Living and dying with language

Jun 7, 2005

An excellent article in the New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert, “Last Words” (issue of June 6, 2005, not online), is about the last speakers of Eyak, a language in Alaska. She quotes linguist Michael Krauss, who studied Eyak, on what makes a language unique:

“Each language is a unique repository of facts and knowledge about the world that we can ill afford to lose, or, at the least, facts and knowledge about some history and people that have their place in the understanding of mankind. Every language is a treasury of human experience.”

That got me to thinking about Paamese, the language spoken on the island of Paama, where Erin and I were Peace Corps Volunteers. We learned only a few words of Paamese—more visocon means good morning, more tavie good afternoon and more vongien good night—and instead used the lingua franca of Vanuatu, bislama.

I regret not learning to speak Paamese. A few times during our service, I’d sit with Chief Louis and he’d teach me to count in Paamese, or to say thank you or ask “where are you going.” If I could do it again, I’d have had him teach me every day so that I could proudly say I was one of only 3000 people to speak that language.

On our final day on Paama, as we waited for the plane to arrive to take us to the capital, I coaxed Chief Louis to sit with me and sing a few custom stories in Paama. Kids swarmed us and sat enraptured, and when Louis was done, they walked off softly practicing the songs. That was my proudest Peace Corps moment, my small contribution to protecting the language and traditions of this small South Pacific island.

Listen to Louis singing a custom song. It’s not the greatest of recordings—you’ll have to crank the volume to 11—but if you listen closely, you can hear Lopevi Volcano rumbling in the background.

A more learned man made a bigger contribution. Terry Crowley, a linguist from New Zealand, spent years learning Paamese and writing a dictionary for that language. In researching him tonight, I learned that he passed away in January, a true loss to linguistics and the peoples of Vanuatu.

Just before I left Paama, I made photocopies of a few of Crowley’s Paamese works, which include custom stories in the original Paamese and the English translations. See Oral History: Stories From Paama and Tunuen Telamun Tenout Voum.

Anton Zuiker

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