An interview with Dr. Lea Brown*)

To some Nias people it seems that learning, using and loving their own language, Li Niha, is not an activity they take part in with any pride. Indeed, in strictly economic terms, it would appear to be the case that there is no benefit for them in using Li Niha. This attitude of course comes as a logical consequence of their daily struggle with life. Their experiences tell them that when they use Li Nono Niha in dealing with the world outside their own traditional world, they often face difficulties – from very simple activities such as shopping, to more serious and complicated ones such as trying to get marriage or birth certificates, defending their case in court, indeed in any kind of situation where they have to deal with government officials. In their interaction with the “oustide world”, Li Niha just seems to be irrelevant.

Spending time and energy in investigating a little-known language such as Nias, spoken by a small ethnic group, is not an activity taken up by many people. There are even some people who might regard the study of a minority language as a backward step in the process of globalisation.

It is therefore interesting to find out why some people like Dr. Lea Brown have a special interest in this field. Dr Lea Brown is a linguist who currently works at the Department of Linguistics – Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany. Her doctoral thesis is concerned with the Nias Selatan language, and is called ‘A Grammar of Nias Selatan’.

Nias Portal sent some interview questions Dr. Brown via email and below are her responses. (eh)

Nias Portal (NP): Dr Lea Brown, when did you start “falling in love” with Nias, in particular the Nias language, and why?

Dr. Lea Brown (LB): I first heard about Nias in 1991 when I was talking with an anthropologist, Professor James Fox, who has worked in Indonesia for over a quarter of a century and who is currently Head of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University.

Professor Fox mentioned to me that Nias was one of the great mysteries of Indonesia. The particular kind of megalithic culture that arose in Nias is unknown anywhere else in Indonesia; the architecture of the kings’ houses in villages in the south appears to be unique; and the customs and traditions of the people of Nias are unrelated to those of the neighbouring islands, but have some similarities to other, more distant places in Indonesia, suggesting that they may have come from somewhere else. The question is, where from? At present, no one can say. At the time that Professor Fox told me about Nias, he thought that a study of the language might provide a crucial clue to unlock the mystery. It may well do this in the years to come, when the Nias language is compared with other languages, but for the present moment, my studies have just opened up new mysteries about the origins of the Nias language. ***NP: What are the new mysteries ? LB: Well, perhaps the most important and interesting mystery for linguists is the fact that Nias exhibits a particular grammatical feature which is at present unknown in any other language in the world. This grammatical feature involves the way nouns and verbs in Nias are marked. When you compare sentences of the type Ibunu nasu amagu ‘My father killed a dog’ with Mörö nasu ‘The dog is sleeping’ or Mörö namagu ‘My father is sleeping’, you see that while the word for ‘dog’ has the same form (nasu) in the two sentences in which it occurs, the word for ‘father’ has a different form; it is ama in the first sentence and nama in the third (with an additional ‘n’ at the beginning). In grammatical terms, the nouns nasu and nama in these sentences are in what linguists call ‘absolutive case’ and the word ama in the first sentence (without the ‘n’ at the beginning) is in ‘ergative case’. The marking of nouns in this way, that is where nouns have an additional marking to indicate that they occur in absolutive case, is, as far as we know from all the languages we’ve studied so far in the world, unique. That is, there is no other language in which nouns in absolutive case are ‘marked’ while nouns in ergative case are ‘unmarked’.

In addition, the marking of verbs in Nias is also different from what we expect in languages. The verb bunu ‘kill’ has a marking on it that tells you who did the killing (the initial sound i-), and we know that the person who did the killing is also referred to by the subject noun of this sentence amagu, ‘my father’. As I just mentioned, amagu is in ergative case. So the initial part of the verb, i-, refers to the same person as the noun in ergative case. However, we don’t find the marker i– on the verb mörö ‘sleep’, when the subject of the sentence is in absolutive case. In other words, there is no marking on the verb when its subject is in absolutive case, only when it is in ergative case. This feature of Nias is also very unusual in languages of the world. Even though there are other languages that mark ergative subjects on verbs, these languages usually also mark absolutive subjects on their verbs. The fact that Nias has a marking on the verb only for nouns in ergative case but not for those in absolutive case makes it a language that linguists are keen to investigate further.

Neither of these grammatical features are found in the languages which are geographically close to Nias, suggesting that Nias is not closely related to the languages in its immediate vicinity. So this still leaves us a mystery, then, of where the language comes from.

NP: What are the distinctive features of Nias language?

LB: The unique grammatical case system I’ve just mentioned is probably the most important and distinctive linguistic feature of Nias, but what is also interesting to linguists about this system is the morphological basis of it, that is, the actual shape of the words. The words nama and ama , which both mean ‘father’, have a different shape. Nama has an extra ‘n’. The presence or absence of this ‘n’ tells us something about the father that’s referred to in a sentence. For example, a Nias person will know that the sentences Ibunu amagu and Ibunu namagu refer to completely different events — in the first sentence my father kills something and in the second, someone kills my father. The morphological phenomenon by which an initial sound of a noun can carry grammatical meaning is what is known in linguistics as ‘initial mutation’. In the second sentence we say that the noun ama ‘father’ is mutated, that is, the beginning of the noun has changed from its normal form. Mutation in this sentence signals that my father is not the agent of the action but is affected by the action. The change in the beginning of nouns in order to signal grammatical information occurs in only a handful of languages, none of which is related to Nias.

