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The languages of Northern Ambrym, Vanuatu

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Language North Ambrym, Orkon, Fanbak
Depositor Mike Franjieh
Affiliation SOAS University of London
Location Vanuatu
Collection ID 0131, 0387
Grant ID IGS0084, IPF0216
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle

Blog post

Scientific ELDP Project Highlight: The languages of northern Ambrym, Vanuatu 





Summary of the collection

This collection encompasses two Oceanic languages of Vanuatu – North Ambrym and Fanbyak. Both languages are spoken in the northern part of Ambrym Island in Central Vanuatu. They are part of the Central Vanuatu Linkage, belonging to the Southern Oceanic Linkage of Oceanic.
North Ambrym is the larger of the two languages with around 4000 – 4500 speakers in total, making it one of the larger languages of Vanuatu. Throughout its history North Ambrym has been known as Olal, Magam, Ranon (the names of three villages in the area), Rral ‘language, word, message’ and tolongken ‘our voice’. North Ambrym has two major dialects, Ngeli and Ngeye deriving form the presentational demonstratives meaning ‘this is’. Ngeli is spoken from the southermost villages of Melto, Lonoror and Ranvetlam, up around the coast through Ranon, Fonaa to Magam, and including some of the inland villages. East from Magam is Olal, the start of the Ngeye dialect, which is spoken along the coast through Parereu, Willit and around the coast to Konkon, and including some of the inland villages.

Fanbyak (originally spelt Fanbak) is one of the smaller languages of Vanuatu, with roughly 130 speakers. Fanbyak was originally spoken in the village of Fanbyak on the eastern side of northern Ambrym. Fanbyak and its surrounding villages was located between Konkon, the last village where North Ambrym is spoken, and Endu, the first village where Vatlongos is spoken in south east Ambrym. Fanbyak has also been known as Orkon, the name of another nearby village. Orkon was also different dialect, which has now been lost. Fanbyak and its surrounds are no longer inhabited and today the speech community is highly fragmented and split between Faramsu and Ranvetlam, on the south westerly part of northern Ambrym, and Konkon, on the easterly side of the north. Fanbyak is thus surrounded by speakers of North Ambrym.


Public Engagement

Different aspects of the deposited material have been promoted through various media outlets.

The verbal and visual art-form of sand drawing is discussed in the podcast at the top of this page, which appeared on SOAS radio. An interview for the ABC radio program Lingua Franca was also given on this topic and can be found here:

I gave an interview for Vanuatu’s Island Life magazine about the Christensen Fund project to promote and develop vernacular literacy at the Kindergarten and Primary level in North Ambrym. The article can be found here:


Group represented

Though two distinct languages and speech communities are represented in this deposit, their ways of life are culturally similar. The Ni-Vanuatu who live in northern Ambrym are, like in many other islands, predominantly subsistence farmers who rely mainly on the crops they grow and the animals they raise. Additional sources of income come from selling produce, wood carving, tourism and working as migrant labourers in New Zealand or Australia.

Culturally northern Ambrym’s ceremonial and ritual life revolves around yams and pigs, which are the main exchange items presented at weddings, circumcisions, funerals and other important life ceremonies. Ambrym’s location in the centre of the archipelago meant that it was part of historic trade and exchange routes with other islands. Culture was also part of this trade and northern Ambrym is well known for its mage ‘male graded society’, known as nimangki in Bislama, which was imported from Malakula Island. Similarly, the rights to participate in the secret Rom society, to join in the dance and wear the elaborate masks and costumes, were bought from West Ambrym. These imported rituals are part of the cultural milieu of northern Ambrym and are mixed in with indigenous Ambrymese practices, such as the pig-killing ritual Mol. Christianity is now part of this milieu and though the majority of the population now belong to one of the many church denominations, people still retain their animist belief systems.


Language information

Both North Ambrym and Fanbyak share typical properties of other Oceanic languages. They both have extensive person-number combinations expressing inclusive and exclusive person distinctions with singular, dual, paucal and plural number. These combinations are expressed in pronouns, preverbal subject markers, and possessor pronominal suffixes. Both languages exhibit complex serial verb constructions, object incorporation, and head-tail linkage in narrative structure.

