22. Over the rainbow

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Don Kulick
Uppsala University


Note: this essay is a chapter from a forthcoming book titled The End: how a language dies. The book is a series of short stories that document the author’s thirty years of linguistic anthropological research in Papua New Guinea, on an isolate Papuan language called Tayap. Tayap is spoken in a village called Gapun (pop. about 200 people). The language is dying: villagers under the age of 35 all speak Tok Pisin, a creole language that is Papua New Guinea’s most widely-spoken national language. It currently has fewer than 50 active speakers.  


One morning after a night of heavy rain, a wide vibrant rainbow appeared in the sky. On my way to wash my clothes in one of the village waterholes, I looked up and saw it, and I realized that I didn’t know what a rainbow was called in Tayap. So I asked the first person I saw – Michael, the village prayer leader, who I knew was fluent in the language – what the word for rainbow was in Tayap.

Renbo”, he responded, without missing a beat.

Um, no, I told him, that must be the Tok Pisin word – the Tayap word had to be something else.

Oh, he said. In that case he didn’t know. I should go ask his father, sixty-five-year-old Mone.

So carrying my plastic bucket with dirty clothes and bar of soap to wash them with in it, I went off to find Mone. Little did I know that my innocent query about the word for rainbow would spark a month of acrimonious debate from one end of Gapun to the other.

Mone was sitting in his usual morning spot, on his veranda chewing betel nut. I said good morning and I told him I had a question. What is the Tayap word for rainbow?

Instead of simply saying the word, as I expected he would, Mone paused and put a finger to his chin. He pondered. After a minute, he told me he couldn’t remember the word offhand; he needed to think about it. I thought that was odd. On the other hand, though, it isn’t as though rainbows are exactly common occurrences in the rainforest. I only saw that one the entire nine months I was in the village that year. So I thought that maybe Mone was just having a senior moment or had been caught off guard with my unexpected question about a word that villagers didn’t have occasion to use very often.

It turned out that Mone’s thinking about rainbows took several days. Finally, when I passed by his house late one afternoon on my way to take my end-of-day shower at the water hole, he called me over to his house and told me that “rainbow” had no single word in Tayap. Instead, “rainbow” was expressed through a verb phrase which meant “cloud is marked with color”.

This sounded reasonable to me, and I duly recorded it. But when I repeated it to other people in the village to check their reactions, I was universally met with disdain. Em giaman – “He’s lying”, everyone sneered, using their favorite expression to dismiss another speaker’s expertise in Tayap. Even though no one could think of the correct term themselves, they all told me they knew that the phrase Mone had volunteered was wrong.

I had encountered this kind of collective disagreement several times before. People disagreed testily on the word for “caterpillar”, for example. And then there was the wind problem. There are four named winds in Tayap: awar, ngamai, mbunim and mbankap. On this all the older villagers are agreed. They are also agreed that the winds are differentiated primarily by the directions of their origin. What they absolutely could not agree upon, however, was what those directions of origin are. One old man was adamant that the ngamai wind came from the mountain to the south of Gapun. An old woman was equally adamant that the wind came from the sea, which lies to the north of the village. Likewise, the awar wind was held by some people to come from the mountain (i.e. the south) and others to come from the mangrove lake (i.e. the north). Old people argued vigorously with one another whenever this topic came up, but they never resolved it.

By sheer luck, the four winds are listed and defined in a list of 125 Tayap words that was published in 1938, by a German missionary and anthropologist named Georg Höltker. In 1937, Höltker traveled to Gapun in the company of another missionary, thereby becoming one of the few white people to ever actually visit the village. Höltker and his companion spent only three hours in the Gapun. He took two photographs and collected a word list. A year later, he published the list, together with the weary remark that “it will be awhile before any other researcher ‘stumbles across’ Gapun, if only because of the small chances of worthwhile academic yields in this tiny village community, and also because of the inconvenient and arduous route leading to this linguistic island”.

Aside from Australian linguist Don Laycock’s unpublished word list that he gathered from two Gapun villagers whom he met in another village in about 1973, and my own work on the language, Höltker’s word list is the only documentation that exists on Tayap. For having been gathered in three hours by someone who had never before heard Tayap (and who would never hear it again), Höltker’s list of 125 words is impressively accurate. To resolve the controversy regarding the four winds, I decided, therefore, to go with the definitions listed by Höltker. He had, after all, spoken to language informants who still lived in a completely Tayap-speaking village. Also, one of the oldest speakers still alive in Gapun defined the winds as Höltker does in his wordlist. So the problem of the winds was solved.

Unfortunately though, “rainbow” wasn’t one of the words on Höltker’s list.

Days went by and no one could come up with the Tayap word “rainbow”. Old villagers explained to me that their parents and relatives had warned them about rainbows, saying they should never walk underneath one, because if they did, their minds would become clouded and their sense of direction confused. But even though they remembered these cautions, nobody could recall the word for rainbow that their parents and relatives had used while articulating them. The word for rainbow, villagers told me, “i hait”– it was hiding.

Eventually Mone’s old wife, Sopak, had a dream in which she said the true word for rainbow was whispered in her ear by a dead ancestor. The word, the ancestor had revealed, was mɨnuomb – a word that otherwise means “large round lake”. Sopak said that the way to say “rainbow” in Tayap was to say akɨnnɨ mɨnuomb utok, “a round lake appeared in the clouds”.

