The old man sitting alone by the fire in the village meeting hut had liked his father’s language. But he couldn’t speak it well any more. Nobody could. Only with one of the wuk – the ghosts, the spirits – could he now attempt a conversation.
He was grateful for the appearance of a pale figure in the doorway of the meeting house that night. The bottle of kava that he and his son had brought down the hill from the funeral was stronger than they’d expected, and his son had already had enough and staggered off into the darkness - presumably to bed, though in Pentecost Island’s mild climate, if he woke the next morning in the bushes by the roadside he’d be just fine. The old man didn’t fancy finishing the rest of the bottle all by himself.
The meeting house was a big wooden building, its rafters blackened by smoke from the fire, its corners filled with cobwebs. A small lantern, powered by a solar-charged battery, bathed the entire building in a faint white glow. The moon had not yet risen, and beyond the entrance where the pale figure was standing was pitch blackness. There was never a door to a meeting house – the entrance was an open black space, through which anyone or anything could walk in.
The wuk came in and sat down on a stump of log.
“Have some kava from that plastic bottle,” the old man said. I got up and poured myself a shell.
In the dying days of the old language, wuk had also come to mean “white person”.
“Mwem séné askol?” the old man asked. I smiled at hearing the extinct language – I’d been fascinated by extinct things ever since discovering dinosaurs at the age of three, and running into old people who were still able and willing to share a few words of Sowa language was the linguistic equivalent of finding Jurassic Park repeated on TV.
I nodded in response to the question and spat onto the dirt floor. The kava was indeed strong.
“The old people you grew up with called it séné?” I asked.
“I’ve heard people from other villages say that the word for kava was milók.”
“Oh no, they’ve taken that word from another language.” In the little language spoken by Matan’s community four miles along the coast, “kava” was mliok.
Languages disintegrate as they die. Everybody’s speech varies, but when there is a whole population conversing together, the combined effect is to maintain some sort of standard. I grew up with rural East Anglian words from my mother, Scottish expressions from my grandfather, some odd features of my grandmother’s English that may be of Irish origin, and a couple of words that frankly I think my parents just invented for my sister and I. Thanks to thousands of other English speakers, I recognise all these as non-standard, even without the help of the Queen and the BBC, and instinctively don’t use them around other people. But if my family were the only English speakers in the world, then it would become literally one person’s word against another’s. I would have no way of knowing whose was the ‘real’ English, if indeed there was such a thing.
When working with Matan to translate stories for her kindergarten pupils, I had once made her laugh by inadvertently misreading mahlok – the word for “fish” – as mliok. Ever since, “Going fishing?” has been Matan’s standard refrain whenever she sees me heading in the direction of the kava hut, and when I come back late she will ask disapprovingly how many fish I’ve caught. So long as there are 300 other speakers of Matan’s language left alive who know the correct term for “kava”, this remains nothing more than a private joke. But if Matan’s two year-old daughter grew up to be last speaker of her language – and it’s possible she actually might, given the pressures on her tiny language community – one could imagine her as an old woman three-quarters of a century from now telling a visiting linguist that she wasn’t sure of the word for kava (women don’t drink it, or at least hadn’t in her youth) but that she vaguely recalled her mother referring to it as mahlok.
Now there were a couple of old men who insisted that the Sowa word for kava was séné, and a couple of others who insisted that it was milók. Perhaps the milók guys had indeed borrowed the word. Or maybe it was the séné folks who had succumbed to the influence of other languages – that word was suspiciously similar to the drink’s name in the language spoken today. Perhaps it was once a dialect difference, with thousands of speakers in the séné camp and thousands in the milók camp. Perhaps it was just one of those things that varied, like the way English people pronounce “scone”. Perhaps someone’s great-grandparents had once jokingly referred to kava as fish. With the whole language community now gone, there was no way of knowing. Sowa language had not merely fallen out of use, it was lying broken in pieces.
“Sowa was a nice, simple language,” the old man recalled. “When you ask a question, people today will say something like ‘O ba tegabis’ – ok, that’s good. In Sowa, the old men would just say ‘O’.”
“Maybe that’s just because they were old men?” I suggested. Had they been younger and more livelier, they might have been more verbose.
“Yes, maybe. What was the Sowa word for ‘good’ again?”
“I’ve heard two words for it,” I said. “Awé and adwus.” I’d also heard atwus, but this was probably because local people today had inherited from their grandmothers – the ones who’d married into the community bringing its modern language, the language that had displaced Sowa – an inability to pronounce d at the end of a syllable. Their grandfathers, I suspected, had pronounced it without difficulty, although since nobody ever tape-recorded any of them, it was hard to know for sure. Once upon a time there was probably some subtle distinction between awé and adwus, like English “good” and “nice”. Now it was anybody’s guess which one was appropriate to use when. Some people insisted that “Good night” should be bóng awé, others insisted that it should be bóng adwus. I simply had to remember which old man preferred which version. It was probably fruitless to try and ascertain which was the true version, because their forefathers never used either phrase – wishing people “good night” was a habit introduced by Westerners. In the old days, people had other ways of taking their leave, rather than making positive remarks about the night, which in those days was black and full of demons and enemies and marauding wuk. Sowa language was like a time traveller from the past, frozen and then revived into a world in which it no longer fully fitted in.
