Stealing foreign words, recovering local treasures: Bible translation and vernacular literacy on Ranongga (Solomon Islands)


Please send correspondence to Debra McDougall:


In Oceania, which is arguably both the world's most linguistically diverse region and its most Christian, Bible translation projects are sites where ordinary people pay attention to the kind of ‘interlingual articulations’ that are the focus of this special issue. This article focuses on an ongoing vernacular revival movement that arose from the translation of the New Testament into Luqa, an Austronesian language of Ranongga Island in the Solomon Islands’ Western Province. In 2000, the head translator began running workshops that encouraged native speakers to appreciate the lexical diversity and learn the grammatical structures of their language. In the context of the Bible translation and these language workshops, the vernacular is understood to be, simultaneously, an adequately transparent vehicle for God's Word and something of value in and of itself. In elevating the status of the vernacular, participants also hope to elevate the status of local territories and communities marginalised in an increasingly English-speaking regional world.


In Oceania, which is arguably both the world's most linguistically diverse region and its most Christian, Bible translation projects are important sites of ‘interlingual articulations’, where the value of coexisting linguistic codes becomes the focus of explicit and sometimes intense reflection. If missionary linguists writing about translation have focussed mainly on the translator's challenge of accurately replicating the semantic meaning of a text across languages, a growing corpus of linguistic anthropological work has begun to call attention to the broader social, cultural, and linguistic entailments of Bible translation projects in the region (see Tomlinson & Makihara 2009 for an overview). Writing of Bosavi of Papua New Guinea, for example, Schieffelin (2007, 2008) argues that practices of translation from a Tok Pisin Bible during sermons are transforming the discursive structures and challenging the underlying epistemological and cultural frameworks of the vernacular. Handman's work (2007, 2010a,b, 2011) demonstrates the centrality of vernacular Bible translation in the development of collective identity. Here and elsewhere in the region, Bible translations and translation activities invite native speakers to re-think—or, perhaps, re-feel—their relationship to their own language and re-envision the place of their ethno-linguistically defined community in a wider world.

This article focuses on an ongoing vernacular revival movement that arose from the translation of the New Testament into Luqa, an Austronesian language of Ranongga Island of the New Georgia Group of the Solomon Islands (Fig. 1).1 As with so many other language-focussed social movements globally (see Tan, this volume), this Ranonggan work re-asserts the value of a code that lost its status relative to national and global languages that are the languages of social advancement and official policy. In Ranongga and elsewhere in the Solomons (Gegeo and Watson-Gegeo 2012), the re-assertion of the value of local languages occurs in the context of disappointment in the promise of modernist forms of social, political and economic developments.

Figure 1.

Solomon Islands and the New Georgia Group.

The Luqa New Testament translation I discuss here was sponsored by the Solomon Islands Translation Advisory Group (SITAG), the local partner of Wycliffe Associates and SIL International (formerly Summer Institute of Linguistics), linked but institutionally distinct organisations focussed on Bible translation and documentation of the world's minority languages, respectively. A SITAG study undertaken in 1981 found that people of the Western Solomons were not well served by existing Bible translations: few of the region's thirteen languages had any vernacular translations of Scripture and those materials that existed in Roviana and Marovo were becoming inaccessible to younger people who relied increasingly on Pijin rather than these two former mission lingua francas (Early 1982: 16). Luqa was amongst the languages prioritised for translation. Unsurprisingly, the Bible translation and vernacular literacy work on Ranongga has been strongly shaped by Wycliffe and SIL's philosophy of language and translation. As Handman (2007) has discussed, these organisations are committed to giving all the people of the world God's word in a language that they fully comprehend. Comprehension is not the sole consideration, however, because even where a regional or national language is widely comprehended (as Pijin was becoming in the Western Solomons in the 1980s, see Jourdan 1990), SIL advocates for the production of Scripture in vernacular languages. Missionary linguists, including those within SIL, tend to dismiss pidgins and creoles as not lexically rich enough for accurate translation. But Handman (2007) argues that the real problem is not with their denotational capacity but their indexical entailments: these ‘trade’ languages are associated with a corrupting urban modern life, rather than a simple village home; they are seen not only as lacking authenticity but also inviting syncretism and nominal Christianity (see also Rutherford 2005). The vernacular, the ‘mother tongue’, is the language of the heart, most appropriate to authentic Christianity.

In this way, SIL's language ideology both reflects and departs from what scholars have identified as a distinctly Protestant Christian language ideology. Among the most important of its features is the notion that language use involves one sincere individual intentionally using words to convey his or her inner thoughts and feelings to another and that language is, or ought to be, transparent. Anthropologists have linked this approach to language to Protestant aspirations for a direct relationship with God unmediated by ritual or tradition (e.g., Keane 2007; Engelke 2007 reviewed in McDougall 2008) and have explored how Melanesian Protestants struggle to reconcile the language-ideological implications of their faith with indigenous understandings of language that often treat words as unreliable and individual intentions as unavoidably opaque (e.g., Robbins 2001; Robbins & Rumsey 2008). Transparency is clearly a central concern of SIL. Handman (2010b: 169) has argued that early SIL leaders had an ‘agonistic’ relationship to language, seeing vernacular language work as merely a tool for evangelism and envisioning their task as ‘reducing’ speech to writing. Over time, however, the organisation came to value languages in and of themselves, seeing each as a gift from God that all the world's ‘minority peoples’ have an inalienable right to enjoy (see, e.g.,, accessed 7 Feb 2012). SIL ideology also diverges from now-standard anthropological accounts of Protestant language ideology in its focus on ethno-linguistic groups rather than individuals (Handman 2007: 170–71). Such analysis supports Bialecki and del Pinal's (2011) observation that although scholars have focused largely on tensions between traditional indigenous and exogenous modern Christian language ideologies, tensions are often internal to the Christian tradition (see also Scott 2005). On Ranongga, not all exogenous ideologies are taken up with equal enthusiasm (see Foale 2002; McDougall 2005 on ideas about environmental preservation). In what follows, I am less concerned with conflicts between indigenous and exogenous ideologies of language and more interested in why arguably exogenous ideologies about the value of the local language have been taken up with such enthusiasm.

