A deeper look at the languages of Vanuatu

In English, we use tense to describe things as happening in the past, present, or future. With the many languages in Vanuatu, they simply describe events on the basis of whether those events are real or unreal.

Dr. Julie Barbour of the Linguistics programme has been awarded a Marsden Grant to complete the world's first large-scale comprehensive study of "mood systems" in the Vanuatu languages.

With a population of around 200,000, there are more than 100 different languages spoken in Vanuatu, many of which have never been written or described. The study is the first of its type in the world.

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.

"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."

Mood marking is a term that has been around in typology for the last 30 years of more. "What I'm trying to do is understand how these languages work inside their won systems and not simply translate them into English."

Dr. Barbour says that the greatest value in the project is that the data collected can be fed back into the community and she hopes that these languages can be established in the education system so that they don't become eroded over time.

Supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund.