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Careful who you climb a tree near: Respect and taboo in Vanuatu

Careful who you climb a tree near: Respect and taboo in Vanuatu

One humid afternoon, during breadfruit season in North Ambrym, my language teacher, Isaiah, and I were on the lookout for some ripe breadfruit to roast for lunch. Our path led past his nephew, George’s, house. Isaiah saw some ripe breadfruit in the tree next to where George was sitting on his veranda. Isaiah wanted to get the breadfruit, but said that because George was there, he couldn’t, and we would have to find some others instead. I asked if it was George’s breadfruit tree, and that’s why he didn’t want to take it when George was around. Isaiah said no; rather, the problem was if we went up the tree when George was underneath, then he would have to pay a small fine to George. Over a lunch of roasted and pounded breadfruit called wuwu, Isaiah explained further. It was to do with respect and taboo.

Respect in language takes many forms. There is the tu/vous distinction in French, where tu is the informal form of ‘you (singular)’ and is used with friends and those younger than you, whereas vous ‘you (plural)’ is formal and is used with those elder or senior than you and for people you don’t know. Similar distinctions are found with the German du/Sie. English doesn’t have a grammatical distinction in politeness like this, but uses different sentence structures to express politeness: compare pass me the salt please with could you please pass me the salt, or the even more polite would you be so kind as to pass me the salt please.

Now let’s get back to eating that heavy sticky coconut-cream-slathered wuwu with Isaiah. He told me that you must respect certain members of your extended family by showing physical politeness. Respect is translated as tengnean in the language of North Ambrym. The people who you must respect are your taboo family, described by the verb gorrne. Respect for your taboo family on Ambrym is realised in different ways – through physical restrictions and through language. The family members who command the most respect are your sister’s son or your husband’s brother.

The physical restrictions with a taboo relative include:

  • You can’t eat in front of them
  • You can’t joke with them
  • You can’t climb over them, or be physically higher than them
  • You can’t sleep in front of them
  • You can’t enter their house

But what about restrictions on language? The normal translation of ‘hello’ in North Ambrym would be neng le, which literally means ‘you there’, using neng, the singular form of ‘you’. But you are not allowed to say this to your taboo relatives. Instead, you must say gōmōro le using the dual form of ‘you’, meaning ‘you two there’, even though you are addressing one person. This is similar to French or German mentioned earlier. However, North Ambrym, like many Oceanic languages, not only has singular and dual, but also paucal, meaning ‘a few’, and plural pronouns. Of these possibilities, the dual is used for respect, not the plural as in French or German.

Respect is not confined to pronouns such as ‘you’; people also have to avoid using certain words in front of their taboo relatives. For example, if your sister’s son came, and you invited him to sit down and have some food, you would have to avoid certain verbs, such as taa ‘sit’ or ngene ‘eat’. You would use lingi ‘put’ instead of ‘sit’ and tewene ‘make’ instead of ‘eat’ so the whole sentence would be rephrased as ‘you-two come and put your-dual-self here and make the food’.

You must also avoid certain words concerning body parts, specifically words relating to parts of the head. Normally when talking about body parts in North Ambrym you would use a bound noun – a type of noun which specifies who owns the body part – so the word for ‘tooth’ would be lowo-n ‘his/her tooth’, lowo-m ‘your tooth’, or lowo-ng ‘my tooth’. The end of the noun (-n/-m/-ng in this example) indicates whose tooth it is. But these words are not allowed when talking in front of your taboo relatives. Instead, you could use a free form of the noun, such as leo ‘tooth’.

Another avoidance strategy is to change a verb to a noun using a special nominalising prefix a- that appears on the beginning of the word and turns it into a noun. The verb itself is also reduplicated. For example, the verb ta ‘cut’ can be turned into a noun atata ‘tooth’ (literally ‘thing for cutting’).

Finally, a more idiomatic expression could be used; in this case, tooth is replaced by which literally translates as ‘limpet shell (traditionally used as a vegetable grater)’ or teye ‘clam shell/axe’ as a way of avoiding the bound form for ‘tooth’.

Here’s a handy table to help you get your head (or just head!) around avoiding the bound forms.

