Documentation and description of Vamale, an endangered language of New Caledonia

Documentation and description of Vamale, an endangered language of New Caledonia

Language: Vamale (ISO639-3:mkt)
Depositor: Jean Rohleder
Location: New Caledonia
Deposit Id: 0470
Grant id: IGS0321
Funding body: ELDP
Level: Deposit

Summary of deposit

Vamale, a language of northern New Caledonia, is spoken in three Kanak dwellings (or "tribes"). The collection gives a broad overview of everyday life in the tribe, with games, building a house, a boat, thatching a roof, cooking, fishing etc. Elders tell stories from their youth and comment on change in society, women discuss their place in society, climate change, children's education etc.

The data was collected by Jean Rohleder, Phd student in linguistics, with the help and co-planning of Nigai André Kalen, Keela Christophe Péi, Téin Jean-Philippe Oué and Keela "Ganap" Jacob Oué. Other participants include Doui Daniel Péi and Aïna Gohoupe.

Cette collection rassemble des enregistrements du vamale, langue parlée par quelques 200 locuteurs sur la côte est du nord de la Kanaky/Nouvelle-Calédonie. Y figurent une vingtaine de locuteurs, parlant de leurs souvenirs, leurs opinions, et leurs espoirs pour le futur. Il y a aussi des vidéos des coutumes, de savoirs-faire traditionnels, ainsi que des représentations de pêches, des contes, et des scènes du quotidien tribal en 2017. Une partie des enregistrements comprend des élicitations visant une analyse de la langue pour un doctorat en linguistique à Berne, Suisse.

Tous les enregistrements sont publiquement accessibles, mais si du contenu doit être retiré, envoyez-moi un mail et je le ferai!

Ca i thavitheeke-ca tha vwa ape-xaahni-ka i vamale, faati a le-vii ka vajilu ko apuli (200) ni xa-vwa faati pwan jelan xahut Xhopwen Bwanpu. Tha le-vii ka thaloo vajilu apuli a le-vii ko jahmanle, ko ape-caihnan-aman-le, ka ko li hun-caeke-ka-le ko i wadan xahmaen. Tha vwa mwa hânun bween aman, ape-caihnan-aman a xhaohmu, ka hun-vwa tau, sikhô, ka i hun-moo-kan ca joan 2017. Hmain ape-xaahni-kan tha thavitheeke me tiike vaaya ko i faati ca Berne xahut bwanpun Suisse.

Meeka li ape-xaahni-kan tha goon ma le mee tena, kavi cama nyimam me tuu eca aman, ma go tiike nyakoong me bo vwa!

Group represented
The Vamale are a complex group, composed of the clans who lived in the area prior to 1917, traditionally Pije-speaking, and fugitives of the 1917 "last revolt", in which Pamalé, a now vanished tribe, played an important part. As a result, the army attacked and often razed every tribe between the two coasts. Refugees who went to the west assimilated into existing language practices, but the eastward running founded a shrinking group of Voh-Koné speakers in the Tipije valley and the coast south of it. Vamale being a language traditionally spoken in the mountains, there are no traditions of sea-faring nor own words for most sealife, which allows us to see where loans come from (Pije). Vamale is caught between expanding Fwâi and French, cohabits with equally threatened Pije and is rapidly losing its expert speakers. While language transmission worked well until the 1980s, this changed due to the abolition of the tribal school and sending children to Cèmuhî-speaking Touho, the new possibilities opening up in the mines and the capital, and an old colonial mindset about Kanak languages which discouraged parents from teaching their children anything but French. Today's community counts its underage speakers on two hands. This broken transmission also concerns skills such as boat-building, planting, ethnobotany etc. The group's three chiefs and clan councils have agreed to my working in the area in the hopes of documenting their threatened heritage. Climate change is also rapidly eroding Tiouandé and Maina's coastlines and will probably lead to longterm resettling, some of which has already begun.

Language information

The South Oceanic language Vamale (or Hmwaeke) is a "dialect" of Voh-Koné like Bwatoo (or Haake), Haeke, Haveke, and Hmwaveke. The precise structure of the family tree is yet unknown, but the Voh-Koné languages constitute, along with the Hienghène languages, Paicî and Cèmuhî, the Northern group of Grande Terre languages. Vamale is spoken by approximately 180 people on the east coast between Theganepaik ("Téganpaïk"), Wanaa ("Ouanache"), We Hava, and Thexhwaade ("Tiouandé").

This deposit also contains some Usa Vamale (which differs as much from Vamale as other speech practices considered separate), Pije, and Fwâi. This is due to the plurilingual area the field work took place in. Contrary to its merging cousins on the west coast, influence on Vamale is mostly from the North, namely Fwâi and Pije. French is very present in the corpus, as code-switching is common, especially in the presence of non-Vamale speakers.

Special characteristics
This documentation took place before, during, and after the 2018 referendum, after the 2016 brawl between Téganpaïk and Congouma, during the 100-year-anniversary of the 1917 war, and during other current events which are mentioned and partly discussed in the deposit. The stories told are the speakers' perspective and can differ from canonical history. The football game commented in the language is a premium to my knowledge.

