University of Melbourne
Can a missionary make a change to a language so that an existing construction is replaced by one based on English? This is what appears to have happened in Nafsan, Efate, in Vanuatu, which has independently innovated a conditional or ‘if’ construction, of the form –f, occurring in the verbal complex. The earliest witnesses of the use of the ‘if’ construction are in Christian translations, so we have no sources that express what must have been an earlier way of expressing conditionals (given that all languages in the region have conditionals of other forms). Another innovation is the term kano ‘to be unable to’. I am concerned here to discuss the methods used by missionaries in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in the mid- to late 1800s in order to understand if they could have chosen to use a new form which was then taken up by speakers to be the only conditional construction in the language.
Vanuatu, formerly the New Hebrides, was first occupied around 3,500 years ago and the 130 or so languages spoken there are all from the Oceanic group of Austronesian. Europeans began visiting in the late 1500s, as explorers, whalers, sandalwood traders, missionaries, and blackbirders (also known as slave traders) and eventually, in 1906, it became jointly ruled by both French and British authorities in a condominium that lasted until 1980. Disease introduced by these early contacts led to a huge loss of life, estimated as being a decimation of the population (Durand 1922), so that the population of the island of Erromango, for example, was reduced to only 400 inhabitants (Crowley 1997).
The earliest European missionary to Efate (central Vanuatu) arrived in 1863 and was a Presbyterian, and, like those who followed him, was from Scotland, either directly or via Nova Scotia. The London Missionary Society had placed missionaries elsewhere in the New Hebrides since 1839, and Samoan ‘teachers’ had been on Efate since the 1840s, many more of them than European missionaries, but with very little recorded of their experience except the fact that they were there.
An important part of their work was to translate Christian material, the first of which, a hymnal and small set of Bible translations, were printed in 1864, followed by a revised hymnal (1868), Genesis (1874), Bible texts (1875 & 1877), Apostles (1880), and John (1885). I have prepared a textual corpus of this material that is described here. I want to explore the way in which the earliest three missionaries to Erakor and Pango villages in Efate approached the task of translation, what we can glean about how they worked with speakers, and what impact this work may have had on the use of the language Nafsan (also known as South Efate).
I have worked with speakers of Nafsan since the mid-1990s when I lived on Efate island in Vanuatu and regularly visited Eratap and Erakor villages. My PhD was a grammatical description of the language and I have continued to record stories and to work on a dictionary. I have also built a searchable corpus of early translations in text form that has been the basis of the present analysis of the work of the missionaries. There are two innovated forms in Nafsan that seem to have come from the missionaries, a condtional and the verb kano ‘to be unable’. The features of each of these are discussed in more detail elsewhere (Thieberger 2017a and 2017b), but here I want to explore how the missionaries conducted their translation work, and how much they knew of the language. While there is a substantial literature on translation theory and significant effort put into Bible translation (see e.g. Leenhardt 1951 for a Melanesianist translator’s perspective, or the more detailed work by Wycliffe/SIL), I am here concerned with how the project was conceived of in Melanesia from the mid-1800s to 1900.
As mentioned earlier, the f ‘conditional’ appears in a pre-verbal position and is translatable as ‘if’. This form is apparent in the earliest written texts so it is either an accidental coincidence with English or was introduced by missionaries as will be suggested here. It is currently the only morphologically marked way of expressing the conditional in present-day Nafsan. More details about the conditional and arguments for its introduction can be found in Thieberger (2017b).
In the following examples from the 1868 hymnal, (1a) shows the use of the –f conditional and (1b) shows a paratactic conditional from the same source (which could indicate that the use of ‘if’ was not yet fully established in the language). The fact that the earliest sources have no –f conditionals is suggestive of it having been introduced later.
|(1a)||I f’belak wou bak es|
|if I settle on the far side|
|(1b)||Leatu o, Ag kin ba fo K’rak bun nugmer takbar. Tewan kin, armra o, akam Ko fak emoe ki mi.|
|If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!|
The form kano acts as a verb as can be seen in (2).
|My boyfriend, I can’t just go straight and look at him.|
I suggest in Thieberger (2017a) that kano ‘to be unable’ comes from a Scots English pronunciation of ‘cannot’. As with the conditional, it is a form that is not shared with neighbouring languages and also appears in the early translations.
