Vurës and Vera’a

Vera’a and Vurës are neighbouring languages spoken in the southwest of the island of Vanua Lava. Vanua Lava is the largest of the Banks group of islands, which, together with the islands of the Torres group, form the northernmost province of the island state of Vanuatu in the southwestern Pacific. Vera’a is the more endangered of the two languages with approximately 200-300 speakers, residing mainly in the one village of the same name, with a few smaller hamlets in the surrounding area to the north. Vurës is a considerably larger language with around 1,000 speakers. Approximately 600 of these speakers live in the village of Vētuboso in the Vurës Bay area, with communities of 200 and 100 speakers in the villages of Wasag and Kērēbētia respectively and smaller communities in the surrounding area.

Both languages belong to the Northeast Vanuatu-Banks Islands branch of the North Central Vanuatu subgroup, Oceanic, Austronesian. There are approximately 100 languages spoken in Vanuatu for a population of around 200,000. Thus with an average of only 2,000 speakers per language, this linguistic situation has earned Vanuatu the status as the country with the greatest amount of linguistic diversity in the world. Compared with a country such as neighbouring Papua New Guinea, where the large numbers of languages spoken come from a number of different language families, the languages of Vanuatu are not so typologically diverse as they all come from the Oceanic branch of Austronesian. However, the typological variation within these languages is surprisingly substantial considering their close relatedness.

The two languages of this study are spoken within an hour’s walk of each other and yet they are considerably different. There is no question that they are not dialects, but distinct languages. Considering the proximity of the language communities to each other and the fact that there is some intermarriage between the two groups, there is much communication between the two groups and many speakers know both languages, in particular a considerable number of Vera’a speakers are also fluent speakers of the dominant Vurës. Initial investigations into the Vera’a language indicate that there are significant phonological, morphological and lexical differences. Preliminary observations suggest that the syntactic differences are more minimal, however the currently available data is not sufficient for a detailed analysis. Some examples of differences between the two languages, in terms of the phonological system, Vurës has a greater number of vowels, with nine to the seven of Vera’a. Vurës also exhibits some vowel harmony which is not seen in Vera’a. Vera’a has a glottal stop phoneme which is not present in Vurës, the other consonant phonemes being the same. Significant morphological differences observed at this stage are in the verbal marking, articles and pronouns.

Whilst there are considerable differences between the two languages, a concise typological overview of the languages would be similar for each. Both languages are nominative-accusative grammatical word order languages. They are both somewhat atypical as Oceanic languages in that there is no marking of core arguments on the verb or in the verb phrase. Grammatical relations are marked solely by SV/AVO word order.