchanged as valuable goods across islands of the region. This one has for example also been documented on the neighouring island of Ambrym by Michael Franjieh.
There is only one uninterrupted line in this picture. A sand drawing is performed by starting and ending the tracing of the line from the same point (the red dot) without lifting one’s finger from the ground. Numbers and arrows are the directions that the drawer should follow to perform the drawing in the ‘right’ way (Paamese people say ‘straight!)’. I vectorized the 23 sand drawings of the collection in Adobe Illustrator for future revitalization purposes.
Titamol sin ‘the Titamol’s bones’, as performed by Old Sam from Nau, represent the spine of a forest spirit that Paamese people call Titamols. These forest spirits are described on Paama as being of human shape but smaller, hairy, and living in banyan trees. Their existence is well accepted on Paama and throughout the Vanuatu archipelago where they are commonly referred to as lisefsef in Bislama. Titamol entities are said to speak a secret language that they have occasionally shared with human islanders in the form of songs or numerals. There are stories where Paamese people have killed Titamol beings, with serious consequences for the community involved. I recorded the tragic story of Evol, a village in the south of Paama, where the villagers shot and killed a Titamol who cursed them for their crime. Soon after, a mysterious disease contaminated the whole village and all inhabitants died. The village is now indeed a ghost town of abandoned huts where nobody lives anymore.
Mattew Joe, from Tavie & Luli, performing the Oum ‘crab’ sand drawing on an iPad. Matthew recalled that, as a child, he and a few kids from Luli who would go out in the bush for several days with elders Willie Toungon and Harry Morsen from whom they learned the complex geometrical patterns and associated meaning.

The paper is published in open access, and can be accessed on the TAJA website or downloaded from my website. All the audio-video material collected is openly accessible from this archive.

Congratulations Heron!

Heron Kulukul is a brilliant Paamese young man, who has worked with me on various research projects in Vanuatu for the past four years. Today, he obtained his Bachelor of Science, majoring in Mathematics and Physics from the University of the South Pacific, and I want to tell him and the world how proud I am to count him as my friend and collaborator. Congratulations Heron, you rock!

Heron, on the right, transcribing hours of Paamese spoken data in ELAN, with my tribal brother Ezekiel Toka, and my son Desmond in the middle (distracting them). Port Vila, Vanuatu, October 2019.

MAPS – Designing culturally relevant elicitation stimuli

If you are thinking animations could be useful to your future research project or study, don’t hesitate to reach out, I can help!

Linguistic fieldwork and elicitation-based data collection has been hit hard by the pandemic. But these challenges turned into the opportunity to train myself in design and character animation. I followed a four month intensive training and although I will not be hired by Pixar anytime soon, I can now design and animate simple scenes!

These new skills allowed me to build the possessive structure elicitation stimuli for my on-going project, MAPS (Multifactorial Analysis of Possessive Structures). Data can then fully be collected online, or locally on a laptop. These are two clips taken from the MAPS stimuli with the two main characters: Maki and Niklas, respectively from Paama island and Sápmi!

The advantage of using animation for elicitation stimuli is that one can not only ensure comparability across linguistic groups, but also adapt the stimuli to the target ethnolinguistic communities. Shooting elicitation videos on a European campus, with European actors, and a European landscape in the background can come out very odd to non-European participants. The unfamiliarity of the elicitation material could even potentially skew their descriptions, and hence the results of the study.

Once the scene is animated, updating the background or the character is very easy and can therefore be extended to any ethnolinguistic group on the planet! This was certainly useful for MAPS, where I study the evolution of possessive constructions used by North Sámi speakers who live in the Arctic and Paamese speakers from Vanuatu who live in the Tropics.

Within the next few months, I will make the MAPS elicitation stimuli and the code for the online experiment openly accessible from this website.

Fund raising for an indigenous language school in Vanuatu

Monolingual schooling in English is a contributing factor to the loss of indigenous languages (see Bromham, Hua, Algy, & Meakins 2020, and Bromham et al. 2022). This is why initiatives like the one by a South-Pacific community is so important. Please spread the word and consider taking part of it!

Bromham, L., Hua, X., Algy, C., & Meakins, F. (2020). Language endangerment: a multidimensional analysis of risk factors. Journal of Language Evolution, 5(1), 75-91.

Bromham, L., Dinnage, R., Skirgård, H., Ritchie, A., Cardillo, M., Meakins, F., Greenhill, S. & Hua, X. (2022). Global predictors of language endangerment and the future of linguistic diversity. Nature ecology & evolution, 6(2), 163-173.