Here I want to explore the extent to which new ideologies represented by the missionaries have supported linguistic innovation in a Pacific language. Mühlhäusler (1996: 172) controversially claimed that all Pacific languages have been damaged by missionary efforts: “Indirectly, many missions appear to have contributed to the ultimate decline in traditional languages, and if such languages survive it was probably more because of the lack of mission funds and time invested than deliberate mission policies to keep the linguistic ideology of the Pacific area intact.” Schiefflein (2007: 140), in a study of the Bosavi in PNG, notes that, “[e]ven when there is relatively brief contact between a mission using a proselytizing language and a monolingual society with an otherwise robust vernacular, intensive evangelizing can result in hybridized, translocated, and dislocated language forms and practices.” Hanks (2010) in a study of Catholicism in Maya cultures of Central America shows how language may be greatly influenced by the missionaries, but it is then adapted by speakers and indigenized.
How could a small group of outsiders entering into small Vanuatu villages change local ideologies so significantly that it led to the abandoning in part or completely of traditional religious practices? As Burt (1994: 1) notes, there is a “longstanding curiosity as to why so many colonised peoples in areas such as the Pacific have apparently jettisoned their traditional culture and religion of their own accord, to adopt that of their European colonisers”. In a similar vein, Monberg (1967: 570) asks, “Why did the 430 inhabitants on the island so readily accept a new religion about which they had received such scant information?” His work on Bellona island suggests that conversion involves a “set of complex external innovations” (ibid: 565) that he outlines. Missionaries had been able to convince the locals that the Christian god had proven to be more powerful than the old gods. He concludes that the “Bellonese obviously believed that they gained more than they lost” (ibid: 588). Closer to Efate, Flexner (2017) gives a detailed account of the changes in material culture in Erromango and Tanna when the missionaries arrived, which he says indicate that “new economic opportunities offered by the mission drew people in at least initially” (ibid: 5).
But, from a linguistic point of view, how can new terms like, in this case, the conditional and ‘be unable’ be introduced by an outside missionary, usually the only non-local in the community, and become accepted by a speech community? To begin with, it needs to be kept in mind that the number of speakers of Nafsan in Erakor and Pango in the late 1800s was much lower than the 6000 or so today. McArthur (1981: 22) estimates the population of the whole of Efate in 1874 as 2000. In 1853 there were 250 Pango people in church (Steel 1880: 223). So it is a relatively small population and one that, with the force of conversion to a new faith, could have brought with it prestige language forms that would be taken up by the converts. It is undoubtedly the case that the early translations are regarded as authorities that are still deferred to, even today, for example in dictionary workshops.
The late nineteenth century was also a time of rapid change, with visits of ships for blackbirding and the first sale of land to outsiders. Records in the Western Pacific archives of the New Hebrides British Service (NHBS) show a number of land sales, particularly in north Efate, from 1872 onwards. Often the purchase price included weapons (axes, knives, guns, ammunition) that could have helped change power relations in Efate.
Table 1. Presbyterian Missionaries to South Efate until 1900, those in italics are Scottish/Nova Scotians
|Mose and Setefano||1845|
|Sipi and Taavili (Murray 1863:236 )||1845|
|Mose and Setefano||1846 (Eratap)|
|Rata, Simona, Tairi, Lealamanu, Sepania||1846|
|Pikika and Kaviriri||1853|
|Missionaries withdrawn||1854||1854||1854 (Eratap)|
|Teamara, Teautoa and Toma (from Raratonga)||1859|
|“Two from Aneityum”||1860|
|Donald Morrison and Christina||1864-1867|
|Ru and Kakita (from Raratonga)||1868|
|James Cosh and Janet||1866-1870||Late 1860s|
|Natonga, then Tupatai (from Aneityum)||Late 1860s ?|
|John W.MacKenzie and †Amanda and Maggie||1872-1912|
It was not uncommon for the first missionaries to be driven out of villages or to be killed, so the strategy used by the earliest missions was to place ‘teachers’ – who were often Samoan converts – rather than European missionaries, in villages for periods of time before the Europeans would venture to stay. ‘Teachers’ were the hardier frontrunners placed to make it easier for the later arrival of European missionaries. In a number of examples in the New Hebrides, the teachers were killed by locals, but their role was to “live among the people and acquire a knowledge of their language” (Inglis 1890: 231). Patteson notes that teachers were also “taken from new islands merely to teach us some of their languages and to frank us, so that we may have access in safety to their islands” (in Yonge 1874a: 473).
