After several days of delayed or canceled flights, I was finally able to make it out to Sapwuahfik. Kristin (one of the JVs who accompanied me to Sapwuahfik) and I had to go the side gate of the Pohnpei airport where the CIA hanger is at 6am. We had to wait for a few other people to arrive who were flying with us, but we finally flew out around 6.40am. The plane we flew in was a tiny twin prop 6 passenger plane. Kristin and I sat in the front row right behind the mail for the island. It was an incredibly amazing flight taking off right after sunrise and seeing all of Pohnpei from the air. The island is so incredibly beautiful! It took only about 45 minutes to fly to Sapwuahfik and we landed on a tiny airstrip in the ocean that was exactly the right length. We only have about 10ft (3m) to spare when we landed.
Sapwuahfik atoll was amazing. The largest island, Ngatik, where we stayed was tiny, but one of the largest outer-islands of Pohnpei. The island of Ngatik has an area of about 0.35 sq mi (0.91 km²), though I have to say is still large enough for us to get lost on it.
Ngatik seemed like the type of beautiful Pacific islands that one finds in calendars of "exotic" places. The island has beautiful white sandy beaches, clear warm (warm bathwater temperature) ocean water, and thousands of coconut palm trees.
Kristin and I stayed with a wonderful family in a nice two storey concrete building with tin sheet/ply wood walls and thatch roof. The family cooked for us everyday, showed us around the island (or rather islet), and helped me find people to work with. There were both very patient and worked with me for several hours in elicitation sessions.
Life on the outer-islands is quite different from the high islands like Pohnpei. People on the outer-islands have to be self-sufficient. They grow, catch or raise all of their own food (taro, breadfruit, bananas, pandanus, coconuts, sugarcane, fish/seafood, chickens, and pigs). The ship from Pohnpei only comes about 2-3 times per year so imported food like rice, sugar, flour, salt, and canned meats only last for a short time. They also have to use water catchments to collect rain water for drinking and cooking. Building supplies are also in short supply, so most buildings are a mix of imported building supplies and traditional building techniques. Since gasoline is also expensive and it short supply, traditional out-rigger canoe production has been increasingly popular and many men use them to fish or sail to the islands on the other side of the lagoon about 8 mi (13km) away. It is great to see that local technologies are more cost-effective than imported ones.
The island also does not a constant source of electricity. There are a few relatively large solar panels on the island for the dispensary (local medical building), elementary school, and municipal government office to provide electricity for lights, computer, and radio. Many houses also have a small solar panel that they can connect to a car battery to use for lights at night or for CD players and radios to provide a bit of entertainment. The only also only has one radio that is used to contact Pohnpei. It is the only source of outside communication (except for letters that are transported via plane about once a week). The island also has a satellite dish that was used to provide a satellite internet hook up via Pohnpei but was too expensive for the Pohnpei telecom shut it off since they did not pay the bill. They are hoping to have service reconnected in the fall, since many people used it to email friends and family members living all over the world. Though Sapwuahfik is so small, remote (80 mi/ 130km) from Pohnpei, and with limit access to the outside world, its residents are in no way isolated. They seem just as connect to the outside world as I am, despite all the apparent difficulties.
The people of Sapwuahfik were very helpful with my research and most were very happy to help in any way that they could. I was able to make many hours of recordings and was even able to record traditional stories, songs, and dances. Doing this kind of research allowed me to connect with people in ways that I would not normally have been able to. It allowed them to share some very intimate things like songs and stories they learned as children many years ago but do not share often today. It let them think about their language and culture and ask questions they would not normally have done. It allowed them to talk about culture and the way things used to be. It gave them space to share their local skills like farming, canoe making, and fishing and to feel proud about them and their island. It also allowed me to form new friendships and bonds that I hope will last for many years. My research allowed me to be present to many people on Sapwuahfik and to listen and receive whatever part of themselves they wanted to share. It has been a very humbling experience to receive so many of those gifts and I will cherish them forever. I hope that somehow I can reciprocate these gifts. I hope that I am able to return soon.
Since I had extra time on Pohnpei, I decided to try to find Ngatikese speakers living in Kolonia (the main town). I already had made a few connections the previous days and one woman seemed really eager to help. I knew roughly where in town she lived and it only took Kristin and I a few minutes to find her. We chatted for a while and eventually I asked her if I could ask her some questions about Ngatikese and she seemed excited to help. It turns out she used to be a teacher in Sapwuahfik and in Kolonia for a total of about 40 years. I was able to record for about an hour with her and I got an initial word list of just over 200 words, some grammatical information and a few minutes of her describing the pear story. She said we can stop by whenever we want and I will probably stop by Friday or Saturday again. After listening to the recording I have several new questions from her. The downside about recording at her place is that there is a lot of background noise from her grandchildren, chickens, geckos, other birds, cars, neighbors playing bingo, and even construction work nearby. Luckily the recorder didn't pick up all the background noise, but it is going to be hard to find an ideal place to record here.
Before I leave for Pohnpei in a few days, I want to explain a bit more what kind of linguistic work I'll be doing and why it is important.
The type of linguistic fieldwork that I'll be doing falls under the category of language documentation. The purpose of language documentation is to create a 'documentation' of a language that in theory covers all aspects of the language, can be used for a variety of purposes later on, and can be accessible indefinitely in the future. That is a pretty lofty goal and one that requires a lot of time and work over many years. How do we make a documentation of a language? The simple answer is through audio and video recordings of people using the language in many different contexts. These recordings are the documentation and from them, linguists can eventually create grammars, dictionaries, and journal articles, but these are secondary to the recordings. To make the documentation long lasting and accessible, all the recordings are deposited in a language archive, which guarantees that they will be available online in perpetuity.
The primary goal of my time in Pohnpei is to collect as many audio recordings as possible. I hope to record (with the speakers' permission) conversations, stories, and other 'natural' speech events, as well as ellicited speech, where I ask the speaker questions such as how do you say this word in your language or what does this grammatical construction mean. I will also have some videos and drawings that I will show some speakers and then ask them what happened in each to elicit different grammatical constructions in a more naturalistic way.
After I have some recordings I will work with a speaker to start transcribing the recordings so I can start analyzing them. Transcribing recordings is a VERY time consuming process. 1 minute of a recording can take several hours to transcribe properly. I will only get a very small amount of the transcription done while I'm there.
In addition to making recordings, my secondary goal is to gather information about the number of speakers of Ngatik Men's Creole (NMC) and where they live in Pohnpei State. There is no good data about speaker numbers and their demographic and all that we have are rough estimates from the early 1980s. I will try to get more detailed data on this by conducting oral interviews about language use. If someone self-reports being a NMC I will mark down the GPS coordinates of where they live. Eventually I will be able to map where the language is used.
So why is this research important? On a large scale, some linguists say that perhaps 50% of the world's languages will be extinct by the end of this century! Language documentation strives to curb the reduction of the world's languages and to provide a good record of them if they do go extinct so future generations will be able to access them. Luckily, most Micronesian languages are pretty health and do not seem to be endangered. However, these languages have small speaker populations, all under 100,000 and some under 1,000 and with climate change and current large scale immigration to the United States, these language could become endangered in the coming decades. Ngatikese and NMC are the two least documented languages in Pohnpei State. Both of these languages have a very small speaker population (Sapwuahfik had a population of about 430 people as of the 2010 census) and with NMC purportedly used only by men, it could have even fewer speakers. To make things worse, there has been very little written about NMC and there are no details on the number of speakers since the early 1980s. As far as anyone knows, NMC could be critically endangered! It is my job to set this all straight and figure out what is going on with the language.