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Documentation and description of Koro, an Oceanic language of Papua New Guinea

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Language Koro
Depositor Jessica Cleary-Kemp
Affiliation University of California, Berkeley
Location Papua New Guinea
Collection ID 0190
Grant ID IGS0124
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

This is a collection of texts from Koro, an Oceanic language spoken in Manus Province, Papua New Guinea. Koro has two dialects, spoken in Papitalai and Lopohan villages, respectively. The materials in this collection were collected by Jessica Cleary-Kemp during four field trips, totaling approximately seven months. The majority of the fieldwork was conducted in Papitalai village, on the small island of Los Negros, but some texts were also collected in the villages of Riu Riu and Lopohan, at residences at Chopon and Camp 5, and in the garden and bush at Lohamon, near Papitalai.

The documentation aims to cover a wide variety of subject matter and discourse types: while the majority of recorded texts are traditional and personal narratives, the collection also includes songs, rhymes, conversations, instructional texts, descriptions, and games. Many of the elicitation sessions focus on the grammatical and semantic properties of serial verb constructions (SVCs), which are the topic of the researcher’s dissertation. The methodology for data collection and analysis involved a mixture of participant observation, recording and analysis of narratives and conversations, use of elicitation stimuli, and targeted grammatical elicitation. The audio and video recordings included here are in various states of analysis. The work of transcribing, translating, glossing, and analyzing the corpus is ongoing, but many of the included texts do have time-aligned transcriptions and full interlinear glosses associated with them.

The majority of stories in this collection were told by John Kris Hinduwan Lopwar, an approximately 80 year old man from Papitalai village. John Kris has sadly since passed away, but during the researcher’s field trips he worked tirelessly to record as many traditional stories, personal narratives, and instructional texts as possible. His first language was Koro, but he began learning Tok Pisin in very early childhood, and was fully bilingual. The majority of elicitation was done with three younger speakers — Mary Clara Hinduwan (John Kris’s daughter, who was also present during most of his recording sessions), Margaret Nausai Pohu, and Rosemary Nayap Paura (JohnKris’s niece, who also tragically passed away). Texts were transcribed and translated into English by Sylvia Hilondelis Pokisel, who is not a native speaker of Koro, but has good passive fluency.


Group represented

Speakers of Koro are located on Manus, an island province off the far north coast of the Papua New Guinea mainland. Koro is an Austronesian language; its speakers are descended from sea voyagers who arrived in Melanesia several thousand years ago, ultimately having originated from Taiwan. Although the mainland of Papua New Guinea was already inhabited by Papuan peoples at that time, there is no evidence of prior habitation of Manus island itself. Given its relative proximity to Japan, Manus was strategically important in World War II, and this has significantly impacted the lives of Manusians. Both Japanese and Allied troops were stationed there throughout the war, building roads, airports, power lines, and other infrastructure, and employing villagers as guides, translators, etc. As a result, Manus is relatively well-developed compared to other remote areas of Papua New Guinea. The village of Papitalai houses a large high school, which has students from across the province. Many Manusians are highly educated, and widely traveled, and a significant number hold jobs in the national capital of Port Moresby, or in nearby Australia. As in most of Papua New Guinea, there has been ongoing missionary work on Manus. Most Manusians follow either Catholic or LDS faiths, and there is a church building in most villages. Nonetheless, traditional beliefs persist alongside those of western religion. In Papitalai there are several traditional clans, including the Tewi, to which John Kris and his family belong. According to lore, the Tewi clan is descended from two sisters, Hinimei and Hinipong, who transformed into fish and were caught by a fisherman, who then married one of the sisters.


