New Religious Terms in Two Pacific Languages

How have local languages in the Pacific handled the new lexical requirements of foreign religious traditions? Much seems to depend on the language and sect of the first foreign evangelists.

The island of Yap in Micronesia was first evangelized by Spanish Catholics long before German Protestants arrived about 1898. Yapese is still largely Catholic, and religious loans are mostly from Spanish. Shinto seems to have left no lexical traces from the Japanese colonial era (1914–1945), but loanwords from Japanese remain well represented in the more profane contexts of the new clothing, containers, diseases, foods, tools, and means of transport introduced during those decades.

The following examples of Christian terms do considerable violence to the vowels of Yap’s new orthography, which would take too long to explain—and would also make the words look more Dutch than Spanish.

  • bibliya ‘Bible’ (Span.)
  • galasya ‘church’ (Span.)
  • kiristiyano ‘Christian’ (Span.)
  • komunyon ‘communion’ (Span.)
  • kuruth ‘cross, crucifix’ (Span.)
  • infiyarno ‘hell’ (Span.)
  • misa ‘(Catholic) mass’ (Span.)
  • padrey ‘priest’ (Span.)
  • rosaryo ‘rosary’ (Span.)
  • baynag ‘Christmas’ (Ger. Weihnacht)
  • næp’ ni-b thothup ‘Christmas Eve, Holy Night’ (lit. ‘night that’s holy’)

Morobe Province in Papua New Guinea was evangelized by German Lutheran missionaries beginning in 1886. The Germans adapted two local languages for evangelical and educational purposes, Jabêm for the Austronesian circuit along the coast and islands, and Kâte for the Papuan circuit in the interior of the Huon Peninsula. (Many, if not most, of the other interior languages of Morobe Province have since proven to be Austronesian, not Papuan.)

The German Lutheran strategy for communicating new Christian concepts was to adapt the local vernaculars rather than to introduce foreign words—not unlike the strategy of Martin Luther himself during the Protestant Reformation. The following examples are from Jabêm, in whose German-inspired orthography j represents a palatal glide (like English y), ŋ represents a velar nasal (like English -ng), and -c represents a glottal stop.

  • biŋsu ‘foreign missionary’ (also ‘admonition, commandment’)
  • biŋ gôliŋ ‘parable, proverb’ (lit. ‘talk steer’)
  • gôlôàc ‘congregation’ (also ‘clan, relatives, kinfolk’)
  • gêbêcauc dabuŋ ‘Christmas Eve’ (lit. ‘night holy/taboo’)
  • moasiŋ dabuŋ ‘holy communion’ (lit. ‘benefit/blessing holy’)
  • ŋalau dabuŋ ‘Holy Spirit’
  • kêdôŋwaga ‘teacher’ (lit. ‘3sg-teach-agent’)
  • sakiŋwaga ‘minister, servant’ (lit. ‘service-agent’)
  • jàeŋwaga ‘catechist, local missionary’ (lit. ‘message-agent’)

SOURCES: Yapese–English Dictionary, by John Thayer Jensen with the assistance of John Baptist Iou, Raphael Defeg, Leo David Pugram (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1977); Jabêm–English Dictionary, rev. by J. F. Streicher (Pacific Linguistics, 1982).

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Filed under Germany, language, Micronesia, Pacific, Papua New Guinea, religion, Spain

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