Possessive constructions are split between direct and indirect, which roughly pattern to an inalienable-alienable semantic distinction. Direct possession is marked by possessor suffixing on the possessed noun, whereas in indirect possessive constructions the possessor suffixes attach to a possessive classifier. North Ambrym has five possessive classifiers, representing, roughly, edible items, drinkable items, items used for making fires, baskets, and a general classifier. Fanbyak has three classifiers, denoting edible, drinkable and general possessions. These classifiers are known in the Oceanic literature as relational classifiers, and in many Oceanic languages a noun can occur with different classifiers depending on which interactional quality the speaker wishes to highlight. For example, water could be used with either the drinkable classifier to denote that the water is used for a drink, or the general classifier to show that the water is used for bathing. However, in North Ambrym and Fanbyak the classifiers are more gender-like as prototypically possessed nouns are unable to occur with different classifiers which result in a much more rigid collocation between classifier and possessed noun.

Phonologically, the North Ambrym dialect Ngeli has 22 consonants, with notable distinctions between /m/ and /mw/, /f/ and /fw/, and /b/ and /bw/. The labiovelarised consonants have two allophones, the labiovelar occurs before front vowels, and a palatalised allophone occurring before back and low vowels. There is a distinction between a tap /ɾ/ and a trill /r/. The Ngeye dialect has 20 consonants and lacks palatalised nasal /nj/ and the affricate /tʃ/. There are six vowels in both dialects: /i/, /e/, /a/, /ͻ/, /o/ and /u/. Fanbyak exhibits 19 consonants and differs from North Ambrym with no affricate, palatalised nasal and tap. Fanbyak has seven vowels and distinguishes /e/ from /ɛ/ which North Ambrym doesn’t.


Special characteristics

Here is a brief overview of some of the highlights of the collection. For a more in-depth overview, please look at the different genre guides which are included as part of this deposit (these can be found under the genre section on the left hand side of the page). There is also a paper submitted to Language Documentation and Conservation journal in the academic materials genre which gives a detailed report of this deposit along with a description of the genres and sub-genres included.

There are recordings of the visual and verbal art form of Sand Drawing, a UNESCO inscribed intangible heritage of humanity, where grid-lines are drawn in the ground and geometric patterns are traced through the intersecting grid-lines to produce abstract images representing flora, fauna, geographical locations, or the actors in a story. These recordings are often accompanied by their associated traditional narratives or an explanation. Please choose the Sand Drawing topic/sub-genre to find all relevant materials.

Closely related to Sand Drawing are the recordings of another visual and oral art form – string figures. These abstract images are built up by twisting string around different fingers, similar to the cat’s cradle game, and also represent aspects of flora, fauna and the actors in traditional narratives. Please choose the string figure topic/sub-genre to find the relevant recordings.

There are many recording of traditional instruments, music, song and dance. There are recordings of endangered musical instruments, such as the slit-drum, bamboo flute and the strike-bow, and of more contemporary stringband music (have a look at the music DVD produced as part of community outreach). Of particular interest are the recordings from the cultural festival held in Nobyul village in 2011. These recordings are accompanied by audio commentary by the main cultural consultant on the North Ambrym documentation project, Saksak Batōkon. Please search using the key-word festival to find all these materials as they cross-cut different sub-genres/topics.

For linguists, of particular interest are the raw data for the research into possessive classifiers. Several experiments were conducted with different participants to discover whether the same noun can occur with different possessive classifiers by varying the interactional context. The resulting data is the basis for several research publications which can be found by selecting the academic materials genre. Additionally there are numerous elicitation session on different grammatical topics such as nominalisation, serial verbs, object incorporation, the construct suffix, and tense mood and aspect, to name just a few. For an overview of the grammar of North Ambrym take a look at the grammar sketch which was part of the PhD thesis found the academic materials genre.

For ethnozoologists and botanists there is a large collection of pictures of different species of mammals, birds, fish, shellfish, reptiles, plants and trees. The pictures contain reference documents listing the names of the different species in the vernacular languages, English and Latin.


