The language of the ghosts

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.


“Yes. Why?”


“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.”


Bóng adwus.”


The wuk disappeared into the night, leaving the old man alone with the fragments of his dead language.