Bound Free Nominalisation Idiomatic
rralnye-n ‘his, her ear’ teleng ‘ear’ arorongta ‘thing for listening, headphones’ harrlengleng ‘listening’
lowon ‘his, her tooth’ leo ‘tooth’ atata ‘thing for cutting’ ‘limpet shell (used as a grater)’

teye ‘clam shell, axe’

metan ‘his, her eye’  marr ‘eye’ ateter ‘thing for seeing, glasses’ hal ‘road, path’

glas ‘glasses’

guhun ‘his, her nose’  kuu ‘nose’ akunuknuu ‘thing for smelling’
woulun ‘his, her hair’ wovyul ‘hair’ ōrr ge mre ‘place which is above’

As time passes, so do traditions, and the older generations mourn the loss of respecting their taboo relatives. They complain that younger generations now joke with their taboo relatives or put their arms around them. This art of speaking is being lost and the physical taboos are being eroded. However, this change is not new and has been going on for several generations. Some of the more extreme forms of respect are almost out of living memory. One of the village elders, Ephraim, recounted a memory of seeing how his grandmother, Mataran, displayed respect when returning from the garden, with her vegetables one day. When she approached her home, she saw that one of her husband’s brothers was there. She came close, then crawled the rest of the way past her husband’s brother with her basket of vegetables over her shoulder, until she was in her doorway before standing up again.

So the next time you are in Vanuatu, take care when climbing trees and make sure you know which of your relatives are nearby!

Vanuatu: an archipelago full of languages and their names

Vanuatu: an archipelago full of languages and their names

The Republic of Vanuatu, an archipelago with over 130 indigenous languages, has a myriad of ways of naming them. With so many islands and languages I won’t be able to tell you the history of all those names in such a short space but hope to highlight some of the more interesting naming techniques.

There are two main ways that languages can be named – either by the people who speak them – endonymic, or a name given by outsiders – exonymic. In the case of Vanuatu, this has led to a confusing array of multiple names for the same language.


Several of the languages of Pentecost Island are named after indigenous words meaning ‘what’ – Sa, Ske, Apma and Hano are all named this way. Did these names arise due to brief exchanges between the different language communities? Was the question, ‘What is your language called?’ met with a rather confused reply of ‘What?’. However amusing this is, it is probably not how these names came about. The terms for ‘what’ are actually linguisitc identifiers, words in the different languages that set them apart from each other and were highlighted by the different language communities – ‘we say sa here, but they say ske there’.

The Hano language was originally known to Europeans as either Lamalanga or Loltong, after two of the larger villages where the Christian Mission were located.1 Nowadays, speakers of Hano prefer to call their language Raga. This is the endonymic term used not only for the language, but also for the northern part of Pentecost, where the language is spoken, and for the island as a whole.2 Of course, to make things more complicated there are other exonymic names for Raga, such as Kihip, given to it by the speakers of Apma.


Two of the languages of Malekula Island, Naman and Sang, are both endonymic expressions of surprise.3 Naman, apart from being a palindromic language with a palindromic ISO code, also has a surprising history as it was previously known as Litzlitz, the name of a village where some of the speakers still live. Litzlitz is itself a colonial twisting of the true endonymic name of the village – Lenslens – named after the pieces of dead coral which are washed ashore from the reefs and make up many of the beaches in the archipelago.


Many languages are simply named after the location where they are spoken, such as the place names used by missionaries on Pentecost Island above. One language, North Ambrym, is named after the part of the island it is spoken on – Ambrym. The island is believed to have been named when Captain Cook explored the archipelago and came ashore near the village of Fonah in the northern part of Ambrym Island. He is said to have exchanged oranges with the local chiefs, who gave him yams in return, who said in the local language, North Ambrym, am rrem ‘your yams’.

Captain Cook receiving yams from the chiefs of Fonah – from a North Ambrym story book told by Benjamin Toforr and illustrated by Zakary Bong.

