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Phoning home helps threatened languages live on

meyerhoffMobile phones, computers and other technology are often thought to erode the unique cultural identities of small communities, but a Victoria University of Wellington Professor of Linguistics argues the opposite can be true.

Professor Miriam Meyerhoff, a sociolinguist in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, has been conducting fieldwork in Vanuatu for more than 20 years. For the last eight, she has focused on the north-eastern village of Hog Harbour, where Nkep is spoken, one of more than 110 languages in Vanuatu.

“Urbanisation and migration are bad news for small languages because people get taken away from the high density, high communication networks of the village,” she said. “But what I’m seeing is people using things like mobile phones, email and the internet to stay in touch and so they are continuing to speak Nkep. The technology provides an extended community.”

Meyerhoff will be presenting her findings at a public lecture next month, ‘Film, phones and faraway places: A modern tale of language maintenance’, where she will explain how technology is helping the village “put the brakes on” the negative effects that can follow urbanisation and migration.

“It’s basically highlighting that people are pretty savvy about the opportunities new technology provides them with”.

She will also talk about another form of technology Hog Harbour villagers have embraced filmmaking, to document an important community memory.In 2013/14, she helped organise the making of Heher hür nwesi cei netvoocvooc (Days of Struggle, Days of Hope), a 40-minute film that dramatises a secessionist attack on the village shortly after Vanuatu declared independence in 1980.

“The filmmakers got together a whole bunch of people who had been around at the time,” she says. “Old men came and acted themselves being young and being shot. Sons stepped in and acted the parts of people who had died since 1980.”

Professor Meyerhoff says her lecture—Film, phones and faraway places: A modern tale of language maintenance—is “basically highlighting that people are pretty savvy about the opportunities new technology provides them with”.

Source: Victoria University, vuw.ac.nz

 

 

 

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