Murray (1863: 236) records that they had “placed the four teachers, Mose, Sipi, Taavili, and Setefano, whom we had designed for Eramanga, two and two at these places [Pango and Erakor]. The teachers were all Samoans; the chiefs and people gave them an encouraging reception, and we left the island much pleased with the result of our visit, and thankful to Him who had so far prospered our way. After about sixteen months, the island was again visited.”
I have found no more information about the early Samoan teachers in Efate than their names, and, similarly, I have been unable to find records about or by Morrison (except for his published translations), whose time on Efate resulted in several translations and who must have written wordlists and other material, perhaps even accounts of local traditional practices. As it is his translation of the hymnal in 1868 that is the first published use of the conditional (his earlier translations of 1864 and 1866 do not include it), then I am assuming that he introduced it via his translation work. He died shortly after leaving Efate and so may have had no later opportunity to write on his experience there. Of the other two Scottish missionaries there is some correspondence, but no ethnographic material or wordlists in the language they worked so hard to translate into.
Cosh was only in the New Hebrides for four years, but he wrote letters, some of which have been preserved (in the Mitchell Library and edited by Denne 1991). Similarly, some of MacKenzie’s letters survive and are available from his descendants and from the Public Archives of Nova Scotia.
These three missionaries produced a significant amount of translated material in their time as can be seen in Table 2.
Table 2: Translations produced before 1900 in Nafsan
|Anon. 1864. Nalag Nig Efat. Aneityum: Mission Press.|
|Bible. 1864. Nadus iskei nig Fat. Aneityum: Mission Press.|
|Bible. 1866. Nafsanwi nig Iesu Krist nag Mark. Trans. D. Morrison. Sydney: Sheriff and Downing.|
|Anon. 1868. Nalag nig Efat. Trans. D. Morrison. Sydney: Mason, Firt, nigar asler (Mason, Firth and Co).|
|Bible. 1874. Kenesis natus a bei nag Moses ki mtir i. Trans. Cosh, J. Sydney: British and Foreign Bible Society.|
|Bible. 1875? Nafisan nafousien. Sydney: F. Cunninghame and Co.|
|Macdonald, Daniel. 1875. Tus Narogorogoanauia Ki Iesu Kristo, Anigita Nawota Go Nagmolien, Luka Eka Mitiria, Nimetnafisan 13, 14, Go 15; Naligana Nalotuena Ru Tolu Ru Nea. 1875. Printed at the Glasgow Foundry Boys Society’s Press for Havannah Harbour, Efate.|
|Bible. 1880. Nawisien Nig Nagmer Apostol. Sydney: F. Cunninghame and Co.|
One puzzle is the lack of information about local folklore, language and customary knowledge recorded by these men and their families over the period they lived on Efate, especially in contrast with the volume produced by Rev. Macdonald on the other side of the same island (e.g., Macdonald 1898, 1907). Living as the only Europeans among the Melanesian villagers of Pango or Erakor, missionaries must have learned a great deal about the lives and customs of their hosts, but virtually none of this is reflected in the few records that exist. It is perhaps understandable that they saw their mission as being to replace cutomary beliefs with Christianity and so had no need to keep records of heathen practices. A possible explanation is found in a story I recorded from Kalsarap Namaf, which indicates that Rev. MacKenzie told Chief Samuel to pile papers (presumably containing information about local customary knowledge) into his canoe and then take them to the middle of the lagoon where he was to throw them over the side, this signifying the end of “darkness” (customary knowledge). The story is presented below.
