Foundation for Endangered Languages
5. Fieldwork Reports Report from Mark Donohue: The languages of Wasur: archivists and activists
Time and resources May and June 1998 saw my return to the Merauke area, in South-east Irian Jaya, Indonesia, in order to conduct work with speakers of the endangered languages in the area in accord with the funding provided by the Foundation for Endangered Languages and the Endangered Languages Fund. Our aim was to conduct literacy work with the Yei and Moraori communities and to assemble additional grammatical survey work.
There are four ethnolinguistic groups indigenous to the area, the Yei, Kanum, and Morori (earlier spelt Moraori). A fourth group, the Marind, was initially excluded because they have a large population base (minimally 8,000), and had already established an internationally-funded self-help organisation, with a base in Merauke and funding from The Netherlands. Recent changes in 1997 (detailed below) have forced a change in this original decision.
While in Merauke and surrounding districts we conducted a series of workshops to produce basic orthographies that were acceptable to the communities, with the aim of having standardised literacy materials; as a result of this investigation we have now got
• more extensive lexical documentation,
Each of these points shall now be discussed in turn.
In addition to the preliminary production of these general picture dictionaries, initiatives have been started to collect lists and definitions of subject-matter specific lexical groups, with the aim of producing Department of Education approved booklets on this in the next few years. Topics that have been proposed include birds (which can draw on the many good ornithological studies in the New Guinea area as a source of illustrations), housing construction, and agriculture. This has only been made possible as a result of the developmental work that has been carried out, in full and continuous community consultation, to produce workable orthographies. While it is most likely that there will be some orthographic revision in the following years, importantly this is now a community issue, and is being discussed at a broad community level.
For ongoing work the purchase of several tape players, batteries and blank tapes, with instructions for use and practical demonstration, will hopefully lead to a collection of stories and folk tales being gathered in the continuing future.
Materials in Morori and Yei have been extended, in the fields of phonology, morphology and basic morphosyntax, and will presently find their way into the wider linguistic community, with some interesting results in the fields of lexical transitivity in Yei, and pronominal agreement marking in Morori.
The continuing work shows that the hypothesis that the Kanum languages and Yei are possibly related to the Pama-Nyungan family in Australia is at least tenable, and awaits further development sin both the investigation of Australian linguistic prehistory, and ongoing work in the linguistic relations in the New Guinea area.
Moraori is all but confirmed as a linguistic isolate, having survived for an unknowable period of time with large neighbours on all sides, yet maintained its linguistic uniqueness. The grammar is proving challenging.
Modern South Arabian Languages: an overview by Anda Hofstede
Dr Hofstede writes: At the conference in Edinburgh (25-27 September), I gave a paper on the position of the Modern South Arabian languages. Due to time constraints, this paper was very short and many things had to be left out. In this article, to which I had committed myself already before the conference, some comments from participants at the conference have been included.
(The editor regrets that diacritics used in the names of the languages could not be reproduced. A fuller version of this work is available from Dr Hofstede.)
The Modern South Arabian languages are spoken in the south of Oman (Dhofar) and the southeast of Yemen. The name is slightly misleading as they are not dialects of Arabic. The languages are grouped together with the Semitic languages of Ethiopia and the Sayhadic languages (also called Epigraphic South Arabian or Old South Arabian languages) in the South Semitic branch. To the MSA languages belong Mehri, Socotri, Jibbali, Bathari, Harsusi and Hobyot. The extent to which research has been carried out, varies from language to language. Around l900 many stories and some poems in Mehri (Southern dialect group), Jibbali and Socotri were collected and published (Jahn 1902, Müller 1902, 1905, 1907). Recently, extensive research has been carried out on Socotri and Mehri, and to a lesser extent on Jibbali and Harsusi.
In this article, I will give first an overview of the languages, the estimated number of speakers and the traditional occupations of the speakers. Then a discussion of possible writing systems and the influence of Arabic on the languages follows. Finally, some remarks concerning the attitude from the governments to the MSA languages, and the necessity of research on the languauges will be made. The references follow at the end of the article.
Overview of the languages
Depending on where the speakers live, the traditional occupation is breeding camels, cows and goats, or cultivating palm trees. In villages alongside the sea, it is fishing. Of course, speakers are now also working in governmental offices, the university and private companies.
The system in which the Arabic alphabet is used, has two variants.
· In the other variant, a modified Arabic alphabet is used. Dots are added to or omitted from an original Arabic letter. The system for vowels is the same as in the first variant. (One example of this kind of system is given in Simeone-Senelle and Lonnet 1986:265.) Attempts to create such a system have come from native speakers and non-native speakers. Even in this modified system it is sometimes not possible to have a one-one representation. (For example, it does not provide a letter for the Central Jibbali phoneme s.) Two other problems: the system is not standardized; and it is not always understood by outsiders.
At present, only the first, unmodified, system is used in publications and other writings.
The second system, the modified Latin script, is the result of the mixture of modified Latin letters and IPA. There are some differences between languages/dialects with regard to occurring vowels and consonants. Eight colours of short vowel are distinguished. Special graphs are used to mark labialized and lateral variants of dental obstruents, and diacritics for ejective and fricative consonants, as well as for nasalized, long and accented vowels. This system is now standardized. But, depending on the purpose of an article, one can decide to use a more phonetic script, i.e. closer to IPA, or a more phonological script, i.e. one closer to the Latin script.
The choice between the Arabic and the modified Latin alphabet depends on the circumstances. The (unmodified) Arabic alphabet is used by the native speakers, and in publications written in Arabic. The modified Latin alphabet is used in publications which are not written in Arabic.
There is some awareness among the population that something has to be done in order to preserve their languages and their cultures. In Oman, only the preservation of the culture is actively supported by the government. There is a special Ministry of National Heritage and Culture with a department and a museum in Salalah. There does not exist a specific governmental programme to preserve the languages. But there is no objection to linguistic research. There are a few Omani students, speakers of Jibbali, who are presently carrying out research on their language or intend to do so. However, up to now most research projects have been carried out by European researchers.
The government of Yemen allows research on the languages and culture. I do not know to what extent they give active support.
The second reason is rather academic. Compared with research on other Semitic languages and related topics, only very little research has been carried out on these languages. Further research will contribute to a better understanding of the relation between the South Semitic languages. At the same time, one can observe how the languages are changing under the influence of Arabic.
In this article, I have given an overview of the language situation of the MSA languages which are spoken in Yemen and Oman. Readers who are interested in linguistic aspects of these languages are referred to two articles which give an outline of the various languages (Johnstone 1975 and Simeone-Senelle 1997). I will also be pleased to give further information.