Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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A Sociolinguistic Study of Language Documentation: Denggan (Banam Bay, Malekula, Vanuatu)

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posted on 2024-02-23, 05:29 authored by Brittany Hoback

In the country of Vanuatu, there are estimated to be as many as 138 different languages. Of those, there are still many languages which remain undocumented. Yet, with the move to integrate the vernacular local languages into the education system, speakers of these languages are developing orthography systems as a way of maintaining the vitality of their language in oral and written forms. Often the goals of language documentation and orthography development create a partnership between outside linguists and native speakers of the language. These joint projects are consistent with the current aims of linguists working in the field of language documentation and Indigenous academic researchers, who are calling for more collaborative research projects. Such scholars suggest that research on indigenous languages need to be undertaken ‘with’ communities, rather than ‘on’ or ‘for’ communities. However, this partnership brings questions, such as, what does collaboration look like and how do the community desires get prioritised amongst the various requirements of academic research. Furthermore, what does it mean to research ‘with’ when there may be differences in the epistemological foundations underlying the design of a project.

This thesis is a result of a community orthography and language documentation project in Southeast Malekula, Vanuatu. It focuses on the language, Denggan, formerly known as Banam Bay Language or Burmbar (ISO code vrt-639-3) spoken by around 900-1000 speakers. Within this project two initial orthography workshops were conducted with community members to facilitate the transition of Denggan from a completely oral tradition into a new domain of written literacy. A separate grammatical analysis was undertaken to further the language documentation record and to assist in the creation of future pedagogical language resources. The presentation of this thesis is interdisciplinary and hybrid in its structure. It consists of a discussion on collaborative research design and Pacific Indigenous epistemologies, an exploration of the sociolinguistic background of Denggan as an endangered, yet vital language, a grammar sketch of Denggan phonetics and syntax, and a reflection on collaborative projects and the responsibilities of a researcher in working with Indigenous communities within such a project. The hybrid structure of this thesis allows for a contextualised approach of situating the project’s orthography workshop discussions and the linguistic grammatical analysis of Denggan within its historical and sociolinguistic contexts. This hybrid structure also allows for reflection on Pacific Melanesian and Western academic epistemic assumptions in approaching the design of a collaborative research project. This thesis provides an example of a unique language documentation project arising out of a community’s vision and coming to fruition through community involvement. It provides the theoretical basis for creating collaborative language documentation projects grounded in Pacific Indigenous epistemologies and reflects on important questions in navigating the differences between these epistemologies and Western academic assumptions regarding research. Lastly, the thesis contributes to the documentation record of Denggan through a grammar sketch with valuable data from recorded stories and conversations.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

1 Pure basic research

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



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Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies


Meyerhoff, Miriam; Coto-Solano, Rolando; Chen, Victoria