Kinship and family is a much bigger deal here than it is back home. Concepts of clan and tribe have deep, deep meaning and it can be fairly hard to understand as an outsider. When I think of family I think of a nuclear family – mum, dad and children, but here family is much bigger. So when it comes to learning about all the different terms that are used it’s no surprise that this is a huge challenge! Earlier on we learnt some basics – “ina” (mum), “inda” (dad), “undum” (child) and “mo” (wantok – a person of the same language)

Another ‘harmony’ meal

Picking the vocabulary up again and scratching one layer further down, though, I’ve got a bunch of false assumptions to fix. “Anim” means uncle. Later on I found out that anim meant more. At first I pencilled it in as “clan leader”, but a few days later it became clear it was an uncle who is older than your father, which I didn’t realise when talking to the second son – I came away thinking it was a term reserved for the oldest son and possibly carried some weight in the clan. Then again today I’ve had to correct it yet again (Don’t you love computers and how easy it is to change things?) because anim can also mean aunt; but it’s an older uncle or aunt on your father’s side.- There’s a new set of vocabulary for me to learn for aunts and uncles on the mother’s side. I’m pretty convinced I’m not there yet either; this is a deep area of language. It’s going to take a while to understand.

Our first attempt at learning family terms was showing pictures of our families and asking what we’d call people. We found that didn’t work so well as no one knew our family and we got all kinds of errors. I went away from session 1 thinking younger brother meant older brother because people misunderstood that I was the older brother. OK in round two we tried to use hypothetical families: “Imagine Natalie is my sister, what would I call her?” However that quickly ended up with even ourselves tied in mental knots. Attempt number 3 was more successful: picking a family, charting out their family tree and asking what they would call specific individuals. This went pretty well, but now we’re the ones unfamiliar with the family and we’re struggling to keep who’s who straight!

Our photo albums are always popular

This is one of those areas of language we’ll circle back to over and over; incrementally improving our understanding of it one pass at a time. It’s also an area that will contain important implicit information that defines people’s identities, relationships, obligations and behaviour; so we’ll be investigating these connections well beyond simply getting the right names for people.

I had a go at figuring out whom you’re allowed to name and whom you’re not. In Kovol there are taboos on calling the names of certain people. We ran into this quite early on. As we were learning people’s names, we found many people who were too shy to tell us their names. We’d turn to people standing nearby and ask them “What’s their name?”, only to find it was even more difficult for them to do! There are certain people you’re not allowed to say the name of. What happens if you do? I have no idea 🙂 Working with my own family, I narrowed it down to my in-laws. I’m not allowed to say the names of my parents or brothers-in-law, or sister-in-law. The asterisk there seems to be that that’s the case unless the brother or sister-in-law is older than me; then I could name them… maybe, I’m not sure! At least I know whom I’m not supposed to name anymore 🙂 I hope esig and pagum don’t mind next time we’re in the Netherlands!

My latest idea to try and investigate this more was to use our missionary team as a family. Philip is the oldest brother, I’m in the middle and Rhett is the youngest brother. I have a table with everyone’s names in both a column and a row and I’m going to see who can name whom and what we’d call each other.

Something else I tried today was to sit with some guys and transcribe a text. I have a 30-second clip of someone telling a story about the time Enos was sick and the meeting they had to ‘finish’ the sick. I listened to it beforehand and was catching the gist of what was said. So I thought it would be a great way to learn a bit about stringing clauses together. Turns out it was a really, really hard task that we gave up on. The guys could, of course, understand what was said, but when it came to painstakingly transcribing it phrase by phrase they just couldn’t do it. They tripped up over some minor errors the speaker had made and decided I should re-record the whole thing. So we did, but even then going back over it word by word just wasn’t natural. I needed to hear a word at a time so I could pick up the new vocabulary. They needed to speak in flowing sentences because that’s what they always do. It was a fun experiment, but now the plan is to transcribe the text on my own, and then try and go over it word by word with the guys.

Language learning is two different worlds trying to come together. Sometimes it works out but sometimes it’s time to forget all about the thing you planned for the day and try something else.

Speaking of family, here’s the newest member of the Kovol tribe


English Editor · 01/09/2020 at 10:28 pm

Another interesting post, Steve. I now have more insight into what language learning involves.
It came as a surprise that it is not taboo to call a brother or sister-in-law by their name if they are older than you. I would have expected this to be the case if I was older than they. Just go to show that I don’t think like a Kovol person

    SteveStanley · 02/09/2020 at 7:42 am

    It remains to be seen if I understood it right or not 😉 I’ll find out when I ask if I’m not allowed to name Stacie (if Rhett is my little brother)

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