Collection contents

Currently there are over 20 hours of video and 50 hours of audio recording for the North Ambrym language. For the Fanbyak language there are over five hours of video and 22 hours of audio recordings.

The deposit is split up into genre and sub-genre (topic in the ELAR menu).

Genre Sub-Genre / Topic
narrative traditional narrative, personal narrative, sand drawing, string figure, oratory, report, exposition, narrative stimuli
dialogue sociolinguistic survey, language use survey, meeting, discussion
music instrument, song, stringband
observational filming traditional ceremony, traditional work
elicitation possessive classifier, wordlist, grammatical structure, paradigm, elicitation stimuli, species identification
literacy materials no sub-genre
academic materials no sub-genre
legacy materials no sub-genre
field notebooks no sub-genre
genre guides no sub-genre

For more information about the different genres and sub-genres please read the genre guides (located in the genre section). A paper has been submitted to Language Documentation and Conservation journal which gives a fuller overview of this deposit. This will be added to the academic materials once published.


Collection history

This collection is a combination of five different research and projects. The initial project was an ELDP funded PhD entitled ‘a documentation of North Ambrym, a language of Vanuatu’ (IGS: 0084). This project ran from 2009-2012 and resulted in the majority of the North Ambrym language materials.

The second project was a vernacular literacy project enabled by a grant from the Christensen Fund. This project resulted in the implementation of a vernacular literacy component for kindergarten and primary schools in northern Ambrym. Teachers from eight primary schools and nine kindergartens were trained to read and write in the North Ambrym language and aided in creating a vernacular language component for use in their schools. In total 12000 copies of forty vernacular literacy books were made, along with 120 copies of a tri-lingual dictionary in North Ambrym, English and Bislama containing over 2900 head words. These materials can be found by selecting the literacy materials genre.

The third project was an ELDP funded post doctoral research grant entitled ‘a documentation of Fanbyak, a language of Vanuatu’ (IPF: 0216). This project resulted in the majority of materials for Fanbyak, including extensive research into vowel harmony and low vowel dissimilation between the verb and its preverbal subject indexing particles, and into serial verb constructions and object incorporation.

The fourth project was a collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Training in Vanuatu. As part of the Vanuatu Education Sector Program I co-ordinated literacy development workshops with speakers of six languages from Ambrym and Paama for the translation of the first year of primary school. The workshop for the materials for the second and third years of primary school were co-ordinated by Eleanor Ridge. The resulting vernacular literacy materials for North Ambrym are included in this deposit in the literacy materials genre.

The final collection of materials was collected as part of the MelaTAMP project, lead by Manfred Krifka and Kilu Von Prince from ZAS, Berlin. The data collected for this project are translations of different storyboards that investigated different areas of the tense, mood, aspect and polarity systems of North Ambrym and Fanbyak. These materials can be found by selecting the narrative stimuli topic/sub-genre.

The decision to merge the two language deposits was due to the shared cultural heritage of the two speech communities. Fanbyak speakers are all at least bi-lingual with North Ambrym being part of their speech repertoire, though the same is not true of the North Ambrym speakers, only those who live in close proximity can understand a little Fanbyak. There are many examples in this deposit of the same traditional narrative being told in both North Ambrym and Fanbyak. There are also many examples of code switching into North Ambrym from Fanbyak and of translanguaging between the two languages during traditional ceremonies that are held between the speech communities.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Franjieh, Michael. 2018. The languages of northern Ambrym, Vanuatu: an archive of linguistic and cultural material from the North Ambrym and Fanbyak languages. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

I wish to thank the people of northern Ambrym for allowing me to work on their languages. In particular I wish to thank Isaiah Bong, Ephraim Harry and George Andrew from Ranvetlam village, and David Taso from Faramsu village for their many patient hours of help in translating, transcribing and editing the North Ambrym language. I also wish to thank Saksak Batōkon from Fansar village for sharing his extensive cultural knowledge of North Ambrym. I wish to thank Saksak Joel from Faramsu village, and Alice Toka, Elsie Taso, and Willie Tangou from Ranvetlam village for their hard work on the Fanbyak language. Finally, a big thank you to all those people who told me stories and assisted the project in countless other ways.

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