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  • Araki: A Disappearing Language of Vanuatu
  • Terry Crowley
Alexandre François . 2002. Araki: A Disappearing Language of Vanuatu. No.. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. xxi + 353 pp. ISBN 0-85883-493-6. Aus$63.00, paper.

Vanuatu, with at least 80 actively spoken languages distributed among only about 200,000 people, has probably more languages per head of population than any other country on earth. To date, fewer than a dozen substantial grammars of Vanuatu's languages have been published. (A number of other grammars have been produced as public-domain dissertations, though until these are published, access remains somewhat restricted.)

In addition to the actively spoken languages, up to a couple of dozen moribund languages are still spoken in Vanuatu. Surrounded by such linguistic richesse, it is easy to understand why many linguists may prefer to concentrate their attention on languages that are actively spoken, given the ease with which it is possible to gain access to natural speech in a range of different kinds of social contexts. However, because many of these moribund languages now have only a single generation of mostly elderly speakers left, we are at a crucial juncture if these languages are ever to be at all reliably documented before they disappear altogether. Given that Araki is one of these moribund languages, François's work here is especially valuable.

Araki is a language that has only about fifteen fully competent speakers, all of whom are now elderly. (In fact, sadly, F's main source of information, Chief Lele Moli, died before this description appeared.) Araki has not been in regular daily use in most families on Araki Island for over fifty years, with people generally having switched to the Tangoa language of the adjacent mainland. The precarious state of the language is something that is obvious to its speakers, and when chance circumstances forced a delay in F's initial plans to document an actively spoken language in the far north, some of the last speakers insisted that he take the time to document as much of the language as he could. For the Araki speakers' insistence, and for F's response in the form of this description, we should be thoroughly thankful.

This account of Araki is written in a way that allows for maximum comparability with other descriptions of Oceanic languages. It is written according to a straightforward descriptive mold, beginning with an introductory chapter documenting the unique sociolinguistic context of this moribund language. Following this is a chapter [End Page 269] on the phonology, along with chapters in turn on the word classes, nouns and noun phrase structures, verbs and verb phrase structures, simple sentences, and finally complex sentences. A number of illustrative glossed texts are provided, along with an Araki-English dictionary and an English-Araki finderlist.

The combined phonology and grammar of Araki runs to over 180 pages. Compared with Guy's (1974) 79-page account of Sakao—the only other language of Espiritu Santo for which a grammar has so far been published—F has served us extremely well, especially given his generous exemplification of all of the main points. He also shows us how much can be achieved with a relatively small corpus. On page 10 he indicates that his narrative texts amount to only 3,990 words distributed between ten different stories, though this information was obviously supplemented by carefully elicited data as well.

This description of Araki is interesting not just because it is a moribund language: F's description highlights a number of typologically significant features. For example, this grammar is the first substantial published account of a Vanuatu language that has a contrastive set of apico-labial phonemes (15-16). Not only are such sounds limited geographically to parts of Espiritu Santo and Malakula in Vanuatu, but they are also quite rare in world terms. Another phonological feature that is relatively uncommon in Vanuatu languages is the contrast between the rhotic flap and trill (18).

F also describes phonological problems that have arisen, possibly in part because of the limited nature of his spoken corpus, reflecting the moribund status of the language. He finds that final high vowels are always present with particular...


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