Meanwhile in Matan’s village, some people were wishing each other good night with bóng ambis, some with buong ambis, and some with biong ambis. Their language was starting to disintegrate too. An increasing number of them preferred the invasive bung mwamak – Matan’s grandmother’s language, the same language that had killed Sowa – or the even more invasive gud naet. Half the island (about ten thousand people) knew bung mwamak, so if multiple versions of the phrase ever appeared, everyone could be fairly sure who it was that was being a bwet woo - a “wild taro”, an innovator, the one that had sprung up without being planted. Being a wild taro in Pentecost Island’s conservative culture is not seen as a good thing. I wondered if Sowa language had had a phrase equivalent to bwet woo. Maybe there was an old person somewhere who still remembered.
“What about the word for ‘bad’?” the old man asked.
“Asasanba,” I said, picking at random one of the two versions of that word that I’d heard.
“Ah yes, asasanba.” I suspected that the old man would have nodded in equal agreement if I’d said the other version. “You know, I once spent some years living at Zobok, up on the mountain. When I was with the old men there, we spoke Sowa.”
“You actually spoke the language with them yourself?”
“Yes, a bit. I was living up there with them for a long time. But I can’t remember much any more.”
I attempted to test him. Together with the chief from the neighbouring village, who was desperate to see Sowa language revived, I’d managed to piece together enough of the language to construct basic sentences on paper, though when speaking them I was conscious of my foreign accent. I tried my best to sound like an elderly Pentecost islander might have done half a century ago, though this would have been something of a guess even if I’d been any good with accents. “Mwi towtow ran dol ne Sowa, ki mwa rong pwese?”
“O,” he mumbled. It was hard to tell if he was saying yes, I do understand you when you’re speaking to me in Sowa, or just clearing his throat. No wonder the older generation had passed only fragments of the language on to their descendants. “Have another shell of kava.”
My mouth was still numb from the last one. “I’ll wait a while. Your kava is strong. Mwem séné askol.” I’d go back to calling it milók when I was with the old guys from the other village.
“Thank you very much,” he said.
“What for?” I began to say, then realised he was asking for a translation. “Oh, I’ve heard people say ‘Ki mwa barew alok zengzeng’.” Thank you very big. This seemed an awkward way of expressing it, the sort of thing that might have been invented by someone who didn’t speak a language well, but nowadays nobody could come up with anything better. Ki mwa barew alok zengzeng was Sowa language now, whether the ancestors’ ghosts liked it or not.
As I’d tried over the years to piece together the recollections of different old people, my notes on Sowa had become so full of inconsistencies and things that didn’t look right that I’d begun to wonder if my reconstructions bore any resemblance at all to the real thing. Perhaps half of it was just made up. But then, last year, I’d encountered an old man I hadn’t met before, one who’d grown up in a remote village with a father who spoke the language. He could no longer speak it himself, but claimed to still understand it well. I tried out some of my reconstructed sentences on him – new sentences, ones I’d put together myself using what I’d figured out of the language’s grammar. He had looked at me as if he had truly seen a ghost – his father’s language has been dead for decades – and then quietly repeated back in the modern language, perfectly, everything I had just said to him. Linguistic reconstruction actually works.
“I’ve been trying not to forget Sowa language,” my companion said. “Your notes have helped.” I worried about those notes – the sons and grandsons of Sowa speakers still had real memories of the language, and I didn’t want them abandoning those in favour of my faulty reconstructions. Maybe I should have kept my notes to myself until the last people who’d actually heard the language alive were gone. But a number of people were keen to try and re-learn their ancestral language, and now that their fathers and grandfathers were no longer around to teach them, writing it down was the only way.
“In my grandfather’s home country, there’s an old language which people are trying to preserve,” I said. “My grandfather grew up speaking English, but when he got older he decided he wanted to know his people’s traditional language, so he learned it from books.”
There was no need to say “my grandfather’s home country” – in Vanuatu, one’s place is one’s father’s place, going back as many generations as one can remember, so my paternal grandfather’s home country should have been simply “my home country”, even if I hadn’t grown up there. But I have never felt able to call myself Scottish, because I don’t speak like a Scottish person. It’s hard to claim that you come from a place if you don’t speak its language. And that was why the old men in this part of Pentecost Island still wanted to try to speak Sowa. Even though the language was extinct, this was still Sowa country. And the landscape was still strewn with the language. Ranwadi was Sowa – according to the old principal, the school’s name had once meant “on a mound of stones by the shore”. So were the names of most of the villages around. The old man and I chatted about place names for a while.
