Life changing encounters on a tiny Pacific island
Magic may just be about connecting the dots…
What else but magic would have transported me from suburban Brussels to a tiny desert island in remote Papua New Guinea, presented me with the chance to host an Australian top linguist, and through him, find and follow the path of documenting a non-European language?
It started on a desert island off the north coast of PNG in 1992, but of course it started long before that…
It started when I met an adventurer in Brussels. And I met him through a primary school friend.
And I met that one because I had to change school. Mine didn’t accept boys, and my parents wanted my brother and myself to be in the same school.
So, I moved school when I was grade 6 and came to sit next to Michel, still a good friend 48 years later, who met his lovely Canadian wife on THAT same tiny island in remote PNG, somewhere halfway between Brussels and Calgary. But that is another serendipitous encounter story…
I remained in touch with Michel throughout high school and then uni. He went towards sciences. I went towards languages. Germanic languages. But that one teacher, that old professor, had asked us, at the beginning of the school year what languages we spoke, adding “I mean, not Indo-European languages, of course…”.
And it was from that moment on that I wished to meet and maybe tame one of these extraordinary creatures: a non-Indo-European language…
Time went on. Through Michel, I met my partner, the Adventurer.
And with the Adventurer, I went to Papua New Guinea. The University of Brussels had a tiny, basic marine biology research station there---the initiative of yet another amazing old professor, who envisioned to do marine biology research where nobody had done it before...
I arrived for the first time in PNG in June 1986, and fell in love on the spot, a thunderbolt the moment I stepped off the plane. That love grew stronger and more distinct with every minute, week, month, year, decade, decades I spent there, and with every experience, adventure, exploration, encounter, sight, view, feeling, as time passed.
I had years of life on a desert coral island, with corals at the doorstep, hikes on the mainland through all landscapes, dives on wrecks and reefs, paddling up and down rivers, walks through villages and through gardens and through settlements. And throughout, encounters with people, trees, fishes, more people, birds, funny animals, amazing people, gorgeous people, human people, funny people, more trees, flowers, rivers and creeks, more people. And most of these people were speaking non-Indo-European languages. They taught me the first one, Melanesian Tokpisin---Austronesian-based, which still today I vigorously defend as NOT being “broken English” (as mono-lingual English-speaking expats would like to have it).
From daily contact with my neighbors, I learned a bit about their local languages---over 700 of them in PNG. The Awar language, I learned later, is spoken by just over 1000 people, in three distinct villages along Hansa Bay, 30 km North of Bogia along the coast, 250 km North of Madang. I set myself to learn it. Funny, even though I had heard about linguists and about Bible translators---numerous in this linguistic paradise---I never thought about their correlation to my dream.
After two years of my blissfully floating on the island but failing to grasp the proximity of my dream, the Universe saw that a drastic move was required to shake me out my obtuseness. The Professor landed on Laing Island from a little banana boat, politely asking if he and his friends could come and spend a week with us to recover from demanding fieldwork on the mainland; and at the same time do some comparative investigation---he had been working on Watam, the language related to Awar, at the mouth of the Sepik.
I turned him away! I was rude! I told him that we were just coming out of a demanding time with demanding scientists ourselves, needed space, needed time on our own, and would he please accept no for an answer, and a maybe in one week’s time?
He and they came back one week later. So nice and pleasant and happy with the basic comfort and helpful and easy to get along with.
And that first evening over dinner, he explained what his job and mission and hobby and passion was: languages.
And, as it happened, non-Indo-European languages. He was describing them and putting them into writing. That was what he was doing. As his main pastime.
And I had thought I knew a lot about our area, because I had opened my ears and eyes. Well, as I was listening to him, then my ears REALLY popped open.
I could not sleep that night. Not an instant. I spent the night looking at the ceiling and my brain making bubbles over what I had heard. I wanted to do that. Just that. That is exactly what I wanted to do. But, of course, The Professor would laugh at me and my dream. Who was I? Who did I think I was to tackle such an immense dream? And I was going back to Belgium the following month anyway, and had no idea when I would come back to Awar.
At dawn, I got up, and went for my customary morning walk around the island. Sunrise over the distant volcano, the moods of the sea and the waves, the daily wonder of the beach and the new treasures deposited overnight by the tide---I had bowls full of beach combing treasures.
That day I found a sign. I was looking for one, and when you look, you usually find one. My sign was a piece of coral that had the shape of the Hebrew letter shin, the sign for God. So obviously it was a sign that I could summon the courage to ask The Professor what he thought about my views on work on the Awar language – and to weather his laughter if needed.