So, the name for the language spoken in the northern part of the island is a concoction of a cardinal direction and an exonymic mangling of an indigenous phrase. As the North Ambrymese say, Captain Cook had a heavy tongue and misspoke our words. Interestingly, a very similar story for the naming of Epi Island is told by the Bierebo language speakers there too – that when Cook came ashore he was given yams and enquired about their names – and mispronouncing their reply, yupi, as epi.4

There is a small problem to these wonderful stories – Captain Cook never actually set foot on Ambrym or Epi and merely sailed past. Of course, this does not mean that similar exchange of yams and oranges did not happen, but that maybe it was a different European navigator or missionary.5

So, if not named after an exchange of yams, where does the name Ambrym come from? Captain Cook sailed past Ambrym and onto Malekula Island where he went ashore at Port Sandwich (named by Cook after the Earl of Sandwich). There, the indigenous group who speak Port Sandwich, or Lamap as it is known endonymically after the place it is spoken, told Cook the names of the surrounding islands, Ambrym being one of them. So Ambrym is actually an exonymic language name. I believe the name Ambrym itself derives in part from the word meaning fire in the Port Sandwich language, gamb [ɣaᵐb], and in many other Malekula languages, simply amb. Though unfortunately I haven’t been able to figure out what the second part of name – rim – means.

What has Ambrym and fire got to do with anything? In the traditional mythology of several of the culture groups of eastern Malekula, especially on the small islands of Atchin, Vao and Wala off the eastern coast, the souls of the dead would be ferried across to Ambrym and then climb the volcano, the land of the dead, to spend their afterlife.6

The twin volcanoes of Ambrym are highly visible in the night sky, giving a rather other-wordly sight. As seen from the Maskelyne islands, off the southern coast of Malekula.

Word, Speech & Language

Nowadays, the languages of Ambrym are shedding their exonymic names and reclaiming their endonymic names. The endonymic language names of Ambrym Island nearly all are related to the meaning ‘word, speech, language’ along with a demonstrative such as ‘here’ or ‘of this place’: Rral (North Ambrym), Daakie, Daakaka, Dalkalaen, Raljako, Raljaja and Vatlongos. But one smaller language also spoken in Ambrym– Fanbak is still a place name, meaning ‘under the banyan tree’.

This is itǃ

Finally, the two languages of northern Ambrym – North Ambrym, which has two dialects, and Fanbak are often referred by speakers using an expression meaning ‘this is it’ or ‘here it is’. The two dialects of North Ambrym are referred to as Ngeli and Ngeye, whereas Fanbak is called Ngelē. Again, these are linguistic identifiers, similar to the words for ‘what’ in the Pentecost languages, or the terms of suprise used for the languages in Malekula.

There may be over 130 languages in Vanuatu, but there are certainly even more names for them!

  1. Lynch. John, Malcolm Ross & Terry Crowley. 2002. The Oceanic Languages. Curzon, Richmond Surrey. p21 []
  2. Vari-Bogiri, Hannah. 2011. Phonology and morpho-syntax of Raga, Vanuatu. PhD Thesis, University of the South Pacific. p2. []
  3. Crowley, Terry. 2006. Naman: A Vanishing Language of Malakula (Vanuatu). Canberra, Pacific Linguistics. p13 []
  4. Budd, Peter. 2009. Topics in the grammar of Bierebo, Central Vanuatu, with a focus on the realis/irrealis categories. PhD Thesis, SOAS, University of London. p26 []
  5. Patterson, Mary. 2010. Moving Histories: An Analysis of the Dynamics of Place in North Ambrym, Vanuatu. The Australian Journal of Anthropology. p206 []
  6. Layard, John. 1942. Stone Men of Malekula. London, Chatto & Windus. p79. []
SMG – I’d Arapaho, Roon, Sala, Tubar and Nara, but alas no Oroha paradigms

SMG – I’d Arapaho, Roon, Sala, Tubar and Nara, but alas no Oroha paradigms

A palindrome is a linguistic delight: it reads the same in both directions. For example: level. Or Anna, or indeed Hannah. This is a visual trick: if you record yourself saying one of these words and play the recording backwards, it won’t sound exactly the same.

Palindromes hit the big time in the parrot sketch. They were also promoted by ABBA, with their top hit SOS!

Here’s a nice one from North Ambrym (an Oceanic language spoken in Vanuatu): rrirrirr ‘sound a rat makes when you try and kill it but you miss it’. And a long one from Estonian: kuulilennuteetunneliluuk ‘bullet flying trajectory tunnel’s hatch’. I’m not sure that one is used much (except in blogs about palindromes).

