Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Language Variation: A Case Study of the Island of Tanna, Vanuatu

Language Variation: A Case Study of the Island of Tanna, Vanuatu

Brandon Davis

Vanuatu is an island chain nation that is located east of Australia. In modern context Vanuatu is part of Melanesia, one of three groupings, along with Polynesia and Micronesia, in which all the Southern Pacific islands falls into. Approximately 80 small islands encompass the inhabited area of the archipelago. This is why Vanuatu is a fragmented place. The people of the islands existed in a state of practical isolation until the Europeans arrived in the 18th century. The French and English colonized the islands, dividing the archipelago in half, and creating a joint control of the government administration. This period of colonial rule infused European influence into the pre-existing culture of the people of Vanuatu. You can observe this clearly on the Southern Vanuatu island of Tanna.

Tanna is unique among the islands of Vanuatu. It is home to a group of languages known in Western terminology as Southern Vanuatu, or Tanna, languages. The people of Tanna have distinct cultural differences that separate them from the other islands of Vanuatu, and in fact create divisions between one another. Tanna is home to several “cargo cults” which have recently become famous for their reverence of what they perceive as Western culture. When considering this one would think that language variation would be common as well. This is not the case however.

On Tanna there are 5 different native languages that are spoken: Kwa’mera, Lenekal, Whitesands, Northern Tanna, and South Western Tanna. These languages provide specific cultural identity as well as create regional boundaries. Surprisingly there is practically no direct contact variation that has occurred within the languages of Tanna. That is not to say that they have not been indirectly affected though.

Bislama is a creole language which was developed over the period in which Vanuatu was a European colony. Bislama was created out of the need for communication, not only between natives and Europeans, but also between natives of different islands. Bislama combines a regional form of Melanesian grammar with a largely English and French lexicon of words. The creation of Bislama is probably the greatest cultural innovation that the people of Vanuatu have ever made. This opened the doors for trans-island cooperation, and when the islands were granted independence Bislama became the one of the bases upon which a sense of unity and nationalism could grow.

Today the people of Tanna will interject Bislama into their everyday speech. The use of Bislama is particularly common when participating in formal dealings, especially with people of other islands, or to qualify a point or example. Bislama use is more common in some areas of Tanna than it is in others. It also is rarely used in communication between parties of the same tribal entity. Regardless we can still look to Bislama for the answer to the question of what post-colonial language variation has occurred on Tanna.

Tanna is a place that in modern times has come to be known for cultural assimilation. Given this it is surprising to see how little direct contact-variation there has been within the native languages. Although Bislama is heavily European influenced it is a cultural innovation that can be wholly credited to the native people. Therefore where we see language variation it is really a result of domestic cultural innovation. Regardless, it is through the use of Bislama that we see contact-variation of language among the people of Tanna.


April 23, 2010 - Posted by | abstract

1 Comment »

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by blogs of the world. blogs of the world said: Given this it is surprising to see how little direct contact-variation there has been with… #variation […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Language Variation: A Case Study of the Island of Tanna, Vanuatu « Language and Societies -- | April 26, 2010 | Reply

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