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Melpa Language Project

Field study of the Melpa (variants Medlpa, Metlpa) language began in 1964, building on materials found in the earlier German-language works on the Hagen area, to which Melpa belongs, produced since the 1930s by the missionary-ethnographers Georg F. Vicedom and Hermann Strauss.  As a language belonging to the Central New Guinea Highlands, Melpa shows a number of grammatical features shared with other Highlands languages, of which one of the most striking is the subject-change variability of the verb participial forms.  That is, the participle ending varies in accordance with whether the subject of  the subordinate clause in which it occurs is the same as, or different from, that of the main verb of the utterance segment (sentence). 

Verb forms in general in these Highlands languages are complex, showing a great concern with nuances of agency and action, in line with cultural attitudes towards personal choice and responsibility. Melpa also shows a rich development of explicit vocabulary about kinds of talk that people make, the consequences of such talk, and the characteristics of people who make the talk.  The language, therefore, is clearly an important window into, and instrument of, cultural expression among the people, as the early ethnographers stressed and we have repeatedly illustrated in our own writings.

These writings have included many examples of language usages, for example in the sphere of the analysis of emotions and ethno-psychology as well as categories of exchange activities.  The present archival project allows us to present materials in greater depth.

The Melpa – German – English dictionary represents a significant work in this field.  Dictionary work of this kind requires much attention to detail, as the dictionary shows.

Melpa is a thriving language spoken by over 100,000 people in the Western Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea.  Many of its younger generations of speakers have been extensively schooled in English and / or the lingua franca Tok Pisin, and expressions from these two languages have over time entered the Melpa vocabulary corpus.  As a result some of the earlier language forms, so eloquently informed with historical meanings and intricacies of signification, may now lie beyond the experience of these speakers.  While the language as such is not at risk of disappearing, then, some of its vocabulary has become recondite, and our present project makes these expressions accessible to contemporary speakers.  


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The Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew J. Strathern Archive, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, Digital Research Library, http://www.StewartStrathern.pitt.edu

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