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After half a century, a Kalam language dictionary


Dictionary of KalamTHE CODIFICATION OF INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE is a very interesting process. But I was amazed to see how long it took Andrew Pawley, Ralph Bulmer, John Kias, Simon Peter Gi and Ian Saem Majnep to produce the Kalam language dictionary.

The dictionary has just been launched Divine Word University in Madang with Pawley saying he started the project 48 years ago, taking some 10, 000 hours to document the Kalam vocabulary.

The compilers had to first learn the language, understand the context in which it was used and spend a great amount of time with the Simbai people.

On top of that, Pawley had to proofread the final copy of the whole document six times before it was published in Thailand.

Andrew Pawley signs autographsPawley (pictured autographing books) is Emeritus Professor in Linguistics in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. He studies Austronesian and Papuan languages and has worked on the Kalam language since 1963, a span of nearly 50 years.

The Kalam language is an Austronesian language spoken by the Simbai who dwell in the border area of the Jiwaka and Madang provinces. Madang Governor Jim Kas, who launched the book, mentioned that half the Kalam speaking people are part of the new Jiwaka province.

The Kalam language, according to Governor Kas, who is an eloquent speaker of the language, is the most commonly spoken in the Madang Province.

The province also has other languages including the Rai Coast, Bogia, Karkar and other groups.

The Kalam speakers who turned up for the book launch were very proud of this masterpiece, which now immortalises their culture.

According to Pawley, the dictionary is ‘a monument that honours their language’. Such words by one referred to as a father figure fascinated the crowd. Pawley’s ability to switch from Pidgin to Kalam to English was a highlight of the evening.

Pawley said the reason why they chose to study Kalam was because he and his colleague, the late professor Ralph Bulmer, found the “language and culture fascinating, extraordinary and beautiful”.

Pawley’s ability to communicate with a diverse range of people was also mirrored by the President of Divine Word University, Father Jan Czuba, whose speech in Pidgin and English made the occasion more entertaining.

Unfortunately, many of the people who contributed immeasurably towards the project have now passed away.

They include the late Ian Saem Majnep (1948-2007) who, as a youth, assisted Bulmer in his field research in the Kaironk Valley and later wrote two books and a number of articles with Bulmer on Kalam knowledge and birds, mammals and plants.

In 1989 Majnep was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Papua New Guinea for his contributions to ethno-biological research.

Pawley described him as someone who was popular around the world because he was featured in Time magazine. He spoke about Majnep’s interesting career from being a Grade 2 drop out to someone awarded an honorary doctorate.

Majnep was represented by his son, who expressed his gratitude to Pawley and others on behalf of his father, saying that today was one of the proudest moments of his life as a Kalam man.

Ralph Bulmer in Yarramanda village, 1955Professor Raph Bulmer (1928-88) was the visionary brain behind the whole project according to Pawley. If he was alive, I wonder how he would felt seeing the publication and launching of his brainchild.

Bulmer was Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Auckland and Foundation Professor of Anthropology at UPNG. He did extensive field work first among the Kyaka Enga and then among the Kalam people between 1955 and his death in 1988 and was a pioneering and influential scholar in ethno-biological research.

Another notable person who had died was Simon Peter Gi, who was also represented by his son, a final year student at Divine Word University who gave a PowerPoint presentation on the life of his late father.

Simon and his compatriot John Kias, who was present at the launch, assisted Bulmer and Pawley’s research on Kalam culture and language from 1963 onwards and co-authored a number of publications with them.

In one way or another it was an emotional night for everyone who attended regardless of the constant annoyance of mobile phone ring tones and babies crying.

Papua New Guinea is not just an “island of gold floating on a sea of oil” but also a “research Mecca”. There are so many new and interesting species of flora and fauna including various social phenomena that are yet to be studied in this great country of ours.


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Mark Konie

Can I have some insight into early settlers in Bulolo?

Andrew Pawley

Bernard, thank you for the very fine story. It is a good read. Just a couple of small corrections.

The MC for the launch was Brodney Seip, originally from Simbai, who helped me organise the event (Governor Jim Kas gave the concluding speech).

Kalam is a Papuan language, belonging to the large Trans New Guinea family. This includes, as very distant relatives, most Highlands languages and many of the languages of central Madang Province such as Amele, spoken around Madang township.

The Kalam language is now rather famous around the world of linguistics for its amazing serial verb constructions, in which up to 9 or 10 bare verb roots occur in sequence in a single clause.

For example wik d ap tan d ap yap g- (rub touch come go up touch come go down do) is how you say 'give a massage' in Kalam.

This sort of thing makes doing a dictionary quite hard!

Peter K. Austin

Fabulous story! One small quibble -- Kalam is a non-Austronesian (Papuan) language. It is not Austronesian as reported here.

Suckling Gi

It is with great pleasure I comment on the achievement our fathers have done for the Kalam speaking people. It will never be lost but encouraging to teach toall our Simbai kids direct language and inform them to learn English as soon as they enter a classroom in thier formation years.

The future of all our Simbai children are centre before this great book so we all must own one of this books and teach them to to pronounce their language and get equal education as many others.

Joe Wasia

This is really fantastic..!

Bernard Yegiora

Welcome Barbara. The book launch happened last week Wednesday (07/11/2012).

Our languages are dying out. I myself cannot speak with fluency any native languages, only Pidgin and English.

This makes me feel dumb sometimes when I don't really understand what people are saying.

Mrs Barbara Short

Thank you for this story about the production of the Kalam language dictionary, which has taken place over many years with the help of many people.

It is good to hear that this book has been so well researched and I'm sure it would also contain a lot on the traditional culture of the Kalam language speakers.

It should be a great resource for the traditional Kalam speakers in the future and ensure that the Kalam language does not just disappear, as may be the case with many other languages in PNG.

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