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Documentation and description of Vamale, an endangered language of New Caledonia

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Language Vamale
Depositor Jean Rohleder
Affiliation Universität Bern
Location New Caledonia
Collection ID 0470
Grant ID IGS0321
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Blog posts

A Day in the Field: Jean Rohleder 

ELDP Project Highlight: Documentation and description of Vamale, an endangered language of New Caledonia 

Summary of the collection

Vamale, a language of northern New Caledonia, is spoken in three Kanak dwellings (or “tribes”). The collection gives a broad overview of everyday life in the tribe, with games, building a house, a boat, thatching a roof, cooking, fishing etc. Elders tell stories from their youth and comment on change in society, women discuss their place in society, climate change, children’s education etc. The descriptions and keywords are in English, but the FLEx database is mostly in French.

The data was collected by Jean Rohleder, PhD student in linguistics, with the help and co-planning of Nigai André Kalen, Keela Christophe Péi, Téin Jean-Philippe Oué and Keela “Ganap” Jacob Oué. Other participants include Doui Daniel Péi and Aïna Seraï Gohoupe, as well as some 25 other people who gave their time and effort to help.

Cette collection rassemble des enregistrements du vamale, langue parlée par quelques 200 locuteurs sur la côte est du nord de la Kanaky/Nouvelle-Calédonie. Y figurent une trentaine de locuteurs, parlant de leurs souvenirs, leurs opinions, et leurs espoirs pour le futur. Il y a aussi des vidéos des coutumes, de savoirs-faire traditionnels, ainsi que des représentations de pêches, des contes, et des scènes du quotidien tribal en 2017, 2018, et 2019. Une partie des enregistrements comprend des élicitations visant une analyse de la langue pour un doctorat en linguistique à Berne, Suisse. Les descriptions des données sont malheureusement en anglais pour permettre l’accès à un public mondial, mais je ferai de mon mieux d’accommoder des requêtes de traductions. Le dictionnaire et la collection de textes contenus dans le fichier FLEx sont en français.

Tous les enregistrements sont publiquement accessibles, mais si du contenu doit être retiré, envoyez-moi un mail et je le ferai!

Ca i thavitheeke-ca tha vwa ape-xaahni-ka i vamale, faati a le-vii ka vajilu ko apuli (200) ni xa-vwa faati pwan jelan xahut Xhopwen Bwanpu. Tha le-vii ka thaloo vajilu apuli a le-vii ko jahmanle, ko ape-caihnan-aman-le, ka ko li hun-caeke-ka-le ko i wadan xahmaen. Tha vwa mwa hânun bween aman, ape-caihnan-aman a xhaohmu, ka hun-vwa tau, sikhô, ka i hun-moo-kan ca li jo 2017 seen 2019. Hmain ape-xaahni-kan tha e-vwa-kan-eong me tiike vaaya ko i faati ca Berne xahut bwanpu-n Suisse.

Meeka li ape-xaahni-kan tha goon ma le mee tena, kavi cama nyimam me tuu eca aman, xha-tiike nyakoo-ng!

Group represented

The Vamale are a complex group, composed of the clans who lived in the area prior to 1917, traditionally Pije-speaking, and fugitives of the 1917 “last revolt”, in which Pamalé, a now vanished tribe, played an important part. As a result, the army attacked and often razed every tribe between the two coasts. Refugees who went to the west assimilated into existing language practices, but the eastward running founded a shrinking group of Voh-Koné speakers in the Tipije valley and the coast south of it. Vamale being a language traditionally spoken in the mountains, there are no traditions of sea-faring nor own words for most sealife, which allows us to see where loans come from (Pije). Vamale is caught between expanding Fwâi and French, cohabits with equally threatened Pije and is rapidly losing its expert speakers. While language transmission worked well until the 1980s, this changed due to the abolition of the tribal school and sending children to Cèmuhî-speaking Touho, the new possibilities opening up in the mines and the capital, and an old colonial mindset about Kanak languages which discouraged parents from teaching their children anything but French. Today’s community counts its underage speakers on two hands. This broken transmission also concerns skills such as boat-building, planting, ethnobotany etc. The group’s three chiefs and clan councils have agreed to my working in the area in the hopes of documenting their threatened heritage. Climate change is also rapidly eroding Tiouandé and Maina’s coastlines and will probably lead to longterm resettling, some of which has already begun.


Language information

The South Oceanic language Vamale (or Hmwaeke) is a “dialect” of Voh-Koné like Bwatoo (or Haake), Haeke, Haveke, and Hmwaveke. The precise structure of the family tree is yet unknown, but the Voh-Koné languages constitute a sub-branch of the Northern group of Mainland New Caledonian languages, along with Paicî and Cèmuhî. Vamale is spoken by approximately 180 people on the east coast between Theganepaik (“Téganpaïk”), Wanaa (“Ouanache”), We Hava, and Thexhwaade (“Tiouandé”).

