Friday, 25 March 2016

VANUATU: Trouble in Babel

Map: Google
"Florence Lengkon led a march through town and up to Parliament in which nearly a thousand people demonstrated their desire to see an end to violence against women," reported the Vanuatu Daily Post yesterday.

The trigger for this was an abduction and beating Lengkon received at the hands of bus and taxi drivers nearly a fortnight ago, following critical remarks she had posted on a community page on Facebook. She had called them arrogant and unprofessional for the way they had squabbled among themselves when trying to get business from visiting tourists (and for stoning a tour bus). Lengkon herself runs a helicopter business in Port Vila.

There are many facets to this story: risks in social media discussions, attitudes to women, the poverty that tempts men to misbehave when the chance to make some money presents itself, the great disparity between them and rich Westerners passing by in their floating castle, tourism itself in the form of a brief condescending gawp at other cultures, the question of how small Pacific nations should develop and sustain themselves, what will happen to them if there is a long global recession, etc.

For those who aren't involved, one aspect of the story that pops out is the fact that Lengkon's comments were written in Bislama, one of the three official languages of the Republic.

Bislama is a kind of pidgin English widely used there because the country has over 100 different languages and dialects: "Vanuatu is considered to be the country with the highest density of languages per capita in the world, with an average of about 2,000 speakers for each indigenous language; only Papua New Guinea comes close," says Wikipedia.

There is probably a connection to PNG: Vanuatu may have been colonised by Autronesian speakers as early as 4,000 - 6,000 years ago in the eastward expansion from what is now Papua, which itself saw the arrival of humans some 60,000 years ago, together with other movement into Australia.

Many languages of small communities are considered "endangered" - there was a UNESCO conference about this in 2008. But perhaps preserving them is a futile, Canute-like attempt.

Not to worry; in the far future, when our current energy-rich civilisations are forgotten, there will be isolation and cultural-linguistic variation again, just as island wildlife mutates to take advantage of local niche opportunities.

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