ASAO grant funds lexicon distribution in Vanuatu

(March 2013) At this year’s meeting of the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania (ASAO), SIL anthropologist Dr. Ken Nehrbass was recognized for his role in producing and distributing a reference work that compares six languages spoken on Vanuatu’s Tanna Island. In 2012 the six-language comparative lexicon was distributed to ninety schools on the island. The project was funded by ASAO’s Grant for Returning Indigenous Knowledge to Pacific Island Communities (GRIKPIC). SIL and ASAO’s joint effort to publish and distribute the Tanna dictionary demonstrates the two organizations’ shared goal of supporting indigenous communities. It also affirms the value of language development for community well-being.

examples from Tanna comparative lexiconA Comprehensive Comparison of Lexemes in the Major Languages of Tanna, Vanuatu is the culmination of eight years of dictionary workshops on the island. Mother-tongue speakers contributed the data contained in 1,700 entries that compare vocabulary items from the six language varieties: Kwamera, Lenakel, North Tanna, Southwest Tanna, Vaha and Whitesands.

“The multi-language lexicon has been popular on Tanna since many people are interested in maintaining their vernacular,” says Nehrbass. The book can be used in elementary schools to stimulate vernacular education by

  • providing an opportunity for students to become familiar with the Tanna alphabet, the writing system adopted for Tanna Island languages;
  • introducing educators and students to the vocabulary of neighboring language communities; and
  • providing a reference for English learning at the point when additional languages are introduced into a multilingual education curriculum.


Languages may be one of Vanuatu’s most significant treasures. The island nation is one of the world’s most linguistically diverse countries (second only to Papua New Guinea in the Ethnologue diversity indexsee Table 8). However, language endangerment is an increasing problem. Many of Vanuatu’s communities are recognizing this issue and are eager to make use of resources that will help preserve their heritage. Resources such as the new multi-language lexicon are a major step towards promoting language vitality.

Among academic organizations, ASAO is a leading proponent of repatriating knowledge—making sure academic research benefits the communities where it was collected. The GRIKPIC grant is offered as an encouragement to anthropologists working in Pacific island communities to make their research findings available in ways that are appropriate and accessible for a particular community.

The e-book version of A Comprehensive Comparison of Lexemes in the Major Languages of Tanna, Vanuatu is available from SIL International Publications for free download according to SIL’s fair use policy.

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