This collection also contains some Usa Vamale (which differs as much from Vamale as other speech practices considered separate), Pije, Cèmuhî, and Fwâi. This is due to the plurilingual area the field work took place in. Contrary to its merging cousins on the west coast, influence on Vamale is mostly from the North, namely Fwâi and Pije, as well as its neighbour Cèmuhî in the south. French is very present in the corpus, as code-switching is common, especially in the presence of non-Vamale speakers.


Special characteristics

This documentation took place before, during, and after the 2018 referendum, after the 2016 brawl between Téganpaïk and Congouma, during the 100-year-anniversary of the 1917 war, and during other current events which are mentioned and partly discussed in the collection. The stories told are the speakers’ perspective and can differ from canonical history, or complement it (such as why Eugénie Grassin was found far from her farmstead during the 1917 war). The football game commented in the language is a premium to my knowledge.


Collection contents

The collection includes conversations between speakers, monologues and interviews, often video and audio. Many thematic bundles are composed of short videos showing a step of a process, and pictures to show the evolving work.

    • boat-building: digging out a hull (araucaria wood), and fixing an outrigger to a hull (in two different takes, because of the first hull‘s termite-caused demise) [transcribed video and pictures]
    • house-building: building a roundhouse‘s roof, and thatching a longhouse (incomplete documentation because of lacking straw, but with pictures of the finished house) [transcribed video and pictures]
    • fishing at night for fish in the river [untranscribed video and pictures], and for crabs in the mangrove [transcribed video]
    • different stages of planting a yam field [untranscribed video and pictures]
    • sites of archaeological interest, rock carvings and cyclone shelter caves [untranscribed video and pictures]
    • mat weaving, basket weaving with instructions, bag confection [untranscribed video and pictures]
    • coffee roasting [untranscribed video and pictures]
  • a walk through bushland and forest with plant names and petroglyphs [short untranscribed video and pictures]
  • an excursion to a lagoon island with plant and animal names [pictures]
  • two fables (squid and rat, squid and the fish), one legend (Ngeen and Cada); one of these fables is well known throughout the archipelago and said to come from Maré [untranscribed video for the fables, text only for the legend]
  • oral history (Tipije, Usa migration); since the Vamale were expelled from their homeland between 1913 and 1917, this part of their history is of crucial importance to the community (as it is for the entire region between Touho and Voh) [transcribed video and audio]
  • conversations, interviews, monologues[ partly transcribed audio and mostly video]
  • cultural festival (of manioc and taro) with neighbouring tribe’s dances; No Vamale-speaking tribe has a dancing group at the moment [untranscribed video]
  • reflections on
    • societal change (medicine, education, child-rearing, food, clothing, planting, women’s roles, religion, respect between generations, …) [transcribed video]
    • the cycle of life and its rituals (at birth, wooing a woman, wedding, and death)
    • a chief’s role (by three chiefs, separately). The chiefs Luc of Téganpaik, Kaina of We Hava (retired), and Jimmy of We Hava both spoke of their role, the responsibility, and how respect of their authority has declined over time. Luc is the son of a chief, whereas Jimmy was put in this position after chief Kaina retired; his emotional account of his life now is very interesting and casts light on an aspect of societal change: the collapse of traditional hierarchies [transcribed video]
  • a half-dozen songs, children’s songs (“Yatuu, yatuu”), working songs (“Thamo Bako”, “thêên, thêên, li xho thamo”) and greeting songs [transcribed audio and video (for the greeting songs)]
  • a wedding and several rituals surrounding the wedding, including welcome songs partly in Vamale [untranscribed video]
  • a football game and its comments in Vamale [untranscribed video]
  • recorded wordlists and the “North Wind and the Sun” for an IPA article, proof for all phonemes [untranscribed audio]
  • speaker map and maps of the tribes with local names
  • a FLEx database with around 3,000 entries, 3,500 translations and around 100 texts
  • colour terms, landscape classification, space in general, animal and plant names using local ecological organisation’s pedagogical material, kinship terms, cultural festival recordings [untranscribed video, audio, and/or pictures]


Collection history

The data for this collection was collected in the context of a PhD in linguistics at the University of Berne, Switzerland.

All recordings were made between June and December, as the rainy season puts a halt to many activities and makes some roads impassable. Rain is also a factor in recordings, since most habitats have steel roofs. Thus there is no recording of the New Yam festival, but most other cultural activities are present in the corpus.

The data was collected in three field trips:

  • end of July 2017 to early December 2017
  • end of June 2018 to early December 2018
  • June 2019 to September 2019

Most recordings contain video as well as audio data, and a growing part are transcribed, glossed, and translated. Check the FLEx database for any missing texts.


Acknowledgement and citation

Users of any part of the collection should acknowledge Jean Rohleder as the principal investigator, the data collector and researcher. Users should also acknowledge the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme as the funder of the project. Individual speakers whose words and/or images are used should be acknowledged by name.

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

Rohleder, Jean. 2018. Documentation and description of Vamale, an endangered language of New Caledonia. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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