Another interesting and distinctive feature of Li Niha is one of the sounds of the language, called a bilabial trill, which is quite rare in the languages of the world. This sound occurs at the beginning and in the middle of the word mbambatö ‘parents of spouse or parents of child’s spouse’. This sound is considered to be one of the ‘exotic’ sounds of the languages of the world, occuring in only about a dozen or so other languages, and frequently only in just a few special words in those languages. In Nias, of course, the bilabial trill is not ‘exotic’ in any sense, but is just one of the normal sounds of the language. *** NP: You seem to focus your work on Nias Selatan language. Why? LB: When I began my research into the Nias language, I found that there were already some descriptions of the grammar of northern variety of Nias, written by missionaries (in German) around a hundred years ago. However, there was very little mention in these of the southern or central varieties of the language. In my preliminary analyses of the northern and southern varieties, I discovered several differences which I thought may provide a basis for reconstructing a language that may have been spoken by all of the people of Nias at one time in the past. It was the fact that a description of the southern variety did not exist and would be needed in order to reconstruct an earlier protolanguage, along with the desire to investigate further potential clues to the origins of the language, that influenced my decision to concentrate on Nias Selatan.

NP: Some people argue that Li Niha is in the process of extinction. The younger generation of Nias, especially those who live outside Nias, no longer use this language in their daily communication. What is your opinion on this?

LB: It is only reasonable to expect that young people want to become proficient in Bahasa Indonesia so that they have greater opportunities to get jobs, and it is commendable that parents want to help their children along this path to employment by using Bahasa Indonesia as much as possible. When you speak the language of the majority population you can communicate with many more people than those who speak only your own language, and this is surely a good thing for everyone.

However, we know from studies of many communities in the world which have ‘lost’ their languages, that people from a minority group who are not fluent in the language of their forebears tend to feel a sense of alienation amongst the majority culture and experience a loss of identity, realising only too late that they no longer have the sense of ‘specialness’ that speaking a minority language gives them. Every language paints an individual picture of the world in which a community lives. Every language has special words for describing the customs, traditions, beliefs, history and cultural artifacts of just those people who speak that particular language. Knowing the meanings of these words and using them in your language creates bonds of belonging to a community consisting only of the people who can use these words properly. There is no other language community in the world which is the same as your own. Your language identifies you as a bearer of the culture you grew up in. Your language carries the essence of your culture, customs, traditions and history. Although it is important for young Nias people to be able to use Bahasa Indonesia, I think it would be a shame if they did not continue to use their own language at home and to pass on to their children the richness and uniqueness of Nias culture.

NP: Tell us your general impressions about Nias people and culture. LB: The people I’ve met and lived with in Nias have been wonderful. From conversations I’ve had with Nias friends and acquaintances I feel that we have similar thoughts and feelings about life; we talk about our thoughts and feelings, about people’s behaviour and experience in similar ways. It seems to me that despite the fact that we come from different cultural backgrounds, cultural differences are minimised in the way people deal with day-to-day aspects of life.

It is difficult for me to say much about Nias culture. I think that much of what we call ‘culture’ is hidden; it’s carried in our minds, expressed in our speech and displayed in our behaviour. In many cases it’s invisible to someone from outside the culture. By this I mean that a person’s behaviour, their speech, their appearance, their gestures, may not appear unusual to an outsider, yet may be significant to someone from the same culture. It can be very difficult for a non-Nias person to understand the cultural implication of something someone does or says, and for this reason I cannot say at present that I know enough about Nias culture to be able to comment on it. However, I’ve read a lot about Nias customs and traditions, and what Nias society used to be like a hundred years ago. The Nias civilisation, its customs and traditions as described by ethnologists from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is tremendously fascinating. The stories I have heard from story-tellers in the south of Nias, and from stories I’ve read in the collections of Pastor Johannes, tell of events in the history of Nias which are truly amazing. It is perhaps disappointing to some that so many of the older customs and traditions are now lost, but it is comforting that there are descriptions available to those who want to read about them, of many festivals and feasts, traditional customs and artifacts, and ancestral histories, thanks greatly to the efforts of Pastor Johannes in recording so many texts over the last twenty years or so. And at least, also, some of the songs and dances are still performed at special events, and these are very beautiful and exciting to watch.

NP: How could the public get access to your work on Li Niha?

LB: An outline of the grammar of Nias (Selatan) which I have written will be published in 2004 in a book containing a collection of articles about Austronesian languages. The book is entitled ‘The Austronesian languages of Asia and Madagasgar’, edited by Nikolaus Himmelmann and K. A. Adelaar. Also, late next year a volume of the linguistics journal NUSA dedicated to the Nias language will be published by the Universitas Atma Jaya. I will be editing this volume along with Wa’özisökhi Nazara (Ama Wise), a Nias linguist who currently lives in Padang. Pak Nazara has written about the northern variety of Nias for his Master’s thesis from Udayana University. Pak Nazara and I hope that the volume that we publish will contain articles from two other Nias people, as well as from Pastor Johannes.

If anyone wants to ask anything about my research on Nias, I would be very happy to talk to anyone at any time. I can be contacted by email at <lbrown@eva.mpg.de>.

NP: Can you tell us more about your work?

LB: At present I am concentrating mainly on the study of languages spoken in Papua New Guinea, as this is one of the areas in the world in which there are many languages in danger of being ‘lost’. However part of my time is also given over to my study of the Nias language, and I hope that this will continue for a long time.

NP: Thanks, Dr Lea Brown, for your time with Nias Portal. Ya’ahowu !LB: Thank you. Ya’ahowu !

*) This interview first appeard on Nias Portal website in November 2003. Click here to read the Indonesian version.

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