Cyclone-proofing Vanuatu’s language records


By Nick Thieberger, University of Melbourne

Vanuatu’s rampaging cyclones are the latest extreme event to threaten the country’s cultural records. A digitisation project could be key to protecting them.

When cyclones ripped through Vanuatu’s Port Vila in March 2023, they left a trail of crumpled buildings, mud-stricken roads and decimated powerlines in their wake.

Among those affected was the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, the country’s main storehouse for cultural records, which sustained damage on its roof and entrance as well as losing computer equipment.

Vanuatu is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world and, along with other low-lying coastal communities across the Pacific, it will become more unviable as rising seawater damages garden crops.

As this happens, the risk of local languages being lost gets bigger and bigger.

Already, a number of the world’s 7000 languages are no longer spoken.

In the Pacific, where a quarter of the world’s languages are, this erosion is happening in part because of increasing urbanisation.

Traditionally, people in the Pacific region lived in villages and had little need to travel outside. They spoke or understood neighbouring languages and passed their own onto their children.

Speakers of Pacific languages represent two major language families: Austronesian and Papuan.

Speakers of Papuan languages first settled in Papua New Guinea and nearby islands around 40,000 years ago, while Austronesians arrived over the past 5,000 years.

One way languages get lost is when speakers of many languages move and meet in cities and switch to national languages for ease of communication.

In the 18th century, initial contact with Europeans led to disease and depopulation that prompted many to abandon their villages and move to larger settlements.

Today, the risk of climate change making parts of the Pacific uninhabitable may be what pushes people from their homes and into urban centres where languages are lost.

The region is prone to extreme events like cyclones, floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis.

For example, when the west coast of Aceh, Indonesia was hit by a tsunami in 2004, a number of villages were wiped out, and with them, a number of local languages.

As climate change leads to rising seawater, it makes it impossible to grow food in coastal communities. Coastal villages have to move inland, if possible, or find other islands to live on.

The IPCC’s 2022 report notes more than 20 million people per year since 2008 have been displaced by extreme weather events, many of which were exacerbated by climate change.

This all leads to the loss of languages as speakers move into multilingual locations and their children are exposed to new dominant languages.

While efforts are being made to support these communities, an additional consideration is the many records and recordings of these languages held in the region and their vulnerability to the effects of humidity and rain.

Since 2003, a consortium of Australia universities has run a project to locate and digitise records of these languages. The project, called the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC), includes audio, film, photographs and manuscripts.

The Pacific Manuscripts Bureau is a similar project which has been working for more than 50 years to copy at-risk manuscripts in the region.

PARADISEC works closely with cultural agencies to help digitise tapes and manuscripts, returning digital copies and keeping a safe copy to return in case of disaster.

This is a careful, delicate process. Tapes are increasingly difficult to play, there are no playback machines in many locations and tapes are fragile, needing special care.

Recorded heritage can provide the basis for relearning ancestral knowledge, and also links people today to their great-grandparents.

For some languages, these may be the only records that exist, making their survival so much more important.

Nick Thieberger is the director of PARADISEC and is a linguist who works in Vanuatu. He is an associate professor at the University of Melbourne.