Project Canterbury

The Church in Melanesia

Edited by Stuart W. Artless

Sydney, N.S.W.: Melanesian Mission, [1936]

Chapter 8. The Printed Word in the Languages of Melanesia

By the Rev. Dr. W. Ivens.

"May it not be that some thrill is to be found in the story of how men have been the first to master some unknown tongue, reduce it to writing, write the first book in it and finally translate the New Testament or the whole Bible into it? I venture to think that the story I have to tell is one of tremendous interest." ("The Shrine of a People's Soul")


In the island diocese of Melanesia there are as many different languages as there are inhabited islands. And it is even true to say that a large island, say, in the Solomons, eighty or a hundred miles long, may have ten or twelve different languages on it. These languages are all related to one another, but the grammar varies considerably; the idioms differ, and the consonant sounds used may vary greatly; different words are used for common objects, e.g., water, sand, earth, sea, coconut, etc., and the intonation is never the same in any two districts even of a small island.

The differences between the languages of North and South Melanesia are most marked: in the south there is a tendency to omit vowels and to "close" syllables with a consonant; in the north there is a tendency to omit consonants, some languages dropping t, k, g In and w with a pronounced "break" in the sound, while the northern languages prefer "open" to "closed" sounds. On any one of the larger islands the people of this or that part may be bi-lingual, knowing their own language and that of their more immediate neighbours, but unless there has been a certain amount of intercourse between the various peoples, due to trade or to matrimonial alliances, each set of people keeps to its own language even when talking to their neighbours who are of another speech. In the providence of God, the first bishop of Melanesia, John Coleridge Patteson, was a heaven-born linguist. He had been well trained linguistically; he could hear correctly the sounds made by the natives with whom he came into contact, and he wrote down the words he heard, using a phonetic script. There was no one prevailing Melanesian language which lie could employ m his dealings with his scholars, and in those days [89/90] Melanesians could not talk even "pidgin" English. It remained for Patteson to learn this or that Melanesian language, hearing it from the lips of those with whom he came into contact, and to begin his educational work through the medium of not merely one, but at least four native languages. In time, the choice fell upon the language of Mota, Banks' Island, as the single medium of imparting education and religion in the training schools of the Mission. And this choice was undoubtedly inspired of God; for Mota is perhaps the simplest and easiest of all the Melanesian languages.

Patteson himself began the work of translating into Melanesian languages; the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed, a Psalm, a shorter Catechism, all set up at his own Mission Press, and even, at times, by his own hands. When his translational work began to be confined to the Mota language, he published an ever-increasing list of Services rendered from the Book of Common Prayer, as need required, with a steady growth in the number of Psalms, translated direct from the Hebrew, and at the same time a number of Hymns in the Mota language, didactic rather than emotional in tendency.

Nor was direct Scriptural translation into the Mota language neglected by him; for he made excerpts from Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, some of the minor Prophets, with the Gospel of St. John, and liturgical epistles and gospels as well; while two of his helpers, Pritt and Codrington, were working at other portions of the New Testament in Mota. Eventually the whole Bible was translated into Mota, Codrington finishing the New Testament, and doing more than half of the Old Testament. But he would have nothing to do with the translation of Leviticus!

Codrington helped the Rev. A. Penny and native teachers translate the four Gospels into the language of Florida (Gela), Solomon Islands, which was the second language in the Melanesian Mission to possess such a translation. (The whole New Testament was translated at a later date.) A translation of the Book of Common [90/91] Prayer was made earlier into the Florida language. Then Came the turn of Bugotu (Santa Isabel), Solomon Islands, when the Rev. H. P. Welchman, with native assistants, provided the Christians of the place with a translation of the Gospels into their language, and also with a translation of the Book of Common Prayer. The New Testament and Book of Common Prayer were afterwards translated in full into the Bugotu language by Mr. F. Bourne.

The second and third and fourth complete translations of the New Testament in the Melanesian Mission were made in the language of Ulawa, Saa, and Lau, Solomon Islands. And along with the New Testament were translations of the Book of Common Prayer into the same three languages, with some sixty Psalms in each.

Other languages in the Solomon Islands also received attention from translators, the Four Gospels being published in the Arosi language of San Cristoval, and also in the language of Valuranga, Guadalcanal. And the Book of Common Prayer, with certain Psalms, was translated into the Arosi and Vaturanga and Fiu languages, with the book of Genesis and a longer Catechism in Lau.

