Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft Leibniz-Gemeinschaft

Telling a 'nabol': Interpreting the production of proper names in Nisvai narratives, Vanuatu

Vortragende(r) Jocelyn Aznar
Institution(en) ZAS
Workshop/Tagung Lecture Series "Language: Documentation and Theory (ELAR / ZAS)"
Datum 22.04.2022
Uhrzeit 16:00 Uhr
Ort Online
Link to the Vimeo video of the talk

Language: Documentation and Theory

The Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR) at the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften (BBAW) together with the Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS) are delighted to announce the launch of a new lecture series. Our aim is to give a forum to linguistic work that advances or is based on the documentation of underdescribed languages, thus not only supporting linguistic research but also honoring the UNESCO International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032). For inquiries, please contact Mandana Seyfeddinipur (ELAR) director@eldp.net or Manfred Krifka (ZAS), krifka@leibniz-zas.de.

Due to Corona measures, participation in the lecture room of ZAS is restricted (please inform Manfred Krifka if you want to join). Participation is possible via Zoom (Meeting-ID 636 0651 0838, Meeting Link https://hu-berlin.zoom.us/j/63606150838). 


When Nisvai speakers tell a nabol, a narrative, they relate events that either they have heard from an elder, from a spirit or that they have themselves witnessed. Fiction per se is not acknowledged as a legitimate practice as speakers are not supposed to invent narratives.

The Nisvai speech community, of about 200 native speakers, is distributed among five small villages in the South-East of Malekula, Vanuatu. Before this research (2020), the language had only been the object of a lexical survey by Charpentier (1984). Nisvai is the first language of the members of the community, but speakers are multilingual and learn Bislama [1] at a young age; and usually learn another one or two other neighboring languages (such as the language of Burmbar, burm1263, or Nasvan, nasv1234). The documentation of Nisvai began thanks to a local elder, Dale Gelu, director of the Kamai school, who wanted his language to be taught at school. During one of my fieldwork trips, we agreed that the documentation project would focus on narrative practices, as we supposed they would provide a good start for producing language resources that could be used as teaching material. Working on a versatile documentation of Nisvai narrative practices (Aznar 2020) - that is a documentation both useful for doing my research as well as fulfilling the demands of the local elders - I realized that the European categories of myths, legends or tales (Bascom 1965) are not relevant for interpreting the nabol, the Nisvai narratives. This presentation contributes to one of Aufray's observation on oral literatures in Oceania (2012; 2015), that truth, the main criteria to distinguish myths, legends and tales, is not relevant for the speech genres in Oceania.

To develop a model for interpretating the nabol, I use the concept of "regimen of truth" (Foucault, 2012). The concept proposes that members of a given community perform and evaluate the truth of a discourse according to their own criteria. Relying on notes made during annotation interviews (Telban 1997), participant observation, and an analysis of the corpus of narratives, I elaborate a way to interpret the production of nahsyn: "proper nouns" during a nabol by Nisvai speakers. This model takes into considerations the age class of speakers, [2] and explain why nahre : "children" don't use nahsyn ; nren : "adults" use only names of persons and only hevuh : "elders" speak the names of places and persons during their narratives.

The presentation will start by providing some background information about the Nisvai community. I will then describe the methodology and the corpus produced. I will also introduce the social roles of proper names and age class. This step is important in order to be able to understand my proposition for interpreting the occurrences of nahsyn during a nabol and their variations according to the age class of the speaker. I will conclude with a discussion on the consequences of Nisvai speakers' perceptions of their narratives for a documentation project, in particular regarding anonymization, ownership and text typology.

If you have the opportunity before the presentation, you can hear and read a text in Bislama, told by Filip, a Nisvai speaker, as a piece of news. Interestingly, he could not remember whether he heard it first at the church or on radio: http://jocelynaznar.eu/lexique_nisvai/form_visualisation.php?histoire=T50. I heard this text for the first time while waiting for the result of a chemical experiment on the quality of salt by members of the NGO Save the Children. After the meeting, I asked Filip to repeat it so I could record it. The narrative exemplifies the phenomenon at that I describe in this presentation, and also shows that it applies not only to narratives told in Nisvai, but more generally to narratives told by Nisvai speakers.

[1] Bislama is an English-based creole, one of the national language of Vanuatu and its lingua franca.

[2] See Bernardi (1985) for a general discussion about age class system, and Allen (1984) for Melanesia in particular.


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  • ———. 2015. Les littératures océaniennes: communiquer, parler, raconter : le rat et le poulpe. Vol. 2. Nouméa; Paris: Académie des langues kanak ; Langues o’ (Inalco).
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