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Documentation of N’kep (north Vanuatu): Structure and variation


Language N’kep, Sakao (ISO639-3:sku)
Depositor Miriam Meyerhoff
Affiliation University of Auckland
Location Vanuatu
Collection ID 0229
Grant ID MDP0210
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

This collection documents the use and structure of N’kep, a variety of Sakao (ISO639-3:sku), spoken by around 800 people at Hog Harbour, Vanuatu. N’kep is typologically unusual and under increasing pressure from the national creole. The project underlying this collection includes a variationist sociolinguistics perspective, and explores the potential for these methods to complement endangered language documentation. A range of text types (from very rehearsed to very spontaneous) and samples from speakers of more than three age groups were recorded by the researcher and by trained local language assistants.


Group represented

This collection represents members of the N’kep community.

The data collection involved older as well as younger people. Some older people have been actively involved in language documentation work in the past: Elder Manasseh was a key worker with an abortive SIL documentation project, and was active in the Vanuatu Cultural Centre vernacular language wordlist workshop. Sapo Warput, the retired primary principal, was an adept language assistant in 2008. Younger people were trained as principal agents for making sound/video recordings of language use in a wide range of contexts and also helped transcribe recordings.

Numerous members of the community have been involved in language development In the 1990s, members of the community compiled a partial wordlist as part of a national vernacular language education initiative. Dr Catriona Hyslop (then of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre) led a multi-day workshop, training interested community members, and agreeing on a community norm for the orthography. An earlier orthography introduced by missionaries is perceived as difficult: speakers say this is because N’kep has changed so much since then; the earlier orthography also fails to differentiate all the vowel phonemes. Elder Manasseh has continued to add to the word list since then: it is clearly a community priority.

The local primary school offered Class 1 in N’kep with a native speaker teaching assistant for several years. This ceased in 2007 for financial reasons, not lack of community support. The current principal of the Hog Harbour primary school (a fluent L2 speaker of N’kep) strongly supports vernacular education in principle and would like to see it extended to the first three years. She attributes the school’s high success rate in secondary admissions in recent years to the solid educational foundation the students got in the vernacular during the years it was offered.


Language information

N’kep is a variety of Sakao (ISO639-3:sku) spoken at Hog Harbour in the northeast of Santo island, Vanuatu. It is recognised locally as a distinct dialect. The term ‘N’kep’ is widely used by Hog Harbour residents to refer to their language. The population of the Sakao-speaking area is estimated to be 1,500, with approximately 43% under the age of 15 (national average 1999). Pilot fieldwork in 2008 suggests the number of people identifying as N’kep speakers is around 800.

N’kep is typologically unusual among the northern Vanuatu cluster. It is distinct from its nearest neighbours in Shark Bay and Big Bay. It has a large inventory of 12-13 vowels, depending on whether schwa constitutes a distinct phoneme; recent work in the community found limited evidence in support of this. This inventory includes a full set of rounded/unrounded front vowels. In addition, numerous diachronic sound changes have resulted in regionally atypical phonotactics (e.g. complex consonant clusters). Guy (1974) reports a large and semantically unusual series of nominal classifiers (obligatorily marked in possessive constructions) for Sakao. Moreover, some sentential aspect is marked with inflectional morphology rather than through preverbal auxiliaries.

Little formal work has been done on N’kep (or Sakao more generally). Guy’s (1974) grammar of Sakao focuses mainly on phonology. SIL began documentation of N’kep some time ago but decided against more intensive documentation and Bible translation; it’s unclear what happened to the N’kep materials collected previously.

The maintenance of N’kep in the community is at a crossroads: in some domains there is very strong practical support for N’kep; in other, mainly everyday domains, there is evidence of a lot of linguistic insecurity, perhaps exacerbated by poorly-understand and (possibly) very rapid natural language change, and contact with other high-vitality languages, especially Bislama. There is a strong perception that N’kep is a crucial signifier of local distinctiveness, but against this backdrop of linguistic and sociolinguistic pressures, it is not at all clear what shape and form the language will play as a signifier of local identity in the near future.


Collection contents

When completed, this collection will include

  • video recordings and still photographs of custom activities as basis for collecting subject specialist vocabulary, e.g. house building, preparing fishing/diving expeditions, food preparation
  • audio and video recording of oral histories, custom stories, instruction and process texts as well as free conversation, including casual multi-party conversations, with a minimum of twelve examples of each, balanced for speaker gender
  • audio recordings of personal and community oral histories from members of the community over 40; interviews about community life with speakers under 40 as complement to oral histories
  • a variationist sociolinguistic study of generational change in Hog Harbour and its relationship to the loss of vitality/maintenance of N’kep, involving at least twelve speakers (six women and six men) in three age groups, with recordings of at least two styles for each speaker, e.g. recitation of narrative or formal instruction text plus casual conversation
  • still photography of aspects of daily life
  • time-aligned transcriptions and annotations
  • a grammatical description of morphology and syntax of N’kep for linguistic research
  • an expanded word list of N’kep for educators, community reference and linguists, including annotating lexemes as typical of older versus younger speakers’ norms where relevant
  • vernacular teaching materials for local primary school, vernacular literacy workshops with younger speakers, publication of custom stories and oral histories
  • metadata files for all recordings


Collection history

In 2008, Miriam Meyerhoff undertook pilot fieldwork in Hog Harbour. With guidance from and the assistance of locals, she worked with four consultants and recorded and transcribed, translated into Bislama and began glossing for some narratives, and she elicited data for morphosyntactic research.
During this one-week field trip, she discussed the language situation in Hog Harbour with a number of people, including local church elders and the pastor, teachers in the primary school, and community members who interviewed her while she worked in the sector nakamal.

The materials in this collection were gathered between 2010 and 2014 during fieldwork for Miriam Meyerhoff’s Major Documentation Project funded by ELDP.


Other information

The materials in this collection will also be archived at the Vanuatu National Library.


Acknowledgement and citation

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

Meyerhoff, Miriam. 2013. Documentation of N’kep (north Vanuatu): Structure and variation. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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