Mwotlap, a Language of Islanders

by Alexandre François

With about 500 languages, the Oceanic family spreads out across the vast Pacific Ocean. Three thousand years ago, its myriad islands and atolls began to be explored and settled by Austronesian navigators; they had started their journey in Taiwan, before slowly evolving eastwards, generation after generation, sailing on large canoes until they reached the limits of Polynesia in the East. Halfway along their path, in the middle of Island Melanesia, they discovered the uninhabited archipelago of Vanuatu, and settled there.

Today, after three millennia of internal linguistic diversification, Vanuatu has 138 languages for a population of 300,000 inhabitants. These figures make Vanuatu the country with the world’s highest linguistic density per capita: every language is spoken, on average, by a handful of villages – a linguistic community in a dense network of many small societies.

One of these Oceanic languages is Mwotlap, spoken on the island of Motalava, in the northern part of Vanuatu. With its 2,100 speakers, Mwotlap is the most spoken among the 17 languages of the Torres & Banks islands. The families who have left the island to live in the country’s capital Port Vila tend to quickly forget their indigenous language as they shift to English or to Bislama, the national creole of Vanuatu. But for most of the community who still live in their northern island, the Mwotlap language is still thriving, being learned by all generations up to this day. Simply, the lack of writing traditions in Melanesia means that their linguistic and cultural heritage only survives in people’s memories.

As is typical of Austronesian populations, Motalava’s way of life conjugates the sea with the land. People go out fishing, whether on their wooden canoes, or on motor boats; they collect seafood on the reef, and enjoy relaxing in the lagoon. In parallel, their daily activities include cultivating their garden inland, in the heights of the island – where they grow bananas and breadfruit, yam or taro. The villages are usually located along the coast: close enough the sea, and never too far from the gardens inland. With their walls of bamboo and roofs of sago leaves, the houses form small hamlets or larger villages, where families live and gather.

A polysemous word in Mwotlap is napnō – which means ‘hamlet’ or ‘village’, but also ‘island’, and even ‘country’; its deep meaning is ‘space inhabited by people; socialised land, of any size’. Napnō contrasts with wild spaces, whether the dangerous ocean or the deep forest. The word bears a prefix na‑, which is the noun article; if we replace it with a locative prefix le‑, we get lepnō ‘in the village; in the island; in the country’. As for the radical [pnʊ], it corresponds to an underlying root v(ō)nō, with regular phonological rules of phonetic change from [v] to [p] (when combined with a prefix) and of vowel insertion (in the absence of a prefix). Thus, napnō ‘(a/the) village, island…’ is really the same word as vōnō (with vowel insertion) in mayanag ne vōnō ‘village chief’, tekel vōnō ‘on the other side of the island’, vel vōnō ‘in all countries’. Language comparison tells us that v(ō)nō is historically the same word as vanua ‘island, country’ in other languages – which gave its name to Vanuatu – or fenua ‘land, country’ found in Tahitian.

Among the many original features of Mwotlap grammar are its space directionals. These are short particles that can follow verbs, to express the direction of a movement; a bit like English up, down, in, out… One important pair of directionals is mevan: they indicate a direction with respect to the speaker (what linguists call “deixis”), so that me means ‘towards me’ while van means ‘away from me’; think of the contrast between our verbs ‘come’ and ‘go’. Linguists sometimes use technical words like “ventive” for me (< Lat. venire ‘come’) vs. “itive” for van (< Lat. ire ‘go’). So in Mwotlap, starting from the verb hayveg ‘enter’, you can either use the ventive Hayveg me! ‘Come in!’ or the itive Hayveg van! ‘Go in!’ – e.g. if I’m suggesting you enter the room where Grandpa is. The deictic movement can also be metaphorical, as in Yon̄teg me! ‘Listen to me!’ or Vap van! ‘Tell her!’.

Even more interesting are the non-deictic directionals: hag ‘up’ – hōw ‘down’; hay ‘in’ – yow ‘out’. You may think they are just equivalent to their English translations, and sometimes that is true: e.g. yem hag ‘climb up’, sisgoy hōw ‘fall down’, etet hay ‘look inside’, valag yow ‘run outside’. But these particles also have “geocentric” uses that work quite differently. When I learned the language, I was struck to always hear certain names of villages as being hag ‘up’, while others were hōw ‘down’. I initially thought about the island’s topography, but this hypothesis didn’t work: most of the villages lay at the same altitude, aligned along the coast. And in fact, when someone walks up towards the mountain, the directional used is hay ‘in’, as in Nok tatal hay lē-tqē ‘I’m walking inland to my garden’; after a day in the mountain, I will walk “out” to the village (Think how you can say it in Mwotlap: you know all the words already).

So what about ‘up’ and ‘down’? How come they are used on the horizontal plane? One day, during fieldwork, using maps and a compass, I noticed a pattern: hag ‘up’ always referred to the southeast (the southeastern half of the world); hōw ‘down’ always pointed to the villages, or islands, on the northwest. This even works for short distances: Nēk haghiy lok hag ‘You sit on the southeast side (of the table)’ vs. Nok haghiy lok hōw (guess the meaning). This is what happens in a language that never uses “left” and “right” for spatial orientation: all directions, whatever the distance, are encoded through “geocentric” reference, using compass points.

And then, a final mystery remained to be solved: why is the Southeast – Northwest cardinal axis encoded as updown? Is this related to the path of the sun? Or to some mythological legend of some sort? One day it finally dawned on me: this is in relation to the winds. In that part of the Pacific, the main trade winds blow from southeast, so travelling towards southeast corresponds to sailing “upwind” (gam hag); in the opposite direction, you would sail “downwind” (gam hōw), with the wind in your back. Nowadays, Motalava people have lost traditions of long-distance navigation; and in fact, modern generations have long forgotten the relation between winds and the directionals they use in their everyday speech – just like we constantly use words without knowing their etymology. But the more I researched directional systems in Mwotlap and in other Oceanic languages, the more it became clear to me that their “geocentric” use has kept the memory of their remote ancestors: they found their origin in the practices of the ancient Austronesian navigators who, three thousand years ago, had travelled all the way from Taiwan, and sailed upwind, crossing the vast Pacific Ocean on their large canoes.

In sum, in this society of oral tradition, you can still rewind history, and reconstruct the world view of past populations. The best way to start is to learn to speak the modern language, and see where this new experience leads you.

Alexandre François, Senior Research Scientist at LaTTiCe (CNRS ENS – PSL), Honorary Associate Professor at the Australian National University

Having completed his doctoral studies in linguistics at Paris IV in 2001, Alexandre François is currently Senior Research Scientist at the LaTTiCe laboratory (UMR 8094). His primary focus lies in the Oceanic languages of insular Melanesia (Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands). With the help of field recordings, he describes these languages as they are spoken today; he also delves into their dynamics by identifying the social, anthropological, pragmatic, cognitive, and areal parameters that have shaped their history. Additionally, Alexandre François uses his findings to offer reflections on the broader drivers of linguistic change across languages spoken worldwide. He has taught Mwotlap (beginner and intermediate levels) at ILARA.

Cite this blog post
ILARA (2023, November 21). Mwotlap, a Language of Islanders. ILARA, the Institute for Linguistic Heritage and Diversity. Retrieved June 14, 2024, from

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