He did not laugh. He told me that, if I didn’t do it, nobody would, because that language was already dying out – children understand the parents talking to them in Awar, but answer in Tokpisin. Later as adults, they wouldn’t know how to pass on the Awar language to their children.
But, The Professor continued, I needed to take some uni courses in linguistics to know how to do it, of course.
Madang market [image by E. Papoutsaki]
Back in Brussels, I contacted the University. I spoke to the department of African linguistics---no Pacific linguistics in Belgium, but African languages as languages of oral tradition. I met Madame G, head of department, and told her my story: describe a language spoken by 1000 people, 17000km away.
She didn’t laugh either. She told me that this was exactly her story: she went to Africa as a French teacher and fell in love with local languages.
So I took the courses in African linguistics---languages of oral tradition, like Awar; went back and forth between Brussels and Awar, working at snail’s pace, discovering a brand new world where nobody had ventured before me.
I discovered that Awar has a singular and a plural, and a dual---like in Hebrew and Arabic. I discovered that not everybody sees colors the same way. Actually, quite a number of languages see only black and white and red. Awar sees black and white and red, and also yellow. And Awar sees blue. But when Awar sees green, it really sees “blue-like-a-tree-leaf”.
I learned that Awar can’t compare. In Awar, I cannot say that I am better than you, or that my house is bigger than yours. I just can’t say it. Nobody speaking Awar can say that they are better or bigger.
In Awar you can “fight” but you cannot “lose” nor “win” a battle. Traditionally fights didn’t end up with winners nor losers. Fighting was part of a cyclical pattern: stop fighting, make up, enjoy exchanges, bicker, fight again…
But because languages need to contain the ways for their speakers to reflect their environment, they need to evolve and change all the time. So the Awars needed neologisms for new objects and concepts. “Car” is now ragam, the word for “pig” because of the four legs; and “rice” is paorogut, the “seed of stone.”
In the same way, the Awar people thought about a way to translate the concept of “winning” – as in winning a fight, a race, an election. How to express that with the words available in their language? They thought about the Tokpisin word for the English “win”, - which is “win”, and found that it was the same as the word for “wind”, which exists in Awar: mbombeng.
So by using the word for “wind”, they create a new expression, mbombeng mongre, to make wind, and agreed that this expression would, from now on, also mean “to win”. Simple and efficient, and a new concept was introduced inside the Awar language.
These were easy ones, as I knew these concepts from Indo-European languages, and only had to recognize them in Awar. But what about the five verbs Awar uses to express one English “to go”---or one French aller, or one German gehen- (all these Indo-European languages, note). In Awar, to express “to go”, you have a choice between gehre, rikre, djehre, mbehre and sangre. Actually, you don’t have a choice, their use is completely regimented.
It took me months to understand how they were used. I could sense there was a system, as my informants were all very clear and in agreement as to which one of the five verbs I would use to “go to the garden”, “go home”, “go to the beach, “go to the village”. But I only guessed, and mostly wrongly… Hours with informants, dozens of examples, frustration and headaches…
[image by author]
A paper written 120 years earlier by a German missionary gave me the clue: face the sea! Awar speakers orient themselves facing the sea, looking towards the sea, turning their back on the gardens beyond the village, and looking left and right when walking along the beach.
The three Awar speaking villages are scattered alongside the bay along a roughly West-East line. When you “go” from one village to the other following that direction, you will mbehre leaving your house, and djehre coming back to it.
If you decide to paddle to the island offshore or to Manam volcano towards the North, or walk towards the gardens, or the Sepik river, along a North-South axis, you will gehre (towards the North), and rikre (towards the South). And to go anywhere else outside this Awar territory, you will sangre – roughly the equivalent of “going in unknown country”.
Exploring a language is a Pandora box… There is always more to be discovered. For instance, I found that Awar speakers settled in Madang town would initially use sangre more frequently to describe their movements about the town. But as they grew more familiar with this new territory, they would start using the five verbs again, according to the same logic – following the seashore, or moving from it towards the sea or towards inland.
And so much more. And so much is still to be uncovered. Just in that one language. And so many languages are left to be documented.
In parallel to realizing a dream conceived from one little question by an old language professor in Brussels, exploring Awar has kept opening new doors to me, the thesis easing access to diverse work, as a lecturer, as a researcher, as a teacher; convening the PNG Linguistic Society; becoming familiar with ways to look at my surroundings that were so new that they helped me revisit the ones created by the words and concepts of my mother tongue; becoming aware of knowledge, ways of seeing the world, social structures; immensely appreciating diversity and the human ingenuity that has found thousands of ways to agree on words to describe principles that make a community function; and promoting more serendipitous encounters.
Enough to fill in a book.
Astrolabe Bay, Madang [image by E.Papoutsaki]