The Bible translation on Ranongga was led by Alphaeus Graham Zobule, a remarkable individual whose language work lies at the intersection of broader historical processes and linguistic transformations on Ranongga and the Solomon Islands more generally. Born in 1969, Zobule grew up in Saevuke, a remote Ranonggan village discussed further below. Zobule began his schooling in the Ranonggan villages of Kudu and then Keara (Fig. 2), but from the age of about 9 years, he pursued his education away from his home island. He completed Standards 4–6 at Ringi Cove on Kolobangara, began secondary school at Goldie College in Roviana, and completed secondary school at the prestigious King George VI High School in Honiara. Unusually for someone whose family had not climbed to the elite strata of Solomon Islands society in the late colonial era, Zobule continued his education abroad—first at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji and then, through a Fulbright scholarship, at the University of Kansas. After several years of teaching Mathematics at the Solomon Islands College of Higher Education, he undertook a Master's degree in Biblical Studies and Linguistics at Dallas Theological Seminary before returning to lead a small group of translators working on the Luqa Bible translation, a project which had made little progress since its commencement in 1982. The Luqa New Testament (Na Vinaego Koregana) was published by the South Pacific Bible Society in 2002 and launched in an official celebration on Ranongga in 2004. Following the completion of the Luqa New Testament, Zobule undertook postgraduate work, earning a Doctorate from the Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School in Richmond, Virginia in 2008, based on a thesis that critically evaluated the Old Greek translation of the book of Amos. He returned to Honiara to work as a Translation Consultant for the United Bible Societies, to engage in ministry through the non-denominational Island Bible Ministries, and to continue work on vernacular literacy on Ranongga.

Figure 2.

Language regions and village names on Ranongga Island.

The Luqa New Testament is important to the Ranonggans for many reasons, not least because it affirms an ethno-linguistic and cultural identity. At the launch, Zobule recalled, people said ‘Now God speaks Luqa’ (quoted in Tabureguci 2008). Yet a number of factors have limited the degree to which the translation is used by residents for Bible study or in worship services. Speakers of Kubokota, a related language also spoken on Ranongga, have not adopted the Luqa New Testament with the enthusiasm that Luqa speakers have. Moreover, few people born after 1970 have formal training in reading and writing any vernacular language. Young Ranonggans who have attended primary or secondary school many not be proficient in English, but English—not any regional or local vernacular—is the only language that they have been taught to read and write. This is one problem that vernacular language workshops are aimed to address.

Starting in 2000, prior to the completion of the New Testament, Zobule began to hold language workshops to help people learn to read and analyse Luqa so that they would be ready to read the translated Scriptures (personal communication, 21 August 2012). This project of vernacular literacy and language revival took on a momentum of its own in the intervening years. In 2005, Zobule helped to establish the Kulu Language Institute (the name Kulu was formed by combining the first syllables of Kubokota and Luqa). This institute aimed to foster research on vernacular languages (e.g., Raymond 2009), encourage vernacular language literacy, and produce a vernacular newsletter. To date, some thirty workshops have been held. In 2012, the Kulu Institute held two intensive week-long vernacular language training sessions for primary and secondary school teachers and opened a school building in Qiloe village (Ovovele Nusa 2012)—activities undertaken through a combination of local initiative, some support from the local Member of Parliament, and donations from overseas. Tomlinson and Makihara have noted that small-speech communities may experience swift linguistic change due to ‘innovations and strategic language choices on the part of fewer individuals’ (2009: 19), and this observation is dramatically bourne out in this volume by Kelly's account of Mariano Datahan's creation of Esakayan in the southern Philippines. Though it is too early to gauge long-term effects on ordinary language use, Zobule's work in standardising and revitalising aspects of Ranonggan languages is likely to have a similarly significant impact.

The translation and vernacular literacy work speaks powerfully to Ranonggans, I suggest, because it promises to invert colonial ideologies about the worthiness of English and the worthlessness of local languages. Zobule convinced Ranonggans that Luqa (and, by extension, Kubokota) were adequate vehicles for God's word—even better, perhaps, than English. He also taught them that their languages, like English, had grammar. By learning their own grammar, Ranonggans reasoned, they might unlock the treasures hidden in the vernacular and, at the same time, learn some of the elusive secrets of English. By lifting up Luqa, Zobule and other Ranonggans also hope to transform their colonially induced shame in being ‘local’ into pride. This language revival is an attempt to reverse nearly a century of linguistic, social, economic, and political marginalisation.