“The old name for this village was Vantowokarav,” he said.
“Under the hand-axe-shaped almond,” I translated.
The old man looked up. He hadn’t realised that karav had meant “hand-axe”. Hand-axes were a Stone Age tool, and had died out even before Sowa language (though the teardrop-shaped stones still turn up occasionally where pigs disturb the ground, the Stone Age having ended on Pentecost Island only in the 19th century when sailors arrived with metal tools). I only knew the word because back in the 1960s, an old person who still spoke Sowa had been asked some basic words by a visiting linguist and had responded to one embarrassing vocabulary item, slightly inaccurately, with maza karav. Rediscovering the term in an old book, I had seen what this corresponded to in the modern language: meta gerep, the pointy tip of a hand-axe. The guys at the kava bar today still use the same metaphor. Thus, a now-elderly linguist’s inability to tell “vagina” apart from “clitoris” had saved a word from extinction.
The old man encouraged me again to help him finish the kava, and I got up to pour a shell. There was enough left in the bottle for the old man to have one last shell too, and then it would be home to bed.
“How do you say ‘They’re going to bed’?” he asked.
I thought for a minute. “Pa ba la pa mzóó.” The old man pondered this sentence, trying to unpick it. There was a grammatical feature in this phrase that didn’t correspond to anything in his own language, a quirk in the way Sowa speakers construct phrases. Fortunately Matan’s language shared the quirk, and that language still had living speakers with whom you could test any number of sentences until you had figured out that repeating the plural marker in a string of verbs (“They go to they sleep”) was one of the language’s rules. Goodness knows what other grammatical quirks Sowa had that nobody would ever figure out.
We chatted for a while and then I got up to go. I thanked the old man for sharing his kava.
“Ki mwa baréw alok zengzeng.”
The wuk disappeared into the night, leaving the old man alone with the fragments of his dead language.
The mountainside was so steep that even standing in one place hurt my legs. While my companion scrabbled at the soil with her machete, I eyed up a patch where vines straggled over the dirt and contemplated trying to sit down.
"Watch out for black ants there."
I moved away from the vines and did my best to dig my feet into the loose soil. There was no point complaining - it had been my idea to come and see the garden. And like most islanders, she did this every week, complaining only when it was an exceptionally long day or the rain left her particularly soaked and muddy.
"The way we see it, it's not a hard life, because there's always free food here when we want it." This didn't look free - it looked like much harder work than what anyone else I knew did for a living. But I knew what she meant: no subsistence gardener ever feared being made redundant or getting fired for turning up late to the garden. In the old days there was the fear that cyclones or floods or marauding neighbours would destroy your crops, but nowadays aid agencies and the government could be relied upon to send aid if that happened. For people with no job and no garden, however, the Vanuatu government has never provided any sort of welfare.
"Garden" was the English name that the islanders had given to these hacked-at patches of mountainside. In the languages of north and central Pentecost, they are known as "in the fence", a hangover from the old days when pigs roamed free and vegetable patches were fenced to keep them out (Captain Cook had likened the resulting landscape to the neatly-cultivated fields of England). Today it was the other way round: pigs were kept in fences and vegetable patches roamed free. Taro plants sprouted from the undergrowth, and in an abandoned plot further down the slope from where I was standing, an old man's cassava plants had run wild among the local flora.
Here in southern Pentecost, the word for garden was simply the word for "place". One's place was where one's garden was. Gardens tied people to their ancestral lands like the vines strung down the mountainside.
In England, a Saturday in the garden had meant tea on the lawn, perhaps a barbecue. My friends on Facebook were posting pictures in shirts and summer dresses. I was clinging to the side of a tropical mountain in the mud, alone except for a young brown woman with bare feet and raindrops in her hair.
Like half the girls on the island, her name was Matan.* (The other half are named Mabon, and they are classified as my sisters.) She has more specific names too, but here I'll stick with Matan. I first met her the same way I met my first ever girlfriend, in a Maths classroom when she was fifteen. A decade later, I encountered her again, now a teacher herself and living alone in a village not far from Ranwadi with a two-year-old daughter. Her daughter is also Matan, among other names - children in Pentecost culture are born into their mother's lineage - but in conversation her mother usually refers to her simply as "small girl".
Today Small Girl had been left in the village with her grandfather. Matan had decided that looking after one person on this mountainside was enough.
I hacked idly at a dead bush with my bush knife, trying not to look useless.
Matan emerged from a thicket of plants holding a papaya, and looked at me with the same concern that she would have shown if Small Girl had been the one holding a giant knife. She wiped her own bush knife clean on a clump of rain-soaked weeds, and cut me a slice of the fruit. I don't like papaya, but this didn't seem like the time to be fussy.