We can go up a level (!), as it were, to palindromic phrases. A famous one of these is:

A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!

This has been around at least since 1948. It has often been extended, as in this version due to Guy Jacobson:

A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal – Panama!

And here’s a Russian sentence palindrome: Рислинг сгнил, сир. ‘the Riesling has gone off, sir’ More Russian palindromes at For French sentence palindromes go to And there are even songs based on such palindromes:

They have palindromes in American Sign Language:

Not surprisingly, palindromes don’t translate. Though we can go up another level (!) of cleverness, to the bilingual palindrome: I love / e voli. This is half English, half Italian, and overall a palindrome. More of these at It’s truly amazing what people can create, including whole poems as palindromes:

Some time ago, I mentioned to linguist colleagues that Malayalam (a Dravidian language of southern India) is a palindromic language. One colleague’s eyes opened wide, and he asked whether it was palindromic at the word level or the sentence level. What a great idea! Of course, it’s just the name which is a palindrome (just as Anna is a palindrome but that doesn’t make Anna a palindromic person – there are deep issues here: what does a name refer to?).

It turns out that there are over seventy “palindromic languages”, including some that are central to our research in SMG, notably Iaai (spoken in New Caledonia). Here are some more: Efe, Ewe, and Atta.

What then of E (also called Wuse/Wusehua), a Tai-Chinese mixed language, of Guangxi, China? Yes, it’s a palindrome, just not a very impressive one. Just as the English pronoun I is a palindrome, though hardly one to get excited about (unless you’re called Anna or Hannah of course). But it gets much better. You may have noticed that linguists increasingly give three letter codes after language names. These are the ISO codes that we use to uniquely identify a language, to make sure that we’re talking about, say, the language Aja (a Nilo-Saharan language of Sudan), ISO code aja, and not Aja (a Niger-Congo language of Benin), ISO code ijg. So, what is the ISO code for the language E? It’s eee. The language name and the code are both palindromes! Similarly there’s U (an Austroasiatic language of the Yunnan Province of China), ISO code uuu.

Here are the languages which are doubly palindromic (name and ISO code):

Name ISO code
E eee
Efe efe
Ewe ewe
Iaai iai
Kerek krk
Naman lzl
Mam mam
Nen nqn
Ofo ofo
Ososo oso
Utu utu
U uuu
Yoy yoy

A real star is Naman, whose ISO code is quite different, lzl, but still palindromic. Where does that come from? Well, the language has an alternative name, Litzlitz, so when it’s not a palindrome it’s a reduplication!

Back to the tricky use of “palindromic language”. Iaai is a palindromic name. As we’ve seen, its ISO code iai is also a palindrome. And the language does have some very nice palindromes:

  • aba ‘caress’
  • ee ‘locative – near the interlocuter’
  • ii ‘to suck’
  • iei ‘to hurt, cause pain’
  • ikiiki ‘repugnant’
  • iwi ‘rudder’
  • komok ‘sick’
  • maam ‘your manner’
  • mem ‘Napolean fish (Cheilinus undulatus)’
  • omoomo ‘women’
  • nokon ‘his/her infant’
  • oṇo ‘Barracuda (Sphyraena sp.)’
  • öö ‘spear’
  • ölö ‘mount, embark, disembark’
  • ölö ‘legume (Pueraria sp.)’
  • u ‘an old word for yam’
  • uu ‘fall from a height, chop down (of tree)’
  • ûû ‘a dispute, to dispute’
  • ûcû ‘similar, same’ (a nice meaning for a palindrome!)
  • ûcû ‘to exchange, buy, shop’

It would be impressive if you could read this post backwards, and have it make sense. But that wouldn’t be a BLOG but a GLOB, the latter being is an instance of a Semordnilap, but that is another story. For now, we welcome your favourite palindromes, in any language, in the comments.

For examples, thanks to Jenny Audring, Sacha Beniamine, Marina Chumakina, Mike Franjieh, Erich Round and Anna Thornton, and for the title (you’ve guessed what sort of title that is!), thanks to Steven Kaye.