Colonial ideologies and the regional linguistic landscape

Around 1918, a party of men of Modo, on Ranongga's treacherous north-western coast, joined a feast held by their allies at Dovele in nearby Vella Lavella, where Seventh-day Adventists had recently established an outpost (Fig. 1). According to a story that is often recounted amongst the Ranonggan Adventists, a man named Avoso, whose name means ‘hear’ in Roviana language, was deeply impressed by Adventist singing because it was in English, known in Ranonggan languages as paranga vaka or literally ‘ship language’, derived from the term for Europeans, tio vaka, ‘ship men’. Avoso resolved to get these kera vaka (‘English songs’) for his grandchildren.2 Two years later, a war canoe set out for Vella as part of the mortuary rituals for Beibangara, Avoso's brother and the last great chief of Modo. This was the raid to end all raids, for instead of returning from nearby Vella Lavella with slain, captured, or purchased victims (see Dureau 2000; McDougall 2000), this expedition returned with a missionary, a Marovo man who began his work by teaching them a simple Sunday school song: ‘Come to Jesus, come to Jesus, come to Jesus now’. As they came ashore, they blew the traditional conch shell but sang this new English-language song.

This story provides a glimpse of Ranonggan attitudes towards language on the cusp of dramatic historical change. Language was treated as a kind of booty, and so was the mission itself—something to be obtained by ‘raiding the land of the foreigners’ (Rutherford 2003). This pattern is echoed in accounts from elsewhere in the Western Solomons. According to Hviding (1996: 120), some Marovo people sought out the Anglican Melanesian Mission because they believed (incorrectly) that the Church of England carried out instruction in English. As Christine Jourdan has argued for Solomon Islands generally, the use of language had long been a route to influence, and important leaders were fluent in multiple regional languages. According to Jourdan, colonial ideologies ‘recognised value to languages, and concomitantly, to their speakers. This new way of thinking about languages transformed them into quasi commodities: goods to be had’ (2008: 48, italics in original). When Avoso and others raided the English mission on Vella, they had been engaging with ‘ship men’ for decades prior to the establishment of the British Protectorate in 1893 and the forcible end to indigenous warfare in 1900. The Methodist Mission had been established in Roviana lagoon in 1902 and had been established on Ranongga at Lale in 1914, but the leaders of Modo had no interest in being junior partners in an enterprise initiated by the political rivals. The Adventists, established in 1914 in Marovo, provided an alternative, one that may have been especially appealing to the Ranonggans because it also promised access to the language of status and power in the emergent colonial order.

The rival missions of the Western Solomons profoundly shaped the regional linguistic landscape in the twentieth century. As Watson-Gegeo and Gegeo (1991) have demonstrated for Kwara'ae speakers of Malaita in the eastern Solomons, church affiliation has a profound impact on attitudes towards language, patterns of speaking, and even non-verbal communication. They found that Anglican Kwara'ae valued the vernacular and used it much more fluently than their Evangelical neighbours who relied more heavily on English and Pijin. These linguistic differences have become iconic of different stances towards a traditional past and towards colonial and postcolonial modernity. Similar patterns emerged over the course of missionisation in the Western Solomons, with more emphasis on vernacular language amongst Methodists and much more use of English amongst the Seventh-day Adventists.

Marovo language was used within the Adventist Mission, but it was never as important as English. Some scholars have argued that the Adventists adopted English to attract converts (e.g., Tyrell 1979, cited in Watson-Gegeo & Gegeo 1991: 535), but the expatriate missionaries seem to have held ambivalent attitudes about the usefulness of any such strategy. Thus, Pastor Wicks, the second head of the Solomons Adventist Mission, blamed what he saw as the shallowness of indigenous conversion on his predecessor's overuse of English—converts could hardly be expected to grasp the deep meaning of the Bible in this unfamiliar tongue (Hilliard 1966: 442). The reasons for the dominance of English are complex. Although expatriate Adventists rejected most aspects of local cultural practice, they were quick to enlist Marovo converts as local evangelists who taught in that language. They were also relatively swift in producing vernacular Bible materials, with the Marovo New Testament completed before the Second World War and the full Bible completed in 1956. However, although mission policy required expatriate missionaries posted to the Solomons to learn Marovo language, few remained long enough in the Solomons to become fluent in any vernacular (Steley 1989: 429). Moreover, from the very beginnings of the movement, Adventists used mass media, including pamphlets, circular letters, and Bible studies, most of which were in English. By the turn of the twenty-first century, English was well established amongst the Ranonggan Adventists as the primary language for Bible reading, Bible study, hymn singing, and it was used along with Kubokota language or Pijin for sermons and discussions.

Roviana became the lingua franca of both the Methodist Mission and much of the Western Solomons. Closely related to all of the other Austronesian languages of New Georgia, Roviana was easy for indigenous converts to learn; missionaries from Australia and New Zealand who served in the Solomons often remained for decades and became fluent in Roviana. However, the success of Roviana was not due to speedy production of a Roviana Bible. Mission founder and long-time head Rev. John Frances Goldie would not delegate the prestigious job of Bible translation even though he apparently ‘disliked the labours involved in linguistic work’; his wife Helena Goldie was quick to translate hymns and some stories, but the Gospel of Mark was the first Scripture translation produced, in 1916 (Hilliard 1966: 298–99). The Roviana New Testament was completed only in 1953, more than 50 years after the mission's establishment, and no full translation has been produced. Nevertheless, Roviana was the primary ritual language of the church for Bible reading, hymn singing, and sermonising, and it was the language of church administration. It also became the de facto language of government in the Western District. Not only were a solid majority of the population Methodists (approximately two-thirds to one-third Adventist), but this mission was also more engaged in secular affairs than the Adventists. Most Solomon Islanders employed by the District government were educated in Methodist mission schools.

