Passion for 'pini' drives CQU student's groundbreaking Djaul Island publication

30 May 2022

A dream to study undocumented languages took CQUniversity student Christoph Holz halfway round the world to tiny Djaul Island in Papua New Guinea's north.

Now the passionate linguist and PhD candidate has helped create some of the first books in the Tiang language' spoken by just 4000 people in the northwest of the New Ireland Province.

Pini: Tiang Story Book is a collection of 31 stories' riddles and songs collected by Christoph' with the support of his co-author and local clan leader Joseph Kombeng.

The duo has also produced Taanuaa: Tiang Picture Book' a collection of 40 photos from Djaul Island. Both books are bilingual in Tiang and English – the word taanuaa originally means 'reflection' or 'spirit'' and has come to mean 'picture' or 'photo'' while pini means 'stories'.

Originally from Germany' Christoph is living in Cairns and completing his PhD thesis on the grammar of Tiang' after first hearing about the language in 2018.

"It has always been one of my dreams to study a previously undocumented language in the Pacific region' and when my supervisors' Prof Alexandra Aikhenvald and Prof R. M. W. Dixon' said they were looking for someone to go to Papua New Guinea' I jumped at the chance'" he said.

During a long stay on Djaul Island in 2019' Christoph and his trusty audio recorder began regularly sitting down with his Tiang teachers' and asking them to tell him stories.

"These were stories of any kind' such as traditional tales' a chat about what people did yesterday' biographies' songs' and instructions on how to do culturally important things like building a canoe or making a new garden'" he said.

After transcribing the stories and translating them into English' Christoph and his co-author selected "the most interesting and beautiful ones" for the publications.

"By having the Tiang original and an English translation side-by-side' one can eventually figure out the meaning of individual words and the grammatical rules'" Christoph explained.

The non-profit project' supported by CQUniversity's Jawun Research Centre' will now see the books distributed for free to schools on Djaul and in northern New Ireland.

"This is to give something in return for the hospitality that I received from the Tiang community and for teaching me their language'" Christoph said.

"The publication of the books was generously supported by CQUniversity Deputy Vice-President Indigenous Engagement Professor Adrian Miller' and a big thank you also goes to Craig Volker and Cláudio da Silva' who undertook a similar project within the Nalik community of New Ireland' and who organised the printing and distribution of the books.

"The books contribute to the collection of traditional and modern Tiang stories and songs and preserve them for future generations' and will hopefully inspire more people to read and write in their traditional language."

While Christoph hasn't been able to visit Djaul Island since the pandemic began' he's hoping to return later this year' as he prepares to complete his thesis.

And he's looking forward to sharing his passion for the language more widely.

"My favourite word in Tiang is probably the language name itself; tiang literally mean 'sibling' and 'friend'' and I think that is a fantastic way to name a language'" he said.

He also appreciates creative ways Tiang speakers coin new terms for new technology' for instance the word for 'cicada'' kenkenelek' now also is the term for 'radio'.

Following his thesis' Christoph hopes to write more bilingual story books' and eventually produce a Tiang–English dictionary.