"I have another garden we can go and see if you want," she said, gesturing across the diagonal slope towards an edge where the land fell away into a ravine.
"How far is it?"
"It's like going from my village to my sister's." About a mile.
I made a show of pretending to collapse onto the patch of vines, and almost collapsed for real. "If you have work to do in that garden, I'll wait for you here."
There was no way Matan was leaving me alone up here. She put the taro she'd been digging up into her basket, padding it with leaves, and buried the cut-off stems under a pile of damp vines for replanting later. We set off back in the direction we'd come.
In between patches of mist and cloud, the coastline fell away below. In colonial times this mountain had overlooked a working coconut plantation. Today the coastal plain had been taken over by acacia trees, but a few old coconuts remained, adding texture to the forest canopy. In between them ran a sliver of grey tarmac: Lonorore Airport, its old grass strip replaced a few years ago by a 980-metre runway in the hope of a tourism boom that had only half-materialised. From up here the airport still looked quite small.
At this time of year, tourists visit south Pentecost to watch the weekly spectacle of islanders jumping headfirst off tall towers, with only a pair of vines tied to their legs to restrain their impact with the ground. If the length of the vines is judged right, they snap taught at the last moment and jerk the jumper sideways into a bank of loose earth, resulting in mere bruised shoulders rather than fatal head injuries. 'Land diving' was not allowed on the mountain above the airport any more, following the arguments over ownership that had inevitably broken out among communities since tourism had made the ritual lucrative. Which was a shame because right now, tying myself up in vines and just hurling myself down the loose earth seemed like more fun than trying to pick my way back down the mountain.
After traversing the slope sideways for a while, we reached Matan's father's garden, and turned downhill, skeetering down a diagonal bank of soil and trying not to uproot the old man's pineapples and shallots. In places, Matan dug footholds with her knife. I clenched my toes in the mud. It was raining hard now.
"Aaaawaaaheeeuuu," I said, in imitation of the noises that people on Pentecost make when venting emotion.
Matan laughed. "Make that noise again."
From the bottom of the garden, a narrow path led back down the mountain. By Pentecost's extreme standards, it wasn't a bad 'road' (other people's gardens were up much steeper hills, Matan pointed out) but today's rain had slicked it with mud.
Matan spied a bush with a long and straight enough stem, fashioned it into a walking pole, and handed it to me.
"When we get back to the village, let's plant this a souvenir," I suggested.
Most of Pentecost's woody species will set down roots wherever they are impaled; small buildings frequently sprout leaves. Legend recalls that the first islander to acquire a metal axe planted it in the ground and waited for a metal tree to grow.
"Bananas," said Matan as we rounded one bend in the path, and she disappeared into the bushes. There were some hacking noises and the soft crash of something heavy falling into vines, and she emerged hauling an immense heavy stem of bananas. She stuffed some of the bananas into her basket, cast some dubious ones aside, offered me one to eat, and slung the rest across her shoulder.
As we descended into the river valley, the garden path converged with others, like a network of capillaries nourishing the community. The main artery rain along the valley bottom, and criss-crossed the river, giving a welcome chance to wash the flecks of dirt off our arms and legs and knives.
We passed other men and women on their way to or from their gardens. People with cash crops to plant could spend whole weeks in the garden, sometimes building shelters and spending the night there. But for those like Matan who had other jobs in the community (not to mention a small girl who needed either babysitting or carrying halfway up a mountain every time her mother went to fetch food), Saturday was the main gardening day. There was never any point going looking for anyone in his village on a Saturday - he would be almost guaranteed to be halfway up a mountain somewhere.
"The first time you go to the garden with a new woman," an older man had once advised me, "give her the heaviest basket to carry. If she complains, do not help her. If you help her once, then forever after she will always complain." Matan's generation expected slightly better from their menfolk than their mothers and grandmothers had, but there was no danger of her expecting me to carry the heavy load today. Up in the garden I had made the token gesture of carrying her flip-flop sandals for her, but she had put those back on now, and was flip-flopping among stumps and roots and sloping mud patches and pools of fast-flowing water with astonishing sure-footedness, heavy basket strap across her forehead, bush knife in one hand, her other hand steadying a hundred bananas.
"Black person... double bones," was her usual response whenever I observed that she pretty tough at this sort of thing.
For my part, I made it back to the village without falling over or cutting myself. Matan was relieved.
* Technically the name should be written "Mwatan". "Matan" with a tighter-lipped consonant is a different word, and means "death". If Pentecost islanders were superstitious in the way the Chinese are, they would obsess fearfully over this. However, the finer details of spelling are among many things that the islanders are notoriously laid-back about, and "Matan" is the usual spelling.