Beginning in the late 1960s, however, Roviana began to lose status as the regional lingua franca. As part of the transition from a colonial mission to an independent church, the United Church of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands was formed in 1968 out of the Methodist Mission in Solomon Islands and the Methodist Mission and Papua Ekalesia (formerly London Mission Society) of Papua New Guinea. Roviana was no longer the church lingua franca for this transnational church. With national independence in 1978, people of the Western Solomons were increasingly drawn to the swiftly growing capital, Honiara, and began to engage more intensively with fellow citizens from beyond the Roviana-speaking West (Dureau 1998). Solomon Islands Pijin had long had a presence in Western Province because of the presence of plantation workers from the eastern Solomons, but it grew in importance as a language of intra- and inter-regional interaction. When the United Church was re-divided along national boundaries in 1998 to form the United Church of Solomon Islands, few people under thirty who were not from Roviana were able to speak, read or write Roviana with any fluency.

Until the Second World War, the Protectorate government relied entirely on Christian missions to provide education. Most rural mission schools used vernacular languages, though a few elite Anglican schools carried out instruction exclusively in English (Watson-Gegeo & Gegeo 1992). The first government high school, King George VI, was established after the Second World War and had an English-only policy. Sir Peter Kenilorea, the Solomons’ first Prime Minister, remembered that pupils at the school who were caught speaking their native languages in or out of the classroom were punished and assigned hard labour. By the time of his first holiday three years into his schooling, Kenilorea found that he could no longer speak 'Are'are, the vernacular of his Malaitan home (Kenilorea and Moore 2008: 51–58). In the mid-1970s, the government took control of most village primary schools and regional secondary schools (with the notable exceptions of Adventist schools, which retained independence) with a mandate that instruction was to be carried out in English. Reflecting on his own schooling in the 1970s and 1980s, Zobule stated, ‘We had to speak English. It builds a thought in us that our languages were not good; it affected our identity’ (quoted in Boorstein 2007). As Watson-Gegeo and Gegeo point out, ‘A side effect of the movement towards English was the further devaluing of local knowledge in rural schools’ (1992: 16). To be immersed in the vernacular is to be lokol, a Pijin term of abuse directed at those unable to speak Pijin or English with sufficient sophistication.

As is so often the case, however, the devaluation of vernaculars has been accompanied by a movement in the opposite direction: a revaluation of the vernacular by those who feel that they have lost it. In her research in Honiara, Jourdan (2007) notes that Pijin is the first language of most second and third generation urbanites, many of whom have never learned the first languages of their parents. In this context, ‘home’ languages have taken on new significance as symbols of connection to rural places that are the source of ethnic identity and, in principle, subsistence security for urbanites.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, the modernist promises of the postcolonial state and its educational system seemed well and truly broken. Tensions between people of Guadalcanal and migrants from Malaita erupted into a small-scale civil war in 1998, with a coup in 2000 and a slow implosion of state services until an Australian-led intervention was initiated in 2003. Gegeo and Watson-Gegeo (2012) note that in Kwara'ae, a region profoundly affected by the civil conflict by the influx of thousands of refugees from Honiara, language and culture-revival projects that were commenced prior to the tension gained impetus. Even as former town dwellers mocked village children for their lack of proficiency in urbanised Pijin and English, villagers felt a need to re-educate children and youth raised in town in both the vernacular language and appropriate traditional behaviours. Ranonggan schools were also affected by the crisis as teachers were paid only intermittently and spent much of their time in Gizo, the Provincial capital, waiting for pay cheques that did not arrive. In the context of disillusionment with a flagrantly unreliable state, the vernacular language movement is an attempt to formulate a way of effectively engaging with the broader world that would not require children to be alienated from their rural homes and vernacular languages.

Truth and treasure

By late 1998, a year after Zobule began leading the translation project, his ideas about the value of Ranonggan vernaculars were in wide circulation. Ranonggans were enthusiastic about the possibility that their own languages were at least as good as English for conveying the truth of the Bible, and they repeated Zobule's comments about structural similarities between Ranonggan languages and ancient Biblical languages. This nascent pride in the vernacular was tempered, however, by worries that people no longer spoke Kubokota or Luqa properly. Young people no longer pronounced the language's distinctive phonemes and they inserted English and Pijin willy-nilly into their vernacular conversations; church ministers often peppered their sermons with stretches of English or highly Anglicised Pijin. An ideology of linguistic purism seemed to be emerging as a response to the translation project.

The first workshop on Luqa grammar was held in October 2000 in Saevuke, a village few kilometres north of Lale on the impassable western coast. Saevuke lacks even a primary school, clinic or trade store and its residents have long been derided even by other Ranonggans as backward ‘stone heads’. I travelled to Saevuke with two men from the Kubokota-speaking village of Pienuna, where I was based. They were attending, in part, because they hoped that learning the grammar of Luqa would help them in their studies at Sege Theological College, where the language of instruction was supposed to be English.3 Although other pastors and church leaders from Kubokota were invited, the expense and difficulty of getting to Saevuke deterred them from attending.

