The ethics of language; or, e rewa na ledu koto me Viti na yabaki rua ka tam kilatia vina na TatavaViti?

Recently, I have been thinking about the ethics of language. And the following stream-of-consciousness unraveled when I began writing about it this evening, with plenty questions and few definite answers.

If we live here and do not speak one of the Fijian languages, meaning Fiji Hindi or one of the 300 iTaukei language-dialects, are we engaging in linguistic colonialism? Maybe not, but we are certainly reducing the speaking time of already dying languages in pursuit of already hegemonic languages.

Can we describe lifestyles accurately in languages that are foreign to them? No, though we can be close. The term tavale, for example, can only be roughly translated as “cousin”, though it is a specific kind of cousin relationship that includes plenty of jokes and has absolutely no equal in Western culture.

Are all languages truly created equal? If they are, it is only insofar in that they are equal in describing the lifestyle of their native speakers. Meaning that oranges and apples are equal in their efforts to be themselves.

VosavakaViti (as an inclusive term) is the only language that can fully describe iTaukei lifestyles – but if those lifestyles are going the way of the dinosaur, is there are any reason to try to preserve the language that was describing said lifestyles? Uh…

Just the other day, I was hosting a kind, dirty German hippie who, despite having been in a rural part of Fiji for more than two months, didn’t speak a word of Fijian beyond “vinaka”. We went out to a nearby farm, and when we were joined by members of a Fijian reggae band (Root Strata, who played at Hibiscus this year), I found myself repeatedly unconsciously going into Fijian, even as the band members called me out for excluding my English-speaking German guest. It was undoubtedly rude of me to be using Fijian in a conversation when the most widely-understood language of English – but I was thinking it would be rude to speak English in Fiji, with an indigenous Fijian.

If we follow the line of ethical thought that says we must use the most widely-understood language in any situation, it will inevitably lead to linguistic homogenization and domination by a few (English, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Swahili) and the extinction of thousands. If one follows it too rigidly, it makes it nearly impossible to learn another language if your language partner already speaks your language – it is only by the incredible kindness and patience of Fijians who are willing to put up with my bad VosavakaViti (and not stick to English) that I have been able to learn it at all.

As someone interested in the two extremely vague notions of cultural preservation and world peace, which requires mutual comprehension in pursuit of humanizing the other, the only answer is multilingualism. Fortunately, almost all Fijian children are brought up multilingual – usually speaking Fiji Hindi and/or their local iTaukei dialect at home, and learning English and/or the Standard iTaukei at school.

Even within this system, however, equality is distant. Fiji Hindi is often marginalized by so-called “pure” Hindi, much the same as Western (and other) dialects are considered deviations from the officially-sanctioned Bauan-derived Standard iTaukei. Students in my area speak one form of VosavakaViti at home, and then go to school and are then taught a class in “VosavakaViti” that marginalizes all but the modern, Standard iTaukei. All major publications in iTaukei are in the Standard dialect and not any of the other 299+ languages, and there is, as far as I understand, only one author that has published in Fiji Hindi.

There are, of course, enormous practical considerations that I have not delved into. For one, there are likely no more than 4,000 speakers of TatavaSabeto, or 150,000 speakers of the wider TatavaViti I Mua I Ra (Western Fijian) language. So to have publishing runs is questionable cost-wise. But many Fijians have smartphones – we could digitally publish for near-nothing costs.

That still leaves us with questions of dialect distinctions. The village of Nadele/Korobebe, up the valley from me, uses the word “tia” for the number one, and as far as I know, they are the only village in Fiji to do so. It is far more likely that they begin to use the more widely-used Sabeto “lia” – but then why not change to the Bauan “dua”?

One solution, certainly, is to create a standard Western language, much as has been done in Eastern Fiji with the Standard Bauan. This is potentially an excellent way to unite the West, though negotiations would likely be contentious. But it would also likely be viewed as a political move, 140 years after Western chiefs rose up against the Bauan invaders and were crushed thoroughly.

Obviously, I must remain as un-opinionated as possible on the more political aspects of our work in language preservation. Still, there is much to discuss, and even more to do, if we are to try to prevent TatavaSabeto from slowly fading out.

Vosoti’au ke so neitou vakarau se valavala baleca se sakasaka.

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