|Natrauswen nig Samuel go Dokta MacKenzie.||The story of Samuel and Dr.MacKenzie.|
|Selwan ito nag keler pak Astrelia 1912.||When he was about to return to Australia in 1912.|
|Mis isos Samuel.||The missionary called Samuel.|
|Inag, ‘P̃afan pa raru negaag mai sokin eslaor Elaknatu.’||He said, ‘You take your canoe and go to that place Elaknatu.’|
|Go Samuel ipo pan pa raru nega pan sak kin eslaor Elaknatu.||And Samuel got his canoe and went to Elaknatu.|
|Dokta MacKenzie inrik Samuel kin nag, ‘Kulek natus nen itu? P̃aslati pan paai luk raru negaag.’||Dr. MacKenzie said to Samuel, ‘You see these books? You take them and fill your canoe.’|
|Samuel ipo pan sol natus nen mis inrikin kin.||Samuel carried the papers which the missionary had told him about.|
|Samuel ipan slati pan paai luk raru nega panpan inom go mis ipaoskin, ‘Inom ko?’ Samuel inag, ‘Or mis.’ Mis, ‘P̃afa raru me||Samuel carried them and filled his canoe until it was finished and the missionary asked him, ‘Is it finished or not?’ Samuel said to him, ‘Yes mis.’ The missionary said, ‘Take your canoe and|
|p̃afalus pak elau namos.’ Samuel ipa raru me mis iur euut pak Elignairo pan me inrik Samuel kin nag,||you paddle out to the ocean.’ Samuel took the canoe and the missionary ran along the shore to Elignairo and he said to Samuel,|
|‘Selwan p̃afalus pan p̃aleka afsik naruk p̃atao nawes me natus rukmaui pak ntas pan.’||‘When you have paddled you’ll see I raise my hand you put down your paddle then throw all the paper into the water.’|
|Samuel itutki natus kailer.||Samuel threw in the paper and went back.|
|Selwan ipalus mai sak eslaor Elaknatu go mis ipan pak raru nega me itap lek tete natus mau go inrik Samuel kin nag, ‘P̃afa raru negaag pan sak kin eslaor.’||When he paddled to shore at Elaknatu the missionary came to his canoe, but he didn’t see any paper and he said to Samuel, ‘You take your canoe back to land.’|
|Mis ipak esum̃ nega pan go Samuel ipo pa raru imai sak Eslaorp̃ur.||The missionary went to his house and Samuel went to Eslaorp̃ur.|
Language skills of the missionaries
We can infer the level of language skills attained by the missionaries at various points in time. For example, the following letter by Mrs Cosh from Pango village, dated December 1866, indicates that the more recent arrival, James Cosh, who had arrived that year, was still learning the language, but that Morrison, who had arrived in 1863, was already able to communicate well:
Matthew, the teacher from Emungalin came to Pango wishing medecine for his boy who was sick. In vain James (Cosh) told him there were a great many sicknesses and advised him to go to Mr. Morrison who would be able to speak and understand what troubles his boy had.
(Letter from Ebag 13/12/1866)
And, a year later, a report in the Christian Review (September 1867: 19) says: “Mr Cosh has succeeded remarkably in learning the languages of Fate [Efate].”
Schooling in the 1880s was delivered in the Erakor dialect of Efatese in which Christian material was available (Miller 1987: 11). In 1884 the children’s day school at Erakor was held from Monday to Friday from 7.30 to 10.00 am and Mrs Amanda MacKenzie ran a class for 5-10 year olds (ibid). All of this suggests that the missionaries were speaking the language and able to use it in the classroom.
Attitudes of missionaries to local languages
While there is little recorded of the three European missionaries to Efate before 1900, there are more detailed recollections of some of their contemporaries, near contemporaries, and colleagues that shed light on the attitudes of the times.
In 1918 Alexander Don (1918), writing about the missions in Melanesia, noted that:
All living languages must grow, for new things and new ideas must have names. To the heathen people of the islands Christianity comes as a revelation of new truth, so new words must be coined, or old words picked out of the mire of pagan use and baptised into a new life. Rev. Joseph King says that ‘in every Island language equivalents can be found for every word in the Old and New Testaments.’
(ibid : 39)
What Mr Milne says is this: ‘The greatest difficulty in translating is always and everywhere the want of an adequate knowledge of the language. When a missionary has difficulty in finding a word for a certain thing, the reason usually is, not that it is not in the language, but that he does not yet sufficiently know the language. Language is one of the things that heathen natives have not degenerated in.’
(ibid : 114)
Bishop John Coleridge Patteson travelled through Melanesia in the 1850s and 1860s and his reflections on language also give us some insight into the views of the time, even if through the writings of a gifted linguist. We know that he corresponded with the linguist Prof. Max Mueller at Oxford (Yonge 1874b: 580) and that Patteson had a strong interest in languages and their relationships. He talked of languages of New Caledonia and the Solomons as being ‘cognate dialects’ (Yonge 1874a: 187) undergoing rapid change, and he cites Grimm and Bopp (Yonge 1874a: 487). From his writing we see that language is a key to conversion, so that the analysis of language becomes, in itself, a worthwhile goal in his eyes, and one for which he feels he has a special vocation, as the following quote indicates:
But you can easily understand what it is to feel God has given to me only of all Christian men the power of speaking to this or that nation, and, moreover, that is the work He has sent me to do. […] I feel that it is a part of my special work, for each grammar and dictionary that I can write opens out the language to some other than myself.
(Yonge 1874b: 188)
Patteson then has this advice for his fellow translators, of particular interest given the present topic: “Don’t be in any hurry to translate, and don’t attempt to use words as (assumed) equivalents of abstract ideas. Don’t devise modes of expression unknown to the language as at present in use” (Yonge 1874b: 191). He does not mention devising new terms for modes of expression already known to the language, as appears to be the case for the conditional construction in Erakor.
The missionary Geddie’s initial work was on Futuna, then he took “chief Kotiama from Futuna to act as our interpreter” on Aneityum (Inglis 1890: 244). Samoans were first placed as ‘teachers’ on Aneityum in 1841 (Inglis 1890 : 304-305).
Wumra assisted Mr. Geddie in acquiring a knowledge of the native language, and Singonga was for a long time Mrs. Geddie’s right hand woman. It was from Wumra that Mr. Geddie first got the correct word for sin, and possibly, though I am not quite sure of this, also the correct word for soul. During all the seven years that the teachers were on the island before the arrival of the missionaries the nearest word for soul that they had got was shadow, and they were daily exhorting the natives to seek the salvation, not of their souls, but of their shadows. Mr. Geddie got also other important words, such as unbelief, faith, salvation, &c. To acquire a knowledge of a foreign language in such circumstances as they were in involved a great amount of groping in the dark. It was not till Mr. and Mrs. Geddie had been five years on Aneityum, and we had been one, that he found out the native word for perhaps; and I think the missionaries were ten or a dozen years on Tahiti before they discovered some word that was equally common and equally important.
(ibid : 244)
The fact that it took Geddie five years to learn the term for ‘perhaps’ is particularly relevant to the present investigation of the origin of the conditional in Nafsan. Inglis goes on to point out how important it was to understand that Aneityum speakers were responding to questions using the conditional (kit) rather than a statement.
It was therefore a great and important discovery when kit was found out and its correct meaning established; it was an acquisition that was highly prized, a discovery that was greatly valued, and could scarcely be overrated.
(ibid : 252-253)
An example of the influence of the missionaries on local interactional style can be seen in the introduction by Geddie of the salutation “Kaiheug vai eug”, “My love to thee”. “[I]n imitation of the missionaries, the Christian natives saluted each other; and as Christianity spread, so did the salutation … till the minor virtue of politeness, as far as the salutations went, had permeated the whole community” (ibid: 100).
The missionary John Inglis arrived in Aneityum in 1852 and stayed for 24 years. The foundations established there were an important influence on the Efate mission. He wrote extensively (Inglis 1890) about the nature of translation and, from the following examples, it is clear that he spoke the Aneityum language. He notes that, on a trip to Futuna, the language there being “totally different from the Aneityum” (1890 : 54), he did not understand what they were saying, indicating a high level of comprehension on his part of the Aneityum language. In another anecdote, he records a woman called Morana berating her white husband, saying, “Why cannot you learn the Aneityumese as fast as Misi [Missionary]?” (ibid: 216).
Prior to and in addition to learning the language themselves, the missionaries relied on local people, who Inglis called ‘pundits’. Lasarus was one of the Aneityumese ‘pundits’: “For some years before he died he was my chief pundit when I was translating or correcting translations” (ibid: 284). In more detail about how the relationship between missionary and pundit worked, Inglis says, “it was, however, as a pundit, in assisting me in revising and editing the Aneityumese New Testament, that Williamu rendered the most valuable and abiding services to the mission. Many natives, otherwise active and intelligent, can render very little help to the translator; they fail to see what you want, or, if they see your difficulty, they are unable to tell you how it can be met. But Williamu was quick to perceive the idea you wished to express, and equally ready to supply the word or the idiom that was wanted” (ibid: 316).
Mrs Inglis, who ran the Girls’ Industrial Boarding School in Aneityum, also learned the language: “as soon as Mrs Inglis could speak to her intelligibly in her own tongue, and bring the truths of Scripture to bear on her [her assistant, Ester’s] conscience, an improvement began” (ibid: 287).
Central to the work of the Protestant missionary was translation and making the text available in the language. The work needed to be printed, and new technologies were enlisted to allow printing in the New Hebrides (on Aneityum) but also in Sydney, if funds could be raised to allow it. The first books in Nafsan were printed on the Aneityum press. In some missions a printing press was a money-making venture according to Huber’s (1988) work on Catholic missions in the Sepik. Missionising was an expensive undertaking (which included maintaining mission headquarters in the home countries). Talking of the period from the 1870s, she notes that “[t]he very best equipment available was used and, for the magazines, the brothers developed highly efficient (and controversial) sales and distribution techniques” (Huber 1988: 61).
In Efate, the cost of the printing was provided by selling arrowroot. In 1911 MacKenzie wrote: “They [the different villages] have defrayed the expense of all of the books printed in their language which are: a primer, catechism, hymnal, translation of the Peep of Day… and their share of the Bible (in Efatese)” (Miller 1987: 16). No money came from the Nova Scotia mission base, rather, in 1905, 10 pounds were sent from South Efate to Canada (see Miller 1987: 57).
There is a clear effort involving both the missionaries and their ‘pundits’ or teachers in producing these translations, and great labour of the converts in paying for their printing. This, together with the ongoing veneration for the language represented in these early written works could be part of the explanation for the adoption of forms introduced by missionaries in these texts.
The missionaries arrived during a period of great change in the New Hebrides. The prestige of their new religion is clearly an important factor in their ability to convince locals to abandon large parts of their traditional belief system and adopt Christianity. As for the two words that I claim are introduced by the missionary effort, we may never know if they were introduced by the missionaries, but the evidence is good that they were. The Scots English canna/kano makes sense as a source for kano in Nafsan. Inglis’s note about the difficulty the missionaries had in finding a conditional in Aneityum is informative, as is the fact that no ‘if’ forms occur in the earliest Efate translations, perhaps showing that it took some time for the translators to decide on using the new form. From the point of view of comparative linguistics, it is useful to understand the role of contact in innovation, and, in particular, the kind of contact outlined here of a single outsider family armed with an apparently attractive ideology spending time in the village, and introducing terms that go on to become part of normal everyday language.
Thanks to Janet Denne, Alex MacKenzie, and Bridget MacKenzie for additional information about their missionary forebears.
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How to cite this post
Thieberger, Nick. 2017. Missionary-induced language change, on the trail of the conditional in Nafsan, central Vanuatu. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2017/05/30/missionary-induced-language-change/