In the southern islands the Rev. L. P. Robin translated the Gospel of St. Luke into the language of Vava, Torres Islands, besides doing a small translation of the Book of Common Prayer into the same language, with certain liturgical epistles and gospels. Two small Prayer books were also issued in languages of the Santa Cruz, district. In the New Hebrides, translations have been made of portions of the Book of Common Prayer, together with excerpts from the Old Testament and the New Testament, into the languages of Oba and Maewo. And the Four Gospels have been translated into the language of Raga, together with the liturgical epistles, and the Book of Common Prayer, and a number of psalms.

To-day in the Melanesian Mission the education of the native catechists and ordinands is proceeding more and [91/92] more through the medium of English. Mota no longer occupies the high place it once held as the language used for educational purposes in the whole of the Mission. But in their own homes and villages and islands the religious services of the converts of the Melanesian Mission are conducted in a native tongue, and not in English. The particular language used may not be the exact language of the place, but it is usually a language spoken not very far off and akin to the language of the local people; and at the least its sound is familiar to their ears, being the sound of their own language, and not of a foreign tongue like English.

With the extension of the Mission work through the agency of the Native Brotherhood, new languages are being learned, and the Melanesian Mission Press in the Solomon Islands is constantly being besieged to print Prayers, etc., in some fresh language.

The Mission Press.

For eighty years the Mission Press in the Islands has been rendering invaluable assistance in the work of the diffusion of the Gospel. In 1854, Bishop Patteson established the first Mission Press at Kohimarama, in New Zealand, and there the first "printed Word" was prepared and sent forth. This establishment was controlled in those far-off days by Mr. Booth and Mr. Sherrad, and turned out various portions of the Scriptures and Prayer Book, alphabet and simple reading sheets, and a vocabulary of the most useful words in various Island languages.

At this time we find Edward Wogale, a native (Mota) boy of thirteen years, printing off the entire work connected with 250 copies of a prayer which Bishop Patteson had drawn up for distribution. The Gospel of St. Luke was also printed, mainly by the native scholars; while George Sarawia, who was later ordained, worked upon the "Acts of the Apostles," composing and doing the Press work entirely himself.

In 1866 the Mission Headquarters were moved to [92/93] Norfolk Island, and here the Rev. J. Palmer (afterwards Archdeacon) took charge of the Press for a time, having had some experience in this trade in New Zealand. A few years later Dr. Codrington took over this work, and, with the help of native workers, printed the Minor Prophets, and other parts of the Old Testament, in the Mota language.

During the episcopate of Bishop John Selwyn, Mr. Henry Menges, a trained printer, who had settled in Norfolk Island, took charge of the Mission Press in 1880, and continued in office for forty years.

From 1896 to 1920 various additions were made to the plant in order to meet the demands for increased output of literature.

In 1920 there came the transference of the Mission Headquarters from Norfolk Island to the Solomons, and the Mission Press was housed in the old Hospital building at Hautambu on the Island of Guadalcanal.

At this time the printer in charge, Mr. F. R. Isom, came to England on furlough, and during his vacation raised the money to buy a new printing machine. During his twenty years' service in the Islands, Mr. Isom has trained many native workers to set type, and to print and bind up the various parts of the books which are issued by the Press.

Grammatical Work in Melanesian Languages.

Bishop Patteson was not merely content with being able to speak readily to his scholars in their own languages; and while on board ship with them on the way to school, and also at the school itself, he made notes of their speech, collecting words according to a common list, and writing translations of given sentences in English, illustrating the grammatical use of words which he collected. These were published at the Mission Press, in fuller or shorter forms according to opportunity, and in some cases with narratives added.

His work herein was of course fragmentary, but it was the first beginning of scholarly work on the Melanesian [93/94] languages, and it furnished a German scholar, Von der Gabelentz, with material for a book on Melanesian languages. Patteson's mantle as scholar fell on the shoulders of the Rev. Dr. Codrington, a Fellow of Wadham, who took over the education of the Mission teachers at the school on Norfolk Island after Patteson's death, and who while inheriting Patteson's linguistic material yet made his own studies of the Melanesian languages, using the lads at the school for the purpose. In 1885 the Oxford Press published the result of Codrington's grammatical, phonological, and philological studies in Melanesian languages in a book entitled "The Melanesian Languages." In the Preface he said, "I have endeavoured in the following pages to carry on the work of Bishop Patteson. I can never forget that I owe any knowledge of these languages that I may possess to the impulse towards the study of them which I received from him in the first instance."

