Language Survey in Guadalcanal Weathercoast, Solomon Islands

Tales of towering waves and howling winds worried the Language Survey Team. Should they postpone the trip? Had village leaders received the letters that were sent ahead, and would the people be ready for the team’s arrival? These questions remained unanswered as they stepped into the canoe and shoved off, headed for the Guadalcanal Weathercoast on the south side of the island, and whatever adventures it held.

Language survey is like other kinds of survey: discovering what’s out there, analysing the data, and describing what’s been found. Language survey is done in many parts of the world; with over 7000 languages globally, there are many languages that have not been described. Language survey assesses both linguistic and social factors. It belongs to the field of sociolinguistics, which recognizes the significant role human decisions and social factors play in how languages behave and change. Survey teams spend a lot of time talking with communities about their perceptions and values.

Travel was smooth, thanks to great weather and helpful skippers and drivers. Click on photos to enlarge.

Most of the languages of the Solomon Islands have been described by such researchers as Dr. Gary Simons and D.T. Tryon and B.D. Hackman. These descriptions are similar to a rough character sketch of a person: you have an outline of who they are, but could spend a lifetime getting to know them better. In some cases languages in the Solomons are better known, where language development such as dictionaries, grammar papers, or Bible translations have been done.

Along the Guadalcanal Weathercoast, however, the picture was unclear. Tryon and Hackman (1983) spoke of six dialects along the coast, all belonging to what they called the Talise [tlr] language, between Ghari [gri] to the west and Birao [brr] to the northeast. Their explanation left some doubt as to whether this was the full story, and recent reports of multiple languages confirmed the need for further research. The Papua New Guinea (PNG)-based language survey team was called in, and was accompanied by two [SITAG] SIL translation advisors from the Solomon Islands.

Word Lists are collected and recorded from a few people in each village. After the trip they are compared to see how lexically similar the languages are.

The team skimmed along a calm sea for the two-hour canoe ride from Lambi Bay to Komate on the Weathercoast, visually entertained by dolphins and flying fish. Glimpses of small villages along the shore made the surveyors wonder what secrets the shady trees held. Arriving at Komate, they were met by a senior elder from a church near Tari. He and several others welcomed the team, offered to carry bags, and led them up the road. So far, weather rumours were dispelled. What about the language situation? That night, the surveyors used their tools—Dialect Mapping, Social Connections, and Word Lists—to talk with the community, getting their first glimpse of the complex language situation. That rumour, at least, was proving true.

In their two weeks along the Weathercoast, the team visited Tari, Biti, Viso, Kolina, Peochakuri, Haliatu, Raeavu, Mandakacho, Veratako, Purepure, Haimarao, Nagho, Komuvaolu, Balo, Belanimanu, Oa, Purakiki, and finished their trip at Marau Station. Each community extended a warm welcome and gathered to discuss their language situation and to share stories. Some highlights were participating in their local Palm Sunday and Good Friday services; climbing and leaping from Vatu Kulau (Stone Frog); the practical assistance and endorsement given by Honourables David Day Pacha and Bradley Tovosea; cassava pudding and freshly caught fish; the servant hearts of several men who transported us by boat and truck along the coast; and the consistent proclamation and demonstration that the languages of the Weathercoast are of great value to the people who speak them. The survey team expresses thanks to all who shared so generously.

The survey team took time to enjoy the beautiful Weathercoast.

Dialect Mapping and Social Connections are done with a group. Everyone enjoyed describing the language situation as they see it using cards to represent villages.

So what is the language situation? This article was written as the survey team travels back to PNG, and the answer to that question is not yet clear. The team will analyse the data they collected, comparing the linguistic evidence to reported language groupings and comprehension. In some cases, language borders are easily determined, such as during a survey in West New Britain, PNG in 2011, where the language investigated was a linguistic isolate and culturally and linguistically different from those around it.  The language situation on the Weathercoast is more complex.

The languages of the Guadalcanal Weathercoast are closely related and in some cases very intermixed. Further blurring the edges is the high degree of language contact and learned intelligibility. The world has been waiting for more detail since the ‘80s... it will have to wait a little longer! The report the team produces will provide a rough sketch, which others, including the people that speak those languages, will get to complete in future years.

In the meantime, there are plans to further engage these communities through an awareness trip that discusses “what’s next?” for language development. It is an exciting time to be from the Weathercoast, where the seas are barava fine*—at least sometimes—and the welcome is true.

barava fine: ‘barava’ means ‘very’ in Solomon Islands Pijin, and ‘fine’ is how they describe a very calm sea.

Language survey team members took turns guiding the communities through the survey tools. 

Photographers: Andrew Van Andel, John Havenga, April Hope


The process of language survey was explained, and communities and churches were encouraged to support the future language development work.

Sometimes it seemed the whole village turned out to participate.

The children of the Weathercoast learn in their mother tongue language first, then Pijin and English later. This shows that the mother tongue is both valued and useful.