Saturday, April 20, 2013

Book 121, Tokelau: "A Way With Words: Language and Culture in Tokelau Society" by Ingjerd Hoëm

On the plus side, we're finally reading something else by a female author in the Pacific region. On the minus side, she isn't native - she's from Norway. On the even more minus side, she's an anthropologist.

Yesiree, here's one of those dry, brain-numbing, jargon-filled texts (purism? doxic?) that I'd never waste my life reading if I wasn't doing this godforsaken project. It's even marginally about linguistics, which my PhD student sister has proven to be a headache of a pseudoscience, why oh why etc.

But really, this wasn't so bad - except for the bulk of the second half, which consisted of Hoëm consulting every person she could about the meanings of specific Tokelauan terms, from uluifa (spirits that possess people) to fatupaepae (a female authority figure), just to show the imbalance and instability of information between genders and classes. Major snoozefest.

You see, Tokelau's an odd place.  It's a territory of New Zealand, consisting of three atolls, with a combined population of 1,411 (that's today's figures, but the country's always dealt with overpopulation through emigration). Despite that teensy number, they've got a number of feuds and village dialects, exacerbated by the fact that missionaries converted some of them to Catholicism and some to Protestantism (the Catholics allowed more of the indigenous culture to survive, for which I suppose they deserve some thanks).

In the '80s, when the author was conducting her fieldwork, the Tokelauans had only recently adopted a written form of their native language and begun teaching it in schools. They'd previously been using English and Samoan - so they had the weird situation of kids being fluent in a traditional language, their twenty-something year-old parents recommending that they follow their elders for even greater mastery of the tongue, and of course the elders jabbering away in Tokelauan that was infected with Samoan words to begin with...

And that's just the background. The messy politics of how language is used is bewildering: characterised as the shyest of the Polynesian peoples, Tokelauans hold their fono (their ceremonial meetings) in near silence, wary of contradicting people and making enemies, sometimes postponing the most serious issues of each Women's Council or Council of Elders to the next fono, just so no-one's feelings will be hurt. 

(The example given was sorting out a feud so that one island's parents would stop barring their kids from attending school. As an Asian person I believe school is bloody important and they should've just trod on each other's feelings. But that's why I'm not an anthropologist.)

Details of the use of gossip as a sanctioning device, the strange disruptive appearances of older women as clowns, invading official events to mock the hierarchies that keep them bound (yet this is part of the culture that keeps them bound). And the syncretic lyrics of the fatele song and dance shows.

Yet believe it or not, the Tokelauans feel dreadfully insecure about their culture - they feel they're hybrid, westernised folk (many of them have studied or worked in NZ; there's a steady exchange of unruly offspring between Tokelau and the migrant families in Samoa and New Zealand). They even envy the Maoris for the strength of their identity, never mind that Maori culture has been reduced to a superficial display of hakas and carven masks in the midst of a mainstream pakeha culture. (In Tokelau, they call them palagis).

But aren't we in Singapore the same? Weirdly cultured and problematic and unsure if we can be proud of what we have? 

Ah, but Yi-Sheng, the world does not exist for the sake of your reflections. Here's a fatele text.

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Representative quote:
Fakalogo atu

Fakalogo atu kite leo e sau
Tena e sau
sau mai i ko
pati tokoto ko te toeina
ko te uto kua tini, tini, tini O.

Listen to the sound coming
That is coming
coming from there
applauding [while] lying down, the Elder
The young sprout of the germinating coconut [i.e. the young people] have finished, finished, finished.

Next book: Reverend Joseph King's WG Lawes of Savage island and New Guinea, from Niue.

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