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A deeper look at the languages of Vanuatu

4 November 2011

A deeper look at the languages of Vanuatu

University of Waikato linguistics lecturer Dr Julie Barbour has received a $345,000 Marsden Grant to complete the world’s first large-scale comparative study of “mood systems” in the Vanuatu languages.

For her PhD Dr Barbour examined the Neverver language, recording and documenting its grammatical system. Her new research extends her PhD by looking at one specific element of that grammatical system – mood marking – and compares Neverver with other Vanuatu languages.

More than 100 different languages are spoken in Vanuatu, many of which have never been written or described.

“In English we use tense, we must describe events as happening in the past, present or future. In these languages they seem to describe events on the basis of whether those events are real or unreal,” says Dr Barbour.

“When I was studying Neverver, one of the things I noticed was the mood system was completely different to the system we use in English.”

The study will be a world first inter-island study of the functions of “grammatical mood” in Vanuatu’s languages. Dr Barbour’s research is a continuation of the work of her PhD supervisor Professor Terry Crowley, who dedicated years to recording and documenting the many Vanuatu languages but recently passed away.

“I’m so thrilled to be doing my own project as a way to continue the work he started. The area of grammar that I am looking at is known to be interesting because of its differences, but with so many unknown languages in Vanuatu, there has been a lot of other more basic work for linguists to focus on. This very detailed study will be the first.

“What I’m trying to do is understand how these languages work inside their own systems and not simply translate them into English.”

The Marsden Fund is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the Marsden Fund Council, and funded by the New Zealand Government. It supports projects in the sciences, technology, engineering and maths, social sciences and the humanities.

The University of Waikato won four Marsden Research grants.


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