As is usually the case in such inter-village gatherings, each village took a turn in leading the village devotion. For our morning, I was given responsibility for the Bible reading and chose a passage that I thought spoke to the themes of the workshop:

For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement, and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. (1 Corinthians 14: 2–4, New International Version)

I read the verse in English and provided a short comment in halting Luqa, drawing an analogy between the incomprehensibility of the Biblical tongues (see Tomlinson this issue) and the incomprehensibility of English to many Ranonggans. Tongues and English are elevated registers, I attempted to suggest, displaying a speaker's privileged access to power. After the devotion, Zobule picked up on this theme:

The preacher starts in ‘language’ [i.e., the vernacular]: he goes along until he hits the really rousing part of the message—the part that will ‘pierce the hearts of the people’—and then he switches to English. For a congregation from a place like Saevuke, that is the end of it. Whatever fire he managed to start in their hearts is put out: their hearts are cooled. What is purpose of a sermon? It should touch people, change their lives, comfort them, teach them and make them know God's truth. When the sermon is in English, none of that happens. People sit down in darkness. What you do by speaking English is praise yourself not praise God, you show off your learning rather than sharing it. You hope people will think, ‘That's our boy! He's really well-educated’. (paraphrased from my notes, October 2000)

English is problematic because it is a language of status, a means of showing off rather than a means of communicating to the congregation. The vernacular, by contrast, is the language that may light a fire in the hearts of listeners.

This theme is elaborated in passages about the value of language in monolingual grammar textbooks that Zobule has developed for these workshops. The prefaces to these volumes explicitly outline ideas about the value and function of language. One such preface is entitled, ‘What is the importance of language?’ (Ai Koi Vei Poreveveina Sa Na Paranga):

A person who knows how to say the words that are written on a paper but does not know how to distinguish those words from others does not know how to read. A person who shouts out words but doesn't understand the meaning of those words is just making noise. We put our thoughts into words. If you want to enter the thoughts of a person, you have to look at his words. Whatever fills the hearts of people spills out in words. Language shows out what is hidden in the heart. We put our thoughts into words. If you want to enter the thoughts of some person, then you will look at his speech. Whatever is in a person's heart is poured out in her speech. Language tells us what is hidden in a heart. (Zobule 2007: i, my translation)

The function of a language is to convey the meaning; even more than that, it should convey the inner thoughts and feelings of the individual person. But the text also plays on the idea that language is a treasure:

Language is priceless, but we have already paid compensation for words spoken carelessly. We have thrown away many shell rings for those words that we have thrown down carelessly. Words that are put down at their proper times lift us up, they make us happy, they cure us and they give us life. Words that are thrown down recklessly with bad manners and at the wrong times make us sorry, wound us and kill us. Words can kill and they can give life, so you must watch your speech. (Zobule 2007: i, my translation).

Here is a skilful invocation of the consequences of many of the non-referential functions of language in Ranongga. Ranonggans are careful with words, especially around in-laws and cross-sex siblings, avoiding direct or even oblique reference to bodies and bodily functions like eating.

But the vernacular language project strives to get native speakers to recognise a different kind of value in language:

In language is great wealth. That wealth is wisdom. The person who knows how to delve into language is knowledgeable. The person who can use his knowledge is wise. We talk all the time but many of us don't want to delve into language. You will only see the most important things in language if you dig deeply. Those who dig underneath the earth will take gold and silver. The person who just brushes around top of the ground will only see earthworms. Those who dig deeply into the language will take deep thoughts. (Zobule 2007: i, my translation)

This text continues with an extended metaphor, likening the skilled use of language to the skilled work of building of a house. The rich lexicon for manipulating physical objects is used to conclude the preface: ‘So, what is it that is important about language? Look at it, choose it, carve it, open it, select it, cut it, tie it, bring it all together, straighten it out, think about it!’ This phrase demonstrates the lexical richness of Luqa, bringing to this new kind of intellectual work the highly differentiated and specific vocabulary that Luqa speakers use for physical tasks. Traditional skills are applicable to modern tasks; Luqa words are adequate for the task of translating the Bible and, indeed, conveying complex ideas about the structure and function of language itself.

Reflective introductions to the texts pursue similar themes. The preface to Na Tirona Na Paranga Luqa (‘Reading in Luqa Language’), a volume focused on thematically organised vocabulary lessons, plays on the fact that ‘reading’ in Luqa is tiro, the verb used to describe the searching for canarium nuts fallen in the forest. As with house-building or mining gold, when searching for nuts, one must move slowly and patiently, carefully looking under the rotting leaf litter rather than simply casting one's eye on the surface. If the main message of these texts is that language is valuable and speakers are capable of unearthing this wealth, the other message is that without formal instruction, native speakers are careless with language in a way they are not with house-building or nut-finding. They throw words down any which way without attention to where they land or who they hit. Even those who know a language since birth must think about its structure and delve into the meaning of words.

But in another important way language is not like house-building or nut-gathering: many of its structures are unconscious and bringing them to consciousness can transform the way that people speak. According to Handman (2007), as SIL relied more and more on native speaker translators who did not have extensive linguistic training, they began to run short courses in ‘language discovery’ to help native speakers to see the structure of their own languages and to avoid copying the grammar of English. The courses, however, ‘created the very problem they were devised to solve’, making translators more aware of and more dependent on the grammar of English than they were previously (Handman 2007: 180). When Zobule returned to Ranongga to lead the translation project, he was more highly trained in both theology and linguistics than many expatriate translators. Although he initially drew on the English grammatical categories to explicate the structure of Luqa, he incorporated his own and other research on Ranonggan languages (e.g., Kettle 2000) to produce increasingly sophisticated vernacular language grammatical descriptions. This transformation can be seen in differences in the way that subject markers are described in subsequent editions of the grammar textbooks. In materials from the 2000 course (Zobule n.d.), these were labelled ‘helping verbs’ (roiti vaitokai) and categorised into past, present, and future forms. Luqa's distinctive features were described as a lack: the text noted that Luqa no longer distinguishes between past and present, but the form ‘qi’, now obsolete, might have once indicated the past tense in the third person singular (Table 1).