Language information

Koro (ISO639-3:kxr) is a previously undocumented Oceanic language spoken by several hundred people on Manus and Los Negros islands in Manus Province, Papua New Guinea. The village of Papitalai, where the majority of the data in this collection were collected, is located on small Los Negros Island, which is connected to the larger Manus Island by a short man-made bridge. There are two dialects of the Koro language — Papitalai and Lopohan. (These have hitherto been identified as two separate languages – referred to as Papitalai and Koro – but the data collected during this project show that they are in fact dialects of a single language.) The Papitalai dialect is spoken by approximately 480 people in an area that used to be known as Teng. This area includes the modern-day village of Papitalai, as well as the villages of Naringel and Riu Riu, located across the tiny bay. Most of this collection represents the Papitalai dialect of Koro, but a small number of recordings were also made in the village of Lopohan.

The Koro language is a member of the Admiralties family, a primary subgroup of the vast Oceanic branch of the Austronesian family. The integrity of the Oceanic subgroup is well-established and a great amount is known about the phonology, grammar and lexicon of proto-Oceanic (POc). Establishing subgroups within the Oceanic family has, in contrast, proven challenging. The uncertainty still surrounding the internal subgrouping of Oceanic, and in particular, questions about the placement of the Admiralties branch, makes detailed descriptions of Admiralties languages particularly important. Admiralities languages are spoken on the main island of Manus and its offshore islands. There are approximately 30 languages within the Admiralties group, but their internal subgrouping is not currently well-understood. According to the most recent analysis (Lynch et al. 2002:878–9), Koro is most closely related to the languages of Lele, Nali, and Titan, with which it forms a lower-level subgroup within the East Manus linkage.

In terms of grammatical typology, Koro is a fairly typical Oceanic language, exhibiting many of the characteristic morpho-syntactic patterns found in the Oceanic family. It is mostly isolating, with just a small number of bound inflectional and derivational morphemes. Despite the small number of inflectional affixes, the language can be identified as head-marking — where a relationship between a head and its dependent is morphologically indicated, the marking occurs on the head. The unmarked order of constituents in verbal clauses is SVO, and order in other constituents also tends to follow a head-initial pattern (noun–adjective, noun–relative clause, possessum–possessor, preposition–prepositional object). Argument alignment in Koro is nominative–accusative, but there is no case marking of core argument NPs except for a few personal pronouns. Other notable typological features of the language include an inclusive-exclusive distinction in pronouns, use of numeral classifiers, alienable vs inalienable possession, and a bilabial trill phoneme.

Given the small number of speakers, and the pressure from more widely spoken languages, Koro can be considered highly endangered. Although some children are still acquiring the language alongside Tok Pisin, almost all are more fluent in the latter, and Tok Pisin is the dominant language for most adults as well. English is also taught from elementary school onwards.


Special characteristics

In order to gather a wide range of narratives, conversations, lexical items, and grammatical constructions, several stimuli kits were used in elicitation. These are listed with full citations in the file entitled “Stimuli information.” They include: Mercer Mayer’s wordless picture book Frog Story; Vuillermet’s Hunting Story (intended to elicit associated motion morphemes); san Roque et al’s Family Problems picture sequencing task; a series of videos produced by the Max Planck Institute (MPI) illustrating verbs of “cutting” and “breaking”; the Topological Relations Picture Series (MPI); the Men and Tree game (MPI); and the Positional verbs picture series (MPI). In addition, the elicited recordings include a few wordlists, recorded for the purpose of careful phonetic analysis. These wordlists were designed to illustrate phonemic contrasts in the language. Speakers repeated each word several times in a carrier phrase.

Many traditional stories and songs appear multiple times in the collection. In some cases the same speaker told the same story in the same language on different occasions, but more commonly the different versions involve different languages (Koro and Tok Pisin) or different speakers. Some of the stories that are repeated include the story of the mermaid sisters Hinimei and Hinipong (the origin story of the Tewi clan), the story of Itupo Loniu, the story of Ndramei and Hipwedu (bird and clam), the story of Mbrokop and Mbrulei (hermit crab and rat), and the story of the brothers Asa and Eluh.

Among the personal narratives and procedural texts there are a few topics that are covered in great detail. These include: older speakers recounting their experiences during WWII; speakers describing their experiences during the small tsunami induced by the 2011 earthquakes in Japan; hours of footage of knowledgeable speakers identifying different plants and describing their uses; and a series of nine videos showing how to prepare coconut oil, from start to finish.


