Dr. Lindstrom discussed his time living with the people of Tanna and his study of their language.
TU’s National Collegiate Honors Society for Anthropology hosted a lecture by Dr. Lamont Lindstrom about sociolinguistics in Polynesia on Wednesday, March 6. The lecture, titled “Sociolinguistics on Tanna: Disputes, The Apocalypse and More,” encompassed Lindstrom’s specific research in Vanuatu and the applications of linguistic anthropology outside of academic settings.
Lindstrom started by defining the field of linguistic studies. A prominent anthropologist, Franz Boas, explored this idea in his research on North America. Studying the culture of various tribes of Native Americans, Boas set out to document languages that he believed would be wiped out by colonization. Beyond documenting endangered languages, though, linguistics provides a way to understand the human brain and a lens through which to view human culture.
Vanuatu is a nation in the South Pacific comprised of dozens of islands. The country is commonly studied by linguists because of its wide variety of languages; around 130 are estimated to be spoken across the islands. Lindstrom studied on the island of Tanna specifically, where there are six different languages spoken. He focused on Bislama, a type of pidgin English that combines various native languages with English and some French.
When he moved to Tanna for his studies in anthropology, Lindstrom had to quickly learn Bislama. While he could ask people who lived there questions with a translator, he described that they often spoke differently to each other in their daily lives. The exchange of information here was what Lindstrom was more interested in. He described that “the eavesdropping capacity is what the anthropologist really wants.” To do this, he had to learn the language himself. After nine months, Lindstrom could understand Bislama, but he told the audience that it took two years for him to really be comfortable with the grammar.
Being able to understand languages spoken by the people of Tanna enabled Lindstrom to start researching. One idea he explored was that English and the presence of Christian missionaries had infected native languages. He recorded groups of people during conflict dispute meetings where they would code-switch, or move between multiple languages. Here, he found that a small percentage, only about four-to-eight percent, of the words chosen were Bislama. Further, these words were often used in a euphemistic way. Speakers would choose a word like “bastard” to avoid saying mean things in the native language.
Another idea that Lindstrom discussed in his study of conflict disputes was the way that metaphors play in a person’s understanding of arguments. In the United States, Lindstrom said, people use the metaphor of argument as a war. They describe claims as “indefensible” or opponents “attacking” each other. While these seem like reasonable ways to describe conflict, this is not the case in Tanna where they use metaphors of journeys and travel instead. Rather than clashing against each other, arguments were closed once the two opposing sides had reasoned their way to a resolution that suited both sides. This, Lindstrom taught, makes sense for people who don’t have a mediator. There isn’t a judge to decide who is right, so any resolution has to be made with both parties satisfied.
In his discussion of metaphors in speech, Lindstrom brought up the role of linguistics in politics. George Lakoff, a left-leaning linguist, wrote about the verbiage used to describe family dynamics. Lakoff asserts that shifting diction could significantly alter reception of politicians’ ideas. This is something seen in naming of bills like the “Death Tax,” which actually deals with estate inheritance, that infuses a specific tone. Similarly, the naming of movements like “Pro-Life” seem to imply the opposition would be “Pro-Death.” Linguistic decisions in politics continue to subtly sway public opinion and the reception of ideas.
Lindstrom also explored the effects that a translated Bible had on contemporary religious movements in Tanna. He draws similarities in words and ideas between the Book of Revelation and the contemporary John Frum movement that is a dominant religion in Tanna today. For example, the Book of Revelation emphasizes tradition and nature. The John Frum movement uses this idea but applies it to colonialism, admonishing the traditions of the white missionaries and advocating for a return to native values and traditions. Lindstrom discussed the way that linguistics, in a translation of the Bible to Bislama, played a pivotal role in the development of Tanna’s culture.
Lindstrom’s research on the sociolinguistics of Tanna sheds lights on notable facets of language that also function within American society. Linguistics provide a lens to understand politics and religion through history. By providing anthropological tools to study ourselves and others, Lindstrom delivered an informative and thought-provoking lecture about the applications of sociolinguistics.