Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Quest to Save Mutu

I'm currently working on my poster for the fellowship and Microsoft PowerPoint is protesting loudly, so I've decided to update this instead. Since my poster is currently "Not Responding," I figured I would talk about another of my current projects. This one started before the beads, believe it or not, and has nothing to do with Southeast Asia or archaeology.

Last summer I got a job as a research assistant for the anthro department and was handed the task of editing a linguistic dictionary. This is really your typical language dictionary, like Spanish-English or some other language combination. The difference here is that Mutu, the language we are working with, is a dying language.

What does that mean? It means that the use of Mutu is decreasing so rapidly and is has so few native speakers that if we don't do something, it could die out within the next 50 years, probably less. Once it dies out, the language is gone for good, and there's really no getting it back.

Mutu is spoken on three islands in Papua New Guinea, off the coast of the big island, Papua. The dialect that my professor and I are working with is called Mutu-Mandok, which is the dialect spoken on the island of Mandok. Mandok is the epitome of a dot on the map. When you look at the country of Papua New Guinea, you need to zoom in to Umboi Island, which is a speck on the map of Papua New Guinea. Once you have a close-up of Umboi, there is another speck in the middle of the ocean. That speck of a speck is Mandok Island.

The official languages of Papua New Guinea are Tok Pisin and English, which are both used throughout the nation. Since Mandok Island is so small, the people use Tok Pisin or English for any business conducted outside the island, and increasingly for internal affairs as well. This means that more children are growing up knowing Tok Pisin, because that is what they are taught in schools and that is the language of success in the country. It's great that Tok Pisin is doing well, but it means that Mutu is dying out. The dictionary project is meant to preserve the language so that it has a chance of survival and so that if it does happen to die out, it can be preserved on paper.

So I've just finished going through the dictionary making a large set of corrections. I'm scheduling a meeting with Dr. P, the head of this whole operation, for sometime next week, which should produce another round of corrections. This may not be terribly interesting, but there is something satisfying in knowing that I'm helping to preserve one of the world's endangered languages. It's not every day that you get to do that.

No comments:

Post a Comment