The Trukic language continuum

Okay,
okay – 'nuf with the Time Tunnel stuff and island gossip.

Time to
get down to work.

I'm
working in a dialect continuum. Last time I was here, I blogged a little bit
about that, but I have more to say about it.

First, a
brief summary about the languages in this area. The target language I am
examining, Satawalese, belongs to the Trukic (Chuukic) family – but so do
several other languages/dialects in this region. One scholar, Edward
Quackenbush, determined that a 'dialect chain” of languages intelligible
with one another stretched all the way from Chuuk in the East, to Sonsorol to
the West of Yap. He counted about 17 “languages and dialects” where
each language shared characteristics with languages to the “right”
and “left” of it (if you’re looking at a map of the islands ‘from
above,’ this makes sense). Another scholar, Jeff Marck suggested that islands
that are within one night’s voyage (about 100 miles) have a higher probability
of mutual intelligibility than islands further away.

You're
probably asking, “What's the difference between a language and a
dialect?” According to David Crystal's Dictionary of Linguistics and
Phonetics, dialects of a language are those that can be more or less easily
understood by speakers of the dialects (think of Australian, British, Kiwi, and
American English – in addition to the obvious some sound differences, mostly
with vowels, there are some lexical differences and idiomatic phrases – Aussies
have expressions like “bibs and bobs” vs. the American “this 'n
that” – Americans get 'laid off,' British folks “go on the dole”
and poor Aussies are “made redundant”). As an American English
speaker, you process these differences, and after awhile, they’re no longer a
problem – the dialects are “mutually intelligible” for the most part. Languages
are those where speakers cannot understand each other, like English and French.

I've attached my thesis proposal below. [pdf] It explains why I'm here, and what I hope to
accomplish.

Here in
Micronesia, language is a bit complicated. Satawalese lies just right of the
dialect continuum's dead center center. Some scholars have suggested the area
has three major languages, and a number of dialects associated with each. A few
Satawalese feel their language is more like Chuukese to the East, while others
think it's more like Woleaian to the West. How to properly measure how and if
one language is related to another can be difficult and occasionally
subjective. The linguistic “comparative method” looks at finding
sound correspondences in words from languages that linguists believe are
related, as well as similarity in 'core vocabulary' words – words that are
basic to the language, and ones not likely borrowed from another language.
Linguists are also very interested in ancestral languages called
“proto-languages,” and how ‘daughter languages’ came to be from these
‘mother languages.’  What languages
retain what features, and what languages innovate new features, are of great
interest to us.

The
Satawalese people are far and above the most traveled of all of the Outer
Islanders of Yap State since to get anywhere they jump into a canoe and go.
Many are educated on the islands of Woleai and Ulithi, where they meet
youngsters from the other islands. You can probably imagine that teenagers
boarding at school speaking diferent languages and dialects find a way to
communicate amongst themselves pretty quickly. Satawalese are especially adept
at it because they have to be. Living on the most remote island in Yap State,
travel is a necessity for education, food, and to secure marriage partners that
you’re not related to. The sawei tribute system also plays an important role,
and one I will address in a later post. 

Because
speakers rely on an impressive set of linguistic skills to understand and makes
themselves understood with others who speak languages that are somewhat
intelligible to theirs, and more often not, it’s difficult to extract language
specific data rather than perhaps some linguistic coping mechanism – a mixing
of sounds, and different lexical items.

When I
first started working with Satawalese speakers, I would recheck my work by
asking them again on another occasion how to say something. Sometimes I’d get a
different answer – further questioning sometimes met with furrowed brow, head-scratching,
and discussion – “that’s Woleaian word – no, I think it’s a Ulithi word,” etc.

It’s like
the child who has a Spanish mother, a Portuguese father, and Yiddish
grandparents, who all live together and who all speak their respective
languages to the child. (I know plenty of people like this in Israel – a girl
from infancy who was regularly exposed to Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish, German AND
Italian!) To the child, it’s all one language – Mom speaks like this, Dad talks
this way, and my old grandparents speak a different way – until the child
learns about different languages later and sorts things out – remember, our
human brains are excellent at language learning, especially in the younger
years, but properly motivated, one can learn languages throughout one’s life –
it’s just a bit more of a challenge in some ways. 

People
here have been exposed to different languages all their lives. They have
brothers-in-law that come from a different island to marry a sister – a
roommate at the boarding school at Ulithi speaks a different language. And the
people here all cope. It’s a brilliant coping mechanism, and one well-deserved
of study, but I haven’t the foggiest on how to study it properly, because there
are so many factors involved, some quite messy.

Another
fellow I’ve been in contact with who is working on a similar dialect gave me
some great advice to keep in mind each time I work with a Satawalese
consultant. He told me “Tell them to picture themselves on Satawal, and talk to
you as if they are talking to someone who rarely ever gets off the island.”
Good advice, Jim! Also, Jim told me about a paper he wrote about “language
bending” in which the speaker adjusts his pronunciation to what s/he thinks the
hearer will understand – for example, a Satawalese speaking to a Woleaian might
substitute all “n’s” with “l’s” as Satawal does not officially have an “l’
sound, but island residents can optionally use one or the other.

One
example we’ve all seen on network television at some point in our lives are
Americans who try to speak another language by adopting some sound and
grammatical changes. For example, Spanish “I see the cat in the box” might come
out as “Yo see-o el katto en el boxo” – a poor example, but I’m sure we’ve all
heard examples of this on trips around the world.

Anyway, I
am going to try my darndest (as my Dad would say) to secure the best Satawalese
I can in the time I have here.

By the
way, I’ve picked up a few more consultants to work with, and the data is
starting to flow!  

Until
next time.

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About kevinmroddy

I am a freelance musician
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One Response to The Trukic language continuum

  1. Anonymous says:

    Momai Mele! This is great! I hope that outer island language studies starts getting more careful consideration like this. Along such lines you might want to check out http://www.habele.org a non profit scholarship fund designed to help the children from Stawall through to Ulithi bear the cost of education in Yap Proper! Sa'chigcihg!

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