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Biakker can say a lot in just a few words

‘On the other side of the river close to us away from here going backwards’. This intriguing answer from an East Indonesian to the question where the houses in his village used to stand, made the Dutch linguist Wilco van den Heuvel devote extra attention to references to people and objects in his description of the Biak language. This Austronesian language is threatened with extinction.

The striking answer from the Biakker is explained by the fact that in the Biak language some word types contain much more information than in languages such as Dutch. For example definite and indefinite articles often refer not just to an object (for example the houses the Biakker was talking about) but also to the location or movement of the object or of a person. And hence the (literally translated) answer given: 'On the other side of the river close to us away from here going backwards'.

Additionally the context in which Biak is spoken has a considerable influence on the language. Van den Heuvel discovered, for example, that on the island Biak, the component for 'behind' is used for downstream. Yet in another context that refers to a movement in a westerly direction.

Jokes and prayers

The context in which Biak is spoken not only has a considerable influence on the type of language that is used but also the type of language that is studied. According to Van den Heuvel the language can therefore best be studied in the environment where it is spoken. He spent a total of 12 months on Biak, where he lived in two different villages. There he used audiocassettes or videotapes to record stories, jokes, sermons, songs, prayers, speeches and other spoken texts. These texts were written down by Van den Heuvel and his language assistants and then translated and analysed. The speakers were then questioned about any gaps in the analysis.

Van den Heuvel’s study is the first scientific language description of the Biak grammar, with attention for phonetics, sentence structure and word structure. Additionally the study is a valuable source of information for those who are interested in the historical relationships between Biak and other Austronesian languages and historical (trade) contacts between Biakkers and speakers of other languages in the region.

With his linguistic description Van den Heuvel has saved a language threatened with extinction for posterity. About 70,000 residents of a group of islands off the coast of Papua (former Irian Jaya) still speak the language. That is a lot compared with other languages in the region, yet most of the speakers are aged 50 or over. Young people scarcely speak Biak and only have a passive knowledge of the language. The population is increasingly switching to a Malay dialect or, to a lesser extent, Indonesian. In remote villages, Biak is still the main language and even the children speak it fluently.

Van den Heuvel carried out his research under the auspices of the Areal Studies in Eastern Indonesia programme. That programme is part of the Spinoza research Lexicon and Syntax of professor Pieter Muysken, Spinoza laureate in 1998. Van den Heuvel’s research was sponsored by NWO.

Kim van den Wijngaard | alfa
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