So far as Codrington's thirty-five grammars of Melanesian languages are concerned, further research and more intimate knowledge has resulted necessarily in considerable alterations to what he wrote, but his basis and framework have not been altered in the presentation of Melanesian grammars, and his general grammatical conclusions stand sure. The introductory portion of his book "The Melanesian Languages," with its notes on vocabularies of words, its short comparative Grammar, its chapters on Phonology and Numeration, is the work of one who has come to be recognised as a very great scholar.

With Codrington's grammatical framework of Melanesian languages ready to hand, other members of the Melanesian Mission have followed his lead, working either at new languages, or presenting in greater fulness and with more accuracy, because of more intimate knowledge, grammars of languages which Codrington had been the first to investigate.

But in particular Codrington's work inspired Mr. S. H. Ray, of London, to study the make-up of Melanesian [94/95] languages. At Codrington's suggestion Ray was chosen to be a member of the "Cambridge Anthropological Expedition" to Torres' Straits, and the result of his work was Vol. Ill, Linguistics, of the Report of the Expedition. In that volume Ray deals with certain Melanesian languages of the area studied, and his indebtedness to Codrington is freely acknowledged. Ray's work on Melanesian languages came to fruition in a later book entitled "The Melanesian Island Languages," Cambridge Press, in the Preface to which he acknowledges his indebtedness to members of the Melanesian Mission who had supplied him with information.

Codrington, with the Rev. J. Palmer, compiled the first Dictionary of a language, Mota, in the area of the Melanesian Mission. Here again the work was excellently done, and furnished a model for others to follow. The second Dictionary compiled by a member of the Melanesian Mission, dealt with the kindred languages of Saa and Ulawa, Solomon Islands, while the third dealt with the Lau language, Solomon Islands. Vocabularies have also been published of several Solomon Island languages in the Melanesian Mission area, and Dr. Fox has in MS. a Dictionary of the Arosi language of San Cristoval.

The Making of a New Testament. In general, a translator does not sit down deliberately to translate the whole of the New Testament at once. He has probably made some preliminary essays before he sets about doing the New Testament as a whole--a single Gospel, it may be, or an Epistle; or, if he is an Anglican, the liturgical epistles and gospels for use at Holy Communion. This gives him experience, and enables him to eliminate mistakes and to improve the translation as he goes along.

Also it is advisable to make a vocabulary of the language in question before one starts translating into it. If one's vocabulary is limited, one cannot expect the translation to be really good. Then, again, renderings [95/96] have to be found for scriptural terms, e.g., baptise, believe, church, cross, forgive, gentiles, glory, gospel, grace, kingdom, love, mediator, propitiation, repent, salvation, sin, tempt, worship, etc. And care must be taken in choosing the words to represent such terms, lest a wrong impression be conveyed, or even false doctrine taught. In such a simple case, e.g., as "Jesus died for me," one has known the word "for" rendered by "instead of, in place of," whereas "on behalf of" is correct.

A translator ought to have acquired considerable knowledge of the language concerned, and must be certain of its grammatical uses, before ever he sets about translating into it. And it is not easy to acquire an accurate knowledge of a language which has not been reduced to writing before, and where one has nothing to go on, and has to find out everything for oneself. Cases have been known where teachers and preachers, through their ignorance of grammatical rules, have said things that must have sounded strange to their hearers! A difficult grammatical point for a beginner in Melanesian languages is the use of the "inclusive" and "exclusive" pronouns in the first person plural. There are two ways of saying "we," "us," "our"--the one including the person spoken to, the other excluding him, different pronouns being used; and this use extends to the dual and trial numbers as well. Failure to distinguish between the pronouns may easily cause confusion. Thus, e.g., the translator must have a clear idea of who is referred to when St. Paul speaks in the Epistles of "we" and "us," and whether he includes his readers or not. Luke vii, 5, is a test case: "our nation," "built us," the first pronoun was intended to include our Lord, the second to exclude him.

A first translation is usually rather faulty, and a revision ought soon to be undertaken. Happy the man to whom it falls to be able to revise his own translations! In some cases it happens that owing to lack of revision a poor translation goes unaltered, or a mistake gets [96/97] crystallised, or a printer's error is uncorrected, and in time there are not wanting those who defend the mistake! And even your native will stoutly maintain the correctness of that which is palpably an error.