Table 1. ‘Helping verb’ paradigms (from Zobule n.d.)
First qa









Second qu qu qu qu muna muna
Thirdqi (?) qai sa qai mina mai

Building especially on the analysis of Kettle (2000), the seventh trial edition (Zobule 2007) no longer described these parts of speech as deficient equivalents of English helping verbs.4 They are labelled ‘gorevotuna roiti’ (‘the occurrence of the action’) and the text provided paradigms categorised as realis, indefinite irrealis, definite irrealis and hypothetical (Table 2).

Table 2. Subject marker paradigms (from Zobule 2007)
VAITUTIDI TINONI (person order)Kame (one)Soku (many)Kame (one)Soku (many)
Sagorevotu (it has occurred, i.e., realis)Migorevotu (it may occur; i.e., indefinite irrealis)
Tinoni momoe (first person) qa






Tinoni vinarua (second person) qu qu mu mu
Tinoni vinaue (third person) qi, sa qai mi mai
 Minagorevotu (it will occur, i.e., definite realis)Bigorevotu (if it occurs; i.e., hypothetical)
Tinoni momoe (first person) mana






Tinoni vinarua (second person) muna muna bu bu
Tinoni vinaue (third person) mina mai bi bai

Whether it will be the schoolbook grammar of English or the technical categories of scientific linguistics, some exogenous metalanguage is necessary for grammatical description in primarily oral languages. Zobule worked hard, though, to deny English any status as metalanguage and convey the internal logic of the Luqa on its own terms.

Even with this careful analysis of grammatical structures, however, language is not unchanged by conscious reflection on structure and meaning. Writing of their work on documenting Biereobo language of Vanuatu and Kubokota language of Ranongga, Budd and Raymond note that ‘the act of documentation led chiefs and elders to question whether certain words/expressions were ‘correct’ and even to outlaw ‘incorrect’ language in everyday usage’ (2007: 52). Much of the language that is deemed incorrect, it would seem, is language that functions in ways that are not directly related to reference and predication. To take one example, during the 2000 Luqa grammar course, one participant pointed out that people now misuse the terms of address qokolo (‘man’) and siu (‘woman’) by calling women ‘qokolo’ and men ‘siu’. In contemporary discourse, they have two overlapping discursive functions—they are used as vocative or address terms and as interjectives or discourse markers. Qokolo (and to a lesser extent siu) are used in many of the same contexts that speakers of Californian-inflected American English might use ‘Dude!’—contexts of surprise, wonder, enthusiasm, alarm, frustration, as well as address.5 When a woman is addressed as qokolo (or a man as siu)—or, as sometimes occurs, a young person is addressed by an elder as ‘granny’—such unexpected forms of address take on expressive force, often mirroring the unexpected or absurd nature of the situation.

Such a privileging of reference at the expense of other kinds of discursive function was also evident in a discussion of a phrase I understand as a joking curse. Another participant was explaining how to respond to someone requesting something like betel nut when you had absolutely nothing left. The proper Luqa statement, he said, was bi julingai tu or bi julingai tu sigu. Zobule later explained that julingai means ‘go in’, probably derived from the word julingi, which means ‘push one's way through or in a very small entry or space’ (Zobule, personal communication, 21 August 2012). Meanwhile, sigu is a traditional birthing hut, a space forbidden to men. When I asked friends in Pienuna about the phrase in 2000, they laughingly told me that old men used to talk that way. To strenuously deny that they had anything in their baskets, they would say bi tea tu ‘as if it were excrement’, bi sie ‘as if it were a dog’, or (most outrageously) bi pipina tu na luluqu ‘as if it were the clitoris of my sister’. That meant that even if something were there, they couldn't touch it—a sort of harmless curse. Such expressions fell out of use with Christianisation, but Zobule used such a phrase to translate John 21: 5. When Jesus asks the disciples whether they have caught fish, they reply expressing their frustration by saying, Qokolo, ko kepore sosoto kai tea sa be vepodoamei, which Zobule glossed for me as ‘Man, not one single shit we begot’ (Na Vinaego Koregana 2002: 247, personal communication, 26 September 2012). According to Zobule, ‘the expression raised not a few eyebrows and hairs when they heard it read from the pulpit, for it sounds like a swear expression now!’ (personal communication, 21 August 2012).6 Far more than simply accurately translating any source text, the original translation brings older pre-Christian sensibilities into the Biblical narrative in ways that some Ranonggans find jarring.

Focussing attention on the deep meaning of words may lead to empowerment, but it also can heighten a sense of inadequacy. Writing of attempts to transform Sumbanese ritual speech into an icon of culture in multicultural New Order Indonesia, Webb Keane notes:

[T]o focus on the referents of ritual words can lead one to interpret the gap between text and the world of experience as evidence of pure loss. One consequence of this can be a kind of nostalgia, in which authentic culture is perceived to be on the wane. (Keane 1997: 50)

Transforming ritual speech into cultural artefact entails a change in ideas about what language is and does; the focus is no longer whether language is effective but whether it is accurate. Taking Luqa as an object for study can, paradoxically, exacerbate a sense of loss, akin to that which Tomlinson (2009) has discussed for Fiji. We turn our attention to the riches of the language only to see that those riches have already been allowed to dissolve into dust.

Loving the local

Avoso's desire to get English for his grandchildren back in 1920 was explained to me with a kind of chuckle; he was an audacious man of old who thought that Christianity was a child's plaything. In Avoso and Beikera's time, Ganoqa—the rough western coast from which the island's modern name was derived—was known as Vitu Gogoto (‘seven hundred’) for the number of warriors who could be summoned for long distance war canoe expeditions. With no good landing places, steep slopes and unfavourable winds, it offered excellent protection from raids. Following pacification, though, many people migrated to the leeward side, with gentler terrain and better harbours. Ranonggans, especially those living on the western coast, have come to feel marginal.

At the end of the 2000 grammar course, a singing group performed songs composed by one of the students at the school, a young Saevuke man named John Beri. Before picking up his guitar for the final song, Beri explained that the village of Saevuke is ridiculed. People say that it is ‘taboo to go to school’ in Saevuke and that Saevuke children have heads like ‘sharp coral stones’. It was ridiculed because, he said, ‘we did not know God's plan, which was hidden until He revealed it to his servant’ (indicating Zobule). But now, he said, ‘the plan of God is revealed’. The song links the opening of the school to the transformation of the village. (An audio recording of this song performance is available in the online version of this article. See Supporting Information, below.)

Verse 1 Verse 1
The village of Saevuke, Na gugusu pa Saevuke
is known everywheresa tagigila doru enga
It is known there is no Sa tagigila kepore na
school in Saevuke sikulu pa Saevuke
So all of us youth/children Ko agei doru na koburu
we hear the talk qe nongoria na paranga
It makes us ashamed Sa vakeagei pana
in(of) our way of life mei toa susuvere
Chorus Chorus
Saevuke, you're ridiculed Saevuke qu tava valede
Saevuke, you're talked about Saevuke qu tapoja
But now you're not as you were before Ba kopira quke vevei pa moa
Saevuke, I don't want to leave you. Saevuke qake nyogua loago
Chorus variation Chorus variation
Saevuke, you are ridiculed Saevuke qu tava valede
Above all the villages Pa dodoru na gugusu
But now you're not as you were before Ba kopira quke vevei pa moa
Saevuke, I don't want to leave you. Saevuke qake nyogua loago
Verse 2 Verse 2
When the school was started Tonai sa tapodalai na sikulu
we children were happy qe qera agei na koburu
The plan of GodNa palani tai Tamasa
has been there sa koleona
Lord, help us Bangara mu tokanigei
so that we will not be slack ko meike aru taloloa
Lord give us Bangara mu vanigei
your knowledge na mua gigalai
Chorus (above)  
Ending Ending
But now you're not as you were before Ba kopira quke vevei pa moa
Saevuke, I don't want to leave you Saevuke qake nyogua loago
But now you're not as you were before Ba kopira quke vevei pa moa
Saevuke, I love you Saevuke qa roroquigo

In this song, Saevuke is addressed as a person: ‘Saevuke, you're ridiculed’, ‘Saevuke, I don't want to leave you’, and in the last two lines ‘Saevuke, I love you’:

Ba kopira qu=ke ve-vei pa moa
conj now s:2sg.r=neg like-reduploc.prep past
But now you're not as you were before
Saevuke qa ro-roqu=i=go
Saevuke S:1sg.r think-redup=tr=obj.2sg
Saevuke, I love you.

When they see or visit places strongly associated with a deceased or absent loved one, Ranonggans mourn those who are not present (cf. Schieffelin 1976). When Zobule helped me make sense of this stanza, he recalled that on the occasion of his father's death, as they approached their small settlement with the coffin, he repeatedly cried out the name of the place and addressed it in the second person, ‘Bebea, Bebea the one who owns you has gone away! Now you will never see him again! He has died and you will never see him again!’ (Zobule, personal communication, 7 December 2002). Beri's song, he said, brought tears to his eyes, thinking of the abuse heaped upon Saevuke and the sacrifices that people like his parents had to make to see their children educated. This was not the first song about Saevuke's shame: Zobule recalled one from his childhood with the verse Qu jutunisiu na tabu sikulu ba qake pavu mamatania ‘You've accused me of treating school like it is ‘tabu’ but I'm not going to bother worrying about it’. Beri's song, though, is the first song that expresses pride in his maligned home.

This unconventional usage—whereby a place is figured as a person that is the object of care—is part of the poetic effect of the song. It extends the language in new directions, using it to express inner feelings and thoughts. It also indicates, I think, the way a new kind of relationship is emerging between a person and his or her home and language. As people leave home to make their way in modern education, they come to have a new kind of sentimental attachment to home that (like the town-dwellers that Jourdan has worked with) they can no longer take for granted. In the past—the time of Avoso, perhaps—language was not a matter of ethnic identity as much as it was an inherent part of the landscape. As Rumsey (1993) argued for Aboriginal Australia, the connection between language and land is understood to be direct: languages became associated with territory not because people speaking those languages arrived on the territories but because Dreaming ancestors themselves laid the languages down on the land. In a parallel way, in pre-Christian Ranongga, emplaced spirits react positively to the language of the place and hostilely to foreign languages. This is still true in areas that were once densely populated but are now depopulated. As these kinds of emplaced powers have faded to the margins of spatial and social life, both linguistic identities and land ownership have become more open to negotiation and struggle. Language is no longer bound to place on the level of ontology; it has become, instead, an important marker of ethnic or community identity.

By Zobule's generation, there was a wrenching choice to be made: children could either leave home for months and years at a time to attend school or they could remain home and stay a ‘stone head’ in the eyes of other Ranonggans. This problem is particularly poignant in Saevuke. This is why, Zobule explained to me, he began the vernacular literacy project in Saevuke, and why they appreciate it. But the problem is experienced more widely as well. Even those who have a primary school in their village must leave home if they want to attend a provincial or national secondary school. Solomon Islands does not have a university and talented students strive to attend university overseas if they are lucky or well-connected enough to get a scholarship. This profound dilemma of modern Solomon Islands children—staying close to home and family but remaining shamefully backwards, or venturing out but becoming alienated from home—is precisely what the vernacular language school aimed to eliminate.

Translation as witness

In interviews with regional and international journalists, Zobule explained, ‘Translating from a source language (Greek for NT, Hebrew and Aramaic for OT) into a target language (like Luqa) is always a challenge’ (Boorstein 2007). His PhD research (Zobule 2008) focused on the sections of the book of Amos that have been considered mistaken or incorrect translations from the Hebrew to the Old Greek. Examining how ancient translators deal with difficult—even unknowable—stretches of text that they could not omit, he concluded that they were pragmatic, using one of a number of strategies to produce some sort of translation and then adjusting the surrounding text to make the whole passage sensible. ‘Accuracy’, he argued, ‘must therefore give way to meaningfulness’ (2010: 450). In Zobule's view, such inaccuracies did not undermine the value of the translation, for the translator is not a mere copyist. Instead, the translator ‘uses a copy of a text in one language to produce a witness to the text in another language’ (2010: 448). This translation, as textual witness, speaks across the gap of otherness and unknowability.

Equivalence in denotational meaning across linguistic codes may be possible, but English inevitably ‘says’ something different than Luqa; it says that the speaker is connected to a wider world and its sources of power and value. Yet the social hierarchies that language use invokes—where the English speaker is a cosmopolitan and the Luqa speaker is a bumpkin—may be reversed, and this was what the vernacular language revival movement aimed to do. By lifting up the language, speakers and their home place are also lifted up. In a Christian world in which the last shall be first and the meek shall inherit the earth, the humility of the language becomes its strength.


My sincere thanks go to the people of Saevuke for hosting the Luqa grammar workshop I attended and especially to Alphaeus Zobule, who has been supportive of my research over some 15 years and has generously provided feedback on several drafts of this article. The first draft of this article was written for a panel organised by Matt Tomlinson and Matthew Engelke at the 2002 AAA meetings and it benefitted from comments by discussant Joel Robbins, organisers, and participants; a later version was presented at the ‘Semiotics: Culture in Context Workshop’ at the University of Chicago, where Courtney Handman provided an incisive critical reading. Rupert Stasch, Alan Rumsey, and three anonymous reviewers provided valuable suggestions on this final version. The paper draws on 23 months of research on Ranongga carried out between October 1998 and February 2001, which was supported by an International Dissertation Research Grant from the Social Science Research Council and a Small Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. Later research was supported by Discovery Project 0666652 of the Australian Research Council as well as travel grants from the University of Western Australia.


  1. 1

    According to 2009 census data, approximately three thousand people live in Luqa-speaking areas and three thousand in Kubokota-speaking areas of Ranongga; such figures do not account for non-native residents of the rural areas or Ranonggans living in urban areas like Gizo and the national capital Honiara (Solomon Islands Government 2012). Historically, three linguistic regions existed—Luqa in the south, Kubokota in the northeast, Ganoqa on the northwest. It is not clear how different Ganoqa language once was from Kubokota, but the former is now thought to be obsolete. In this essay, I have adopted the orthography used in the Luqa New Testament in writing both Luqa and Kubokota terms with the exception of the name of the island, Ranongga, which is now standardised in ways contrary to that orthography and local pronunciation (according to which it should be ‘Ganoqa’). Vowels represent sounds close to English equivalents, as do most consonants with the exception of q for the voiced velar stop (as in English ‘finger’), g for the voiced velar fricative (no equivalent in English, sometimes called a ‘soft g’) and ng for the velar nasal (as in English ‘sing’). All voiced stops are pre-nasalised in Ranonggan languages (so ‘Modo’ is pronounced ‘Mondo,’ ‘Zobule’ as ‘Zombule’).

  2. 2

    Vaka modifies words to signal European origins where there is a local equivalent (e.g., aremane vaka, ‘European umbrella,’ is contrasted to the local form of sewn fiber rain covering). What is interesting about the term vaka is that exogenous origin is linked not to ethnicity or skin colour, but to the fact that these things and ideas come from afar via a ship.

  3. 3

    As it turned out, the language of instruction at Sege was Pijin. When I visited in 2010, Ranonggan students lamented that they were spending more time working in gardens and performing manual labour than engaging in Bible study in any language.

  4. 4

    In this version of the grammar text, Zobule used the name he was given at birth, Silion Vai Zobule, rather than the name he adopted at school, Alpheaus G Zobule.

  5. 5

    An example of the ‘misuse’ of these gendered terms comes from an online conversation with a (male) Kubokota-speaking friend about my age as the latest election-induced riot threatened to break out. He wrote: Qokolo koraparane leanaPrime Minister korega ko daikaki roiti tu za kopa podo ‘Dude, good afternoon … a new Prime Minister, so no way … something is brewing here.’ By addressing me as qokolo rather than either the age-based kin terms that he often uses in addressing me or siu, he seems to evoke something of the alarming nature of the situation.

  6. 6

    Zobule plans to revise this verse in future publications, using the phrase, Qokolo, ko kepotu, ‘Man, indeed nothing’, not because he is avoiding the ‘swear’ word but because he feels the original translation was ‘too free in its rendering’ (personal communication, 26 September 2012).