Documentation of the Neverver language, Malekula, Vanuatu
The Neverver language of Malekula is spoken by fewer than 600 people in the villages of Limap and Lingarakh.
The documentation comprises a corpus of over 100 recordings of stories, interviews, and conversations. There is also an extensive collection of botanical images. Outputs of the documentation project to date include a detailed grammatical description, a number of academic papers, and a growing body of literacy materials.
Neverver speakers of Malakula, Mindu and Sakhan peoples.
In Languages of Vanuatu: A new survey and bibliography (Lynch & Crowley 2001: 79-80), Nevwervwer is estimated to have a population of 1250 speakers distributed through the villages of Sarmet, Limap and Lingarakh. Lynch and Crowley stress that the figures are approximations and that the actual figures could be considerably different (2001: 4-6). There are no figures for second language speakers within the Nevwervwer villages and it is quite likely that there are Nevwervwer speakers residing in other parts of Malakula or Vanuatu as a whole. More detailed demographic information will be of value to understanding the current status of Nevwervwer, particularly the numbers of children growing up with Nevwervwer as a first language.
Although the present day location of Nevwervwer speakers is known, at this stage we can only speculate as to the extent of traditional Nevwervwer territory. This is primarily because in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Malakula was one among many islands of Vanuatu that suffered significant depopulation through various epidemics (Crowley 1990: 98-100). Alongside depopulation, population shift from inland regions to the coast also took place, resulting in a mix of languages spoken in coastal towns rather than a tidy series of languages displaying geographical contiguity that we might idealize for pre-European contact times (Lynch & Crowley 2001: 69).
Language information Neverver/Nevwervwer is one of over one hundred vernacular languages spoken in Vanuatu. Estimated number of speakers: 600.
Nevwervwer belongs to the Oceanic branch of the Austronesian language family. This means that Nevwervwer is a descendant of Proto-Oceanic, a reconstructed language that archeologists have linked to a group of sea-faring people who made a style of ceramics known as ‘Lapita’ and who are thought to be the single source of people for all early Oceanic settlement (c.f. Kirch 2000). While archeological investigation in Vanuatu has been limited, it has supported the claim that the Lapita people were the initial settlers in the region, arriving around 3000 years ago (Kirch 2000: 135-138). Evidence from excavations on Malakula does not indicate any pre-Lapita settlement and confirms the settlement date of around 1000 B.C. for this particular island. (Bedford, Spriggs, Wilson & Regenvanu 1998: 185).
Accepting the archaeological understanding that Oceania was populated by a single source of people, speaking related languages of the Oceanic language family, it has been speculated that all the languages of Malakula may eventually be classified as members of an Oceanic subgroup named the ‘Central Vanuatu Linkage’, along with languages spoken on the islands of southern Pentecost, Ambrym, Epi, Shepherd Island, Emae, Nguna as well as the northern parts of Efate. (Lynch, Ross & Crowley 2002: 112-113) Relationships between the languages spoken in these places have not yet been clearly established and further comparative work awaits the detailed description of individual languages in this region.
The need to document Nevwervwer is by no means unique in Vanuatu. The number of undocumented languages on Malakula is extraordinarily large for an island of such a small population. However, this particular study is unique in that will fill a linguistic gap in a large scale attempt to document geographically contiguous languages on Malakula. On completion of the analysis, the Nevwervwer data will be of use in comparative linguistic studies and will contribute to our understanding of the currently unknown linguistic history of the region. The study is also important because it has been motivated by Nevwervwer speakers themselves.
Although Lynch and Crowley describe Nevwervwer as an actively spoken language, its future is by no means secure. Considerable linguistic attrition has already been reported on Malakula. As noted above, there is evidence of at least fifteen extinct or moribund languages on Malakula and it is probable that others have been lost without any record. (Lynch and Crowley 2001: 84-89) Nevwervwer is subject to the same kind of local pressures that have led to the loss of other languages on Malakula. Continuous inward and outward migration has placed Nevwervwer speakers in a multilingual contact situation where people use Bislama, the lingua franca and Nation Language of Vanuatu, to communicate as none of the villages in which Nevwervwer is used is linguistically homogenous. The ongoing use of English and French in the formal education system also lends status to these two languages that the vernaculars do not have.Pressures on the vernaculars of Malakula in general and the almost complete lack of documentation on Nevwervwer in particular make the linguistic description of this language an urgent task.
Nevwervwer was first identified in the 1970s by Darrell Tryon as Bushman’s Bay (1972) and Lingarak (1976) after the village Lingarakh, where Nevwervwer is still spoken today. At that time, Tryon gathered a word list of around 180 items which was published in a 1976 survey under the name of Lingarak. Since then, no further linguistic research on this language has been carried out. There is no existing orthography, no collection of texts and no documentation of its phonology or its grammatical system. However, the language reportedly has bilabial trills (Crowley, personal communication). These sounds are interesting from a typological perspective because of their rarity in the world’s languages. They also represent a unique orthographic challenge which we hope will be resolved in the course of the project.
In terms of published materials on the language, there are only two known word lists. Tryon’s 1976 list mentioned above and his accompanying comparative analysis have revealed inaccuracies for a number of languages and language families. The second list was collated by non-linguist (Wheatley 1992 cited in Lynch and Crowley 2001) and consists of a brief list of tree names in a text on the flora of Vanuatu. Both of these lists are limited in scope and phonological detail. There are no existing sound or video recordings of Nevwervwer.
As Nevwervwer has not yet been recorded and analysed, one of the early tasks that will be undertaken is the analysis of its phonology and the development of an orthographic system for the language. A number of different orthographic systems are already in use in Vanuatu, developed for languages which have been studied by linguists or written for religious purposes. (Lynch, Ross & Crowley 2002: 30-31) The systems developed for the Uripiv varieties/Northeast Malakula (Lynch & Crowley 2001: 81), Nefe’ei (Musgrave 2001 Unpublished MPhil Dissertation: 33-34) and Naman (currently being studied by Crowley) will be taken as a starting point for the Nevwervwer orthography, and where possible existing conventions will be followed to make the written form accessible to the local communities.
Given that this documentation project has been initiated by the Nevwervwer-speaking community, and that the community places value on the written project outputs, it is anticipated that the researcher will be able to work closely with community members during the field trips. The project must be approved by the Vanuatu National Cultural Council, and under the conditions of the research agreement, the researcher undertakes to collaborate fully with members of the local community. As well as involving the collection of texts and elicitation of lexis and syntactic patterns, work with community members will involve a degree of literacy training and the development of pedagogic materials for this purpose.
In accordance with the Cultural Council policy, the research products will be deposited with the Cultural Centre and all recorded information will be made available to the local community on cassette tapes, along with hard copies of photographs, the dictionary and the text collection. These research products will be posted back to Vanuatu from New Zealand when the data processing, translation and editing have been completed.
To refer to any data from the corpus, please cite the corpus in this way:
Barbour, Julie. 2016. Documentation of the Neverver language, Malekula, Vanuatu.London: SOAS, Endangered Languages Archive. URL: https://elar.soas.ac.uk/Collection/MPI971105. Accessed on [insert date here].