I told other old people in the village about Sopak’s revelation. They were unmoved. “Em giaman”, they all intoned impassively.

A few days after Sopak recounted her dream, one of the oldest men in the village told me that he had remembered the word – it was wagurmos.

The other speakers’ judgement fell predictably: “Em giaman”, they all pronounced. They explained that wagurmos meant the white veil of stars that appears in the sky at night – in other words, it is the Tayap word for the Milky Way. It doesn’t mean rainbow at all. Many of the people I asked about that word also took the opportunity to disparage the linguistic knowledge of the old man who had offered wagurmos. That man may be old, they said belittlingly, but he’s “lapun nating” – he’s grown old without having learned anything. All he has, people said, is “bebi sens” – the sense of a baby.

Weeks passed and frustration grew. Finally, having heard about the old peoples’ disagreements and disputes over the rainbow, a man in his thirties came to my house one day told me that he remembered once having heard his grandfather, old Kruni, say the word for rainbow. Kruni had been one of the old people who had taught me Tayap in the 1980s; he died in the early 1990s. For the last few decades of his life, Kruni had been universally respected and vaguely feared as an elder who knew everything about Gapun’s history and who spoke flawless and eloquent Tayap.

The young man reported that as a child, he had once been in a canoe together with Kruni when they paddled through the mangrove lagoon. In the middle of the lagoon they met a canoe full of women from the neighboring village of Wongan who were talking about rainbows. In the Kopar language spoken in Wongan, rainbows are called mamor. The young man remembered that the women had called out to Kruni and asked him what the word in Tayap was. Kruni told them that it was mamar.

Rather than being the happy breakthrough that I thought this was, mamar, too, was rejected. “It means ‘banana’”, all the old people responded dryly when, without telling them why and hoping to jar their memory, I asked them to define mamar.

And indeed, the word does mean a kind of banana. But lots of words in any language are homonyms, like the word “mole” in English, which has at least three different meanings: a small burrowing animal, a raised blemish on the skin, and a unit of measurement in chemistry. Couldn’t mamar, in a similar way, mean more than one thing? Might it not maybe also mean rainbow?

Nope. Kruni giaman. Or the young man who reported what Kruni said giaman. Somebody, in any case, was lying, the old speakers were agreed.

In the end, after a month of squabbling, unable to come up with a word or expression that satisfied them all, and undoubtedly growing annoyed at my persistence in questioning them, the older villagers begrudgingly allowed that mamar must be the word for rainbow, since Kruni apparently (and here several of them rolled their eyes furtively) had claimed it was.

My own conclusion is that mamar probably is the correct Tayap word for “rainbow”. Tayap and Kopar are completely unrelated languages, even though the villages where they are spoken are only two hours apart. But because speakers of the two languages have been in contact with one another for a very long time, they share quite a few lexical items. The kind of slight phonetic variation between mamor and mamar are common in the words shared by Tayap and Kopar. For example:

Because I had already recorded similarities like these, I told the villagers that I would enter mamar in my dictionary as the word for rainbow. This announcement was met with muttering.

The villagers’ inability to agree on proper Tayap is a feature of village life that is contributing to the language’s demise. I was continually struck by how vigorously (and, to my mind, how gratuitously) the old speakers of Tayap discounted and ridiculed one another’s linguistic competence. Early on during my stay in the village, I stopped trying to discuss Tayap in groups of old people because any discussion of any aspect of the language would inevitably result in bickering. Speakers might eventually grouchily agree on whatever it was I was asking them about, but later on, they would always arrange a private moment with me to heartily dismiss the knowledge and opinions of their fellow speakers.

It escapes no one’s attention in Gapun that Tayap is a tiny language spoken nowhere else but there. But a difference between Gapun and many other communities around the world is that language in Gapun is not regarded as a communal, shared possession. Like everything else in the village, knowledge of language regarded as private property. Gapun villagers would shake their heads in absolute bewilderment at the persistent Western stereotypes about how a rainforest-dwelling people like themselves supposedly eschew ownership and magnanimously share their natural resources in a kind of prelapsarian socialist ecological bliss.

On the contrary. In Gapun, nothing is communal, nothing is equally owned and shared by everyone. Everything – every area of land, every sago palm, every coconut palm, every mango tree, every pot, plate, axe, machete, discarded spear shaft, broken kerosene lamp, and every anything else one can think of – is owned by someone. This includes people’s names and the right to bestow them, as well as knowledge of myths, songs, and curing chants. Villagers always know who owns what. They have to know who owns what in order to take things freely, or steal them. They guard their rights of ownership energetically and they defend them fiercely. I have heard bitter arguments and shouts that “It’s not yours, it’s mine!” over objects as trivial as a discarded piece of string that a woman who had thrown it away saw her sister salvage from the rainforest.

Understandings like those of possession and proprietary ownership have consequences for language: they mean that the Western truism of a common “shared” language has little purchase in Gapun. In their own view, villagers don’t “share” a language. Instead, each speaker owns his or her own version of the language. And the older those speakers become, the more they regard their version as the proper one and everyone else’s as “a lie”. This absence of an understanding that regards a common language as something “shared” means that speakers are predisposed to not regard the loss of Tayap as particularly traumatic.

Fluent elder speakers still have ‘their’ Tayap; if younger speakers don’t possess a version of it as, well, wari bilong ol, that’s their problem.