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  • Ura: A disappearing language of southern Vanuatu
  • Ross Clark
Terry Crowley . 1999. Ura: A disappearing language of southern Vanuatu. Pacific Linguistics C-156. Canberra: Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University. xiii + 226 pp. (maps). ISBN 0-85883-520-7. AUS$45.00.

Erromango, the largest island in southern Vanuatu, suffered even more than most Pacific islands from the demographic collapse consequent on European contact in the nineteenth century. Epidemics reduced its population from an original several thousand to fewer than 400 by the 1930s. Historical records suggest that at least four languages were spoken on Erromango in pre-European times, but the present population all speak just one of these, namely, Sye (Crowley 1998a). Of the others, only Ura is known to us from more than brief lists of words. A few elderly Erromangans still remember it as a living language, and the present volume presents what Crowley has been able to learn from them.

Ura appears originally to have been the language of northern Erromango, though the surviving speakers all live at Dillon's Bay on the central west coast. In the 1870s, despite considerable population decline, the missionary Gordon estimated that perhaps one quarter of the island's people (500 of 2,000) were Ura speakers. A century later, at the time of Tryon's initial survey (1970-71), the situation was much as it is today: Sye was spoken by the entire population of the island (about 600 by this time), and Ura was "all but extinct ... remembered by fewer than 10 people" (Tryon 1972:65). The story of Ura might well have ended there; but fortunately, even in the 1990s, Crowley was still able to find a handful of people who could speak it. Others, including both linguists from outside (Arthur Capell, John Lynch) and Erromangans anxious to record this aspect of their cultural heritage (William Mete, Jerry Taki) are duly mentioned as having worked on Ura, but the present description is essentially based on data collected and analyzed by Crowley himself since 1996.

The stages in the decline of Ura can only be speculatively sketched in, but Crowley suggests that the crucial period was the first two or three decades of the twentieth [End Page 186] century, when the population reached its minimum. Ura-speaking communities presumably became too small to be viable, and merged with the more numerous Syespeakers. Sye probably already functioned as a lingua franca for the entire island, and use of Ura as an everyday language would have declined rapidly after the merging of populations. Curiously, Crowley notes that "the present small group of Ura speakers all report having learned to speak Ura from a single man, who was himself married to a non-Ura speaking woman" (2). This man is not identified as a parent or relative of any of the speakers, and there is no further indication of when or for what reason they learned the language from him. The implication is, however, that Ura is not the mother tongue (sensu stricto) of any of these speakers, and that perhaps as early as 1910 (approximate birth year of Ukai Ndaleg, the oldest speaker), normal transmission of Ura from generation to generation had largely ceased.

The order of presentation in the book is somewhat unconventional, but convincingly motivated by the author, who sees the book as addressed in the first instance to the people of Erromango, and only secondly to linguists (7-8). The first section after the introduction is an Ura vocabulary of some 1,300 entries, with English finderlist. Headwords are normal native-speaker citation forms, rather than the underlying abstract root forms preferred by the linguist, which strike Ura speakers as "childish" (11). (It is interesting that the citation form of the verb does not consistently correspond to any particular morphological category [171].) This is followed by a corpus of texts, presented first in Ura, with a Sye translation in parallel columns. The same body of texts is then re-presented with the linguist's interlinear morpheme glosses and English translation. The remaining five chapters present Crowley's analysis of Ura phonology, morphology, and syntax.

Ura and Sye are closely...


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