An oft quoted error in a Melanesian language occurs in a translation of Psalm 104 in the language of Florida (Gela), Solomon Islands, in a Prayer Book published in 1877. In verse 11, second part, the translation reads na lei bolo gani tinoni tara inu pungisia na marohu, the man-eating pigs drink to stop the hiccoughs. The translator was a native, not a white man as has been stated, and the translation was made from a rendering in the Mota language, where "wild asses" is translated by qoe kurkur, i.e., man-eating pigs. The "pig" part is right enough, since the word for "pig" is used generically to include all animals, much as we would use "beast." But the Mota translator went wrong over "wild," and the Florida translator merely followed. But "hiccoughs" instead of "thirst" is a different matter. The Mota had marou, a common Oceanic word for "thirst," and by some strange fate an "h" was inserted, making marohu, hiccoughs, though the common marou does not occur in Florida.

Another native translator, working from the Mota version, mistook the word for "sow" in 1 Peter ii, 22 (owing to the failure of that version to distinguish between the letters m and mw, between mala, hawk, eagle, and mwala, sow, both being printed mala), and read the Mota word as meaning "eagle." And so the translation appears "the eagle that has washed." Again, the Mota tauwe has two meanings, "hill" and "trumpet"; and it was unfortunate that a native translator working from the Mota version should have picked on "hill" rather than "trumpet" in Hebrews xii, 19! In the Mota translation of the Book of Common Prayer a printer's error in the prayer for the King in the Liturgy--anama, thy, for anana, his, made all Christian people, of whatever race, loyal subjects of our English king. In a Prayer Book in another Melanesian language the [97/98] likeness in the MS. between the renderings for "rose again" and "ascended," in the Creed, was responsible for the statement that "The third day He ascended into heaven," the intervening words having been dropped, and their omission not being noticed in the proof reading.


Though the science of anthropology was unformulated in Patteson's time, yet from a reading of his remarks in his "Life" one can see clearly that he realised a good many of its implications so far as his Melanesians were concerned. In particular he was careful to refrain from condemning outright the social activities of Melanesians, the Sukwe, the Salagoro, of the Banks' Islands, holding that such things so far as they were not evil should be allowed to continue. He was an acute observer of native customs and practices, and his Annual Reports contain much that is interesting in this respect.

It was left, however, for Codrington to record in more or less of fulness the anthropology of the Melanesians in the area of the Melanesian Mission. His book "The Melanesians: Studies in their Anthropology and Folk-Lore" was published by the Oxford Press in 1891, and was a mine of information for students of things Melanesian. It was from this book as a source that the word Mana was taken, and a huge library of books and publications dealing with Mana was founded on what Codrington had written therein.

In general, Codrington's conclusions and statements with regard to things Melanesian will stand, but in certain particulars his statements have had to be corrected or modified as a result of more accurate and wider information. Dr. W. H. R. Rivers, F.R.S., who was attracted to Melanesia by Codrington's work, and who published in two volumes a book entitled "The History of Melanesian Society," had reason to supplement Codrington's statements with regard to the constitution of the Sukwe and its place in native society on Mota, and also to clarify the position in which various people on [98/99] Mota stood to one another in the native system of classificatory relationships, with attendant duties towards one another.

In other limited spheres in Melanesia, such as, e.g., Arosi, San Cristoval, where Dr. Charles Fox of the Melanesian Mission has presented the local culture with very great detail in his book "The Threshold of the Pacific," Codrington's more generalised statements about the local people have had to give way to special knowledge acquired by residence, and by a thorough knowledge of the language of the people concerned. The same thing holds with regard to my book "Melanesians of the S.E. Solomon Islands," in which the culture of the peoples of Ulawa and of Saa (Mala Island) is set forth--a thorough knowledge of the two languages, with local residence, enabled one both to supplement what Codrington had written of the two peoples, and also to correct statements of his that proceeded from insufficient information. My second anthropological book "The Island Builders of the Pacific" deals with a set of people from whom no lads came to the Training School in Codrington's time, and of whose life and customs he was ignorant.

Much translational, linguistic, and anthropological work still remains to be done in the area of the Melanesian Mission. What has been done already is all to the good, and it is to the honour of the Mission that so much, comparatively speaking, has been done by the Missionaries in their desire to furnish their people with Service books and with translations of Scripture, as well as to record the methods of speech of the Melanesians and their social culture. But with the increasing use everywhere throughout the Islands of the English language, and with the decay of the old-time habits and customs among both the Christians and the Heathen consequent on the intrusion of the foreign European culture, one doubts whether the future will see any very great attention paid to translational work, or to the study of Melanesian languages or culture.

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