Project Canterbury

Dialects in Mota

By C.E. Fox

From Southern Cross Log, Vol. XVI, No. 181, Sydney, June 11, 1910, pp. 6-9.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Retired Bishop of Malaita, 2012

[6] Dialects in Mota.

IN a living language there are generally several dialects, those for instance, spoken by different classes of people. A language has been compared to a river, the water of which has frozen hard at the top; the flowing stream beneath is the living language, the frozen surface is the literary dialect of it. Or a language may be compared to a molten mass of rock, which as it cools forms crystals. Languages are always forming crystals, phrases which will last for some time, till they get corroded and lost again in the hot mass. It is seldom that a new arrival from Oxford or [6/7] Cambridge does not bring to Norfolk Island some new linguistic crystals from the red-hot languages of those places—of course I am speaking metaphorically.

Is there anything like this in the Melanesian languages? There are of course plenty of Mota crystals, words or phrases newly-fashioned, and destined not to last very long in many cases,— Mota slang. At Norfolk Island the boys are always coining new and very expressive Mota slang, and using it as English boys do theirs. A phrase rises up and dies down again. Here and there perhaps one of them will last, and become part of the language.

But in Mota there is more than this. There are dialects or strata of the language which are non-local. The stream has frozen, and the water beneath that frozen surface has passed on, fresh and different water flowing in to take its place, so that now the living, spoken Mota is different from the dialects of it formed long since.

This different Mota is seen in three dialects, all distinct from each other. There is the dialect of the songs, the native songs handed down; then there is the dialect used by the members of the great secret society, the Suqe; and last, there is the Un dialect, if I may call it so, the form of speaking used to avoid uttering a relation's name. All these dialects are different from ordinary spoken Mota.

The songs are of two kinds—songs used in the children's games, and songs made from time to time in celebrating persons or events. It is well known how careful children are to hand on in their games what seems an unmeaning jumble of words. When New Zealand children "count out" in games, they sometimes use African words without knowing it. Tylor gives a capital example of the power of children's game songs to keep words alive. In the English nursery, he says, the child learns to say how many fingers the nurse shows, and the appointed formula of the game is, "Buck, Buck, how many horns do I hold up?" while a writer in the time of Nero has the following passage: "Trimalchio, not to seem moved by the loss, kissed the boy and made him get on his back. Without delay the boy climbed on horseback on him, and slapped him on the shoulders with his hand, laughing and calling out, "Bucca, Bucca, quot sunt hic?" In the rhyme, "Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?" we have no doubt the old pronunciation of the word "contrary." We should not then be surprised to get very old and strange Mota in the children's game songs, and this is just what we do get. Some of the words are shortened or altered, or old forms of modern Mota words, but some cannot now be translated by the people themselves, who simply say, "That is how the children have always sung the song."

[8] Besides the song dialect, there is the secret language of the Suqe. Readers of the Log have heard much of the Suqe. It is a secret Society, in many respects like the Areoi,of Polynesia, with which the Missionaries in the Eastern Pacific waged war for so long with doubtful success. Its secrets have, however, never been learned by white men, although a great deal is known about the Society itself. But just as the Dukduk Society of the islands further north chanted songs in an "unknown tongue," and the Uritoi of Micronesia used a "mysterious language," so too the Suqe had, and still has, a language of its, own, the names of common objects having names which the uninitiated do not understand.
Then there is the Un dialect. Elsewhere in Oceania we find ceremonial and chief's languages. Java has a very remarkable ceremonial language used by the courtiers in addressing the king, who, speaking to them, uses the vulgar tongue as a mark of their inferiority. The courtiers call his eyes "gems;" his teeth "steel," they call a duck "the object that floats on the water;" sugar-cane "the thing with joints," and so on. The Tahitians, too, did this kind of compliment very well. When the people passed the king's house at night, writes Ellis, instead of saying that the torches were burning in the palace; they would remark to each other that the lightning was flashing in the clouds of heaven.

As a kind of off-shoot of this ceremonial language, there grew up the custom of not using a word which was part of the king's name. Thus when a Tahitian king named Tu came to the throne they could no longer say fetu, "a star," or tui, "to strike"; they had to say instead fetia and tiai. In Madagascar the practice was a little different; the word became taboo when the sovereign died. When Queen Rasoherina died in 1868, the word soherina, which means chrysalis, became taboo, and people had to say instead, zana-dandy which means the child of the silk-worm, Now in Mota there were no hereditary chiefs or kings, but the great men were those high in the Suqe Society. I do not know whether there was any taboo on their names, but the Mota people seemed rather to think that those to be most honoured in this way were one's relations, so that one could not use the name or part of the name of a relation by marriage. Instead, one must substitute another set of words, called un words, which ordinarily lay fallow. They were sometimes words in full use in other Oceanic languages, but they had dropped out of common use in Mota.

The foundations of our knowledge of Mota have been firmly laid, but there is a great deal to be yet learnt about it. Not only are there words in common use which have no place in the dictionary or even in the Bible, additional meanings attaching to those words already collected, and various idioms and grammatical [8/9] felicities never explored; but there are also these three dialects of the language—the song dialect, the Suqe dialect, and the un dialect, anyone of which would probably well repay the work of the explorer.     C. E. Fox.

Project Canterbury