Deposit contents

The deposit includes conversations between speakers, monologues and interviews, often video and audio. Many thematical bundles are composed of short videos showing a step of a process, and pictures to show the evolving work.

- boat-building: digging out a hull, and fixing an outrigger to a hull (in two different takes, because of the first hull‘s termite-caused demise), transcribed video and pictures.

- house-building: building a roundhouse‘s roof, and thatching a longhouse (incomplete documentation because of lacking straw, but with pictures of the finished house), in transcribed video and pictures.

- fishing at night for fish in the river (video and pictures), and for crabs in the mangrove (transcribed video)

- different stages of planting a yam field, videos and pictures

- sites of archeological interest, rock carvings and cyclone shelter caves, video and pictures

- mat weaving, basket weaving with instructions, bag confection. Video and pictures

- coffee roasting, video and pictures

- a walk through bushland and forest with plant names and petroglyphs, short video and pictures

- an excursion to a lagoon island with plant and animal names, pictures

- 2 fables (squid and rat, squid and the fish), one legend (Ngeen and Cada). One of these fables is well known throughout the archipelago and said to come from Maré. Video for the fables, text only for the legend.

- oral history (Tipije, Usa migration). Since the Vamale were expelled from their homeland between 1913 and 1917, this part of their history is of crucial importance to the community (as it is for the entire region between Touho and Voh). Transcribed video and audio.

- conversations, interviews, monologues, audio and mostly video, partly transcribed.

- cultural festival (of manioc and taro) with neighbouring tribe’s dances. No Vamale-speaking tribe has a dancing group at the moment. Video.

- reflections on

◦ societal change (medicine, education, child-rearing, food, clothing, planting, women’s roles, religion, respect between generations, …) transcribed video.

◦ the cycle of life and its rituals (at birth, wooing a woman, wedding, and death)

◦ a chief’s role (by two chiefs, separately). The chiefs Luc and Jimmy both spoke of their role, the responsibility, and how respect of their authority has declined over time. Luc is the son of a chief, whereas Jimmy was put in this position after chief Kaina retired. His emotional account of his life now is very interesting and casts light on an aspect of societal change: the collapse of traditional hierarchies. Transcribed video.

- four songs, “Thamo Bako” and greeting songs. Transcribed audio, and video (for the greeting songs).

- a wedding and several rituals surrounding the wedding, including welcome songs partly in Vamale. Video.

- a football game and its comments in Vamale. Video.

- recorded wordlists and the “North Wind and the Sun” for an IPA article, proof for all phonemes. Audio.

- speaker map and maps of the tribes with local names.

- a Flex database with over 2900 entries

- Colour terms, landscape classification, space in general, animal and plant names using local ecological organisation’s pedagogical material, kinship terms, cultural festival recordings, in video, audio, and/or pictures.

Deposit history

The data for this collection was collected in the context of a PhD in linguistics at the University of Berne.

All recordings were made between June and December, as the rainy season puts a halt to many activities and makes some roads impassable. Rain is also a factor in recordings, since most habitats have steel roofs.Thus there is no recording of the New Yam festival, but most other cultural activities are present in the corpus.

The data was collected in three field trips:

-End of July 2017-early December 2017,

-End of June 2018-early December 2018, and -June 2019-September 2019

Acknowledgement and citation

Users of any part of the collection should acknowledge Jean Rohleder as the principal investigator, the data collector and researcher. Users should also acknowledge the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme as the funder of the project. Individual speakers whose words and/or images are used should be acknowledged by name.

To refer to any data from the corpus, please cite the corpus in this way:

Rohleder, Jean. 2018. Documentation and description of Vamale, an endangered language of New Caledonia. London: SOAS, Endagered Languages Archive. URL: Accessed on [insert date here].


Collection online
Resources online and curated


Jean Rohleder
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Affiliation: Universität Bern

Deposit Statistics

Data from 2020 November 28 to 2020 November 28
Deposit hits:1
Downloaded files
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Showing 1 - 10 of 400 Items

Nini discusses women's roles

Recorded on: 2017-11-16

Recorded on: 2017-12-01

Huge aloe plants, a variety of which can be used to make nets and fishing string (the fibers)

Recorded on: 2017-08-07

An anthill

Recorded on: 2017-08-07

Henriette gives us the terms by which we call relatives ("dad", "nif", "unc" etc)

Recorded on: 2017-11-29

Edible marrow, heartwood hard enough to use for arrow tips, the arborescent fern is a popular decorative tree

Recorded on: 2017-08-07

Elders discuss how to ask for a girl's hand in marriage.

Recorded on: 2017-07-31

Classic bamboo, used for construction and rafts

Recorded on: 2017-08-07

Photo of two banana saplings sprouting from an old rhizome. Old, wilted tree to the right.

Recorded on: 2017-08-30

The bancoul tree nut, roasted, gives a rich black pigment, and its rotting wood feed the delicious bancoul larva

Recorded on: 2017-08-07