Collection contents

The documentation includes 172 audio files (in .wav format) and 209 video files (in .mp4 and .m2ts formats). In total, there are over 127 hours of audio recordings and over 35 hours of video recordings. These recordings are in various states of analysis. Seven hours of audio and video recordings have been fully transcribed, translated, and given interlinear morphemic glosses. This processing was done in Toolbox, and the resulting files are in .txt format. A further three and a half hours of recordings have been transcribed and translated, but do not have morphemic glosses. These transcriptions are available as .txt files for audio recordings and .pdf files for video recordings. All 116 hours of grammatical elicitation are recorded in field notebooks, which are available as scanned images in this collection. Additionally, all elicited utterances are recorded with grammaticality judgements and morphemic glosses in a .txt file created in Toolbox, and there is a lexicon (also .txt file) with approximately 1600 entries, which includes English translations for all lexical items as well as Tok Pisin translations for some. A Koro—English—Tok Pisin dictionary exported from Toolbox is available as a .pdf file, along with English and Tok Pisin indexes. The collection also includes the researcher’s dissertation, which describes and analyzes serial verb constructions (SVCs) in Koro, some working papers and grammatical analyses not available elsewhere, and some photos of people and plants.

The audio recordings in this documentation are a mix of elicitation sessions and recorded stories, conversations, stimulus responses, wordlists, and other unplanned speech, while the video recordings mostly comprise stories, etc. The video recordings also include more than 6 hours of footage focusing on the names of plants and plant parts. Simon Ronnie spent two days leading the researcher around the bush, beach, and gardens, identifying plants and explaining their uses in traditional Manus culture.

The genres represented in this corpus can be further broken down into:

  • 13 hours of traditional narratives
  • 12 hours of personal narratives and histories
  • 4 and a half hours of narratives produced in response to an elicitation stimulus (e.g. Frog Story)
  • 4 hours of conversation
  • 6 and a half hours of procedural and expository recordings
  • 17 minutes of songs and rhymes
  • 122 hours of elicitation, including stimulus response


Collection history

The materials in this collection were collected over the course of four field trips during Jessica Cleary-Kemp’s Ph.D. research. Three of these trips were fully funded by ELDP as part of grant IGS0124 “Documentation and description of Papitalai, an Oceanic language of Papua New Guinea.” The first exploratory field trip was completed during three weeks in December 2009 and January 2010. Rex Paura was the guide and interpreter for this trip, and helped to introduce the researcher to the Papitalai community. This short trip yielded a small number of audio recordings, most of which are not in the Koro language. The second field trip spanned March and April of 2011 and yielded 59 audio recordings of Koro stories and elicitation sessions. The majority of stories from this trip are from John Kris Hinduwan and most elicitation was done with his daughter Mary Clara Hinduwan. The third field trip took place June-August 2012. During this trip, both audio and video recordings were captured – 125 in total. The main consultants during this time were Rosemary Paura, Margaret Pohu, and Rose Katip. The fourth field trip was undertaken during July and August 2013. A total of 188 audio and video recordings were captured on this trip. During the three main field trips, as well as during the intervening months, Sylvia Pokisel worked as a transcriber, translator, and cultural consultant, and her family hosted the researcher. Jessica Cleary-Kemp’s dissertation, which is based on data from Koro collected during these four field trips, was submitted in June 2015.


Acknowledgement and citation

Users of any part of the collection should acknowledge Jessica Cleary-Kemp as the principal investigator, the data collector and the researcher. Users should also acknowledge the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) as the funder of the project. Individual speakers whose words and/or images are used should be acknowledged by respective name(s). Any other contributor who has collected, transcribed or translated the data or was involved in any other way should be acknowledged by name. All information on contributors is available in the metadata.

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

Cleary-Kemp, Jessica. 2018. Documentation and description of Koro, an Oceanic language of Papua New Guinea. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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