Phoning home helps threatened languages live on

Mobile phones, computers and other technology are often thought to erode the unique cultural identities of small communities, but Victoria University of Wellington Professor of Linguistics Miriam Meyerhoff argues the opposite can be true.

A woman sits at a desk, looking at the camera

Professor Meyerhoff, a sociolinguist in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, has been conducting fieldwork in Vanuatu for more than 20 years. For the last eight, she has focused on the north-eastern village of Hog Harbour, where Nkep is spoken, one of more than 110 languages in Vanuatu.

In her forthcoming inaugural public lecture for Victoria, Professor Meyerhoff will explain how technology is helping the village “put the brakes on” the negative effects that can follow urbanisation and migration.

“Urbanisation and migration are bad news for small languages because people get taken away from the high density, high communication networks of the village,” she says. “But what I’m seeing is people using things like mobile phones, email and the internet to stay in touch and so they are continuing to speak Nkep. The technology provides an extended community.”

Professor Meyerhoff will also talk about another form of technology Hog Harbour villagers have embraced: filmmaking—to document an important community memory.

In 2013/14, she helped organise the making of Heher hür nwesi cei netvoocvooc (Days of Struggle, Days of Hope), a 40-minute film that dramatises a secessionist attack on the village shortly after Vanuatu declared independence in 1980.

“The filmmakers got together a whole bunch of people who had been around at the time,” she says. “Old men came and acted themselves being young and being shot. Sons stepped in and acted the parts of people who had died since 1980.”

Professor Meyerhoff says her lecture—Film, phones and faraway places: A modern tale of language maintenance—is “basically highlighting that people are pretty savvy about the opportunities new technology provides them with”.

A Victoria graduate for both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, she joined the University as Professor of Linguistics in 2014. She has a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, and has previously taught at Cornell University, University of Hawai’i, University of Edinburgh and University of Auckland, where she remains an Honorary Fellow. She is also a Visiting Professor at the Australian National University.

Professor Meyerhoff is now undertaking a three-year research study into New Zealand English as it is spoken in Auckland, supported by the Marsden Fund Council from Government funding managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand.