Of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, it is estimated that at least half will cease to be spoken within the next 100 years. Many of these languages are so far entirely undocumented, meaning that when they fall out of use no record of them will remain, and the knowledge they encode will be irrevocably lost. One such language is Wamesa, currently spoken by approximately 8,000 people in the province of West Papua, Indonesia. The goal of this project is to document Wamesa, creating a lasting record of the language. Ms. Gasser will spend seven months in Indonesia working with native speakers of the language and recording stories, conversations, and elicited texts. The result will be a reference grammar of the language, a transcribed corpus of recorded texts, and a small Wamesa/English/Indonesian dictionary. The reference grammar will also be submitted as the doctoral dissertation.

This work will be of value to linguistics and to the Wamesa people. Though Wamesa has more speakers than many neighboring languages, very little research has been done on it. This means that Wamesa is not informing linguistic theories; any insights it might provide are currently unavailable to science. Wamesa children growing up in cities communicate primarily in Indonesian, putting the future of Wamesa in jeopardy. It is important to begin work now while the speech community is still vital enough to provide a thorough account of the language and its structures. The dictionary and collection of recordings produced by this project will be valuable to the Wamesa community as they work to preserve their traditional language and culture. Finally, this project will provide linguistic training to local college students so that they may undertake the documentation, analysis, and preservation of the many other endangered languages of Papua.

Project Report

Wamesa is an endangered language with approximately 5000 speakers, spoken along the southwest coast of Cenderewasih Bay in West Papua, Indonesia. Wamesa is severely under-documented, as are most of the languages in its immediate family, and as children in cities and coastal areas have stopped learning it, it will likely disappear within the next 50 years. The goal of this project is to document Wamesa and analyze its structures in order to support language maintenence, inform linguistic theory, and broaden our knowledge of this language family. It is important to carry out this work now, while enough speakers still exist for a thorough study to be carried out and a wide range of recordings to be made. In the course of this project, the co-PI spent five months, over two field trips, in West Papua, Indonesia, recording speakers of Wamesa. As very few materials existed on the language prior to this project, and almost none on this dialect, this data contitutes a major expansion of our knowledge of Wamesa and its family. The dissertation resulting from this work is the first in-depth look at the grammatical structures of Wamesa, particularly its sound systems and word-building processes, and has ramifications for phonological and morphological theory. The talking dictionary produced will be useful for speakers and learners of Wamesa, and will be made available online to anyone interested in the language. In combination with resources on other languages of the area, these products will be useful for those looking to study the history and interrelations between the languages of Eastern Indonesia. The co-PI was hosted in her work by the Center for Endangered Languages Documentation (CELD) at the Universitas Negeri Papua in Indonesia. While there, she mentored local students carrying out their own language documentation projects and taught linguistic theory and fieldwork methodology. This will increase local capacity for more documentation to be done on the many highly endangered languages of West Papua before they disappear completely.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Shobhana Chelliah
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Yale University
New Haven
United States
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