palm tree


This page talks a bit about the past and present situation of the language and the people, then introduces some linguistic facts about the Kuot language and gives a short text sample.

The sub-headings of the page are:  

Cultural information
Linguistic information
Short text sample

See the Swadesh 100-word list for Kuot

Kuot – Cultural information

According to the archaeologists, New Ireland was populated by 35,000 years ago, probably as long as go as 40,000 years before present (BP). It is not known where these first settlers came from, but they must have had some sea-faring knowledge, as New Ireland was never connected by land to New Guinea island or anywhere else (even during the glacial maximum some 18,000 years BP). About 3,500 years BP, the Austronesians came along from the east, and with them the Austronesian languages, which have now taken over almost all of present-day New Ireland Province, leaving Kuot as the only non-Austronesian language. It is reasonable to assume that Kuot is a descendant of one of the languages spoken in the area before the arrival of the Austronesians.

Sadly, it seems Kuot is now on its last leg. Only in a few tiny hamlets do parents speak Kuot to their children, who are in stead growing up with Tok Pisin as their only language, and only a passive knowledge of the language of their forbears, if even that. Generally, it would seem that language is not a very strong identifying factor in this area, and people don’t seem to feel that they really need it.

This is connected also to a loss of culture and tradition, in the wake of christianisation. For instance, the Kuot version of the tradition of malagan mortuary and initiation rites, once characteristic of all of north-central New Ireland, has not been performed since the 60’s or so, and gone are taro and garden magic and rituals, rain magic, hunting and fishing magic, other rituals concerned with the dead, the celebration of a woman’s first pregnancy (girimisi), the nightly dances (bot) where many taboos were lifted, and so forth.

The belief in magic is still there, and black magic and sorcery are still carried out and very much believed in; most people probably know how to perform a few bits of magic but only a small number still have extensive knowledge of spells and anti-spells. But most of the kind of rituals that are public events, defining the clans and contributing to social cohesion, are lost. In stead, the church is now the context for community-oriented activities, and the arena within which people can perform actions which show their community spirit.

The clan is still a very important unit of social organisation, but I was only able to observe a couple of ritual events to do with clan unity during my sixteen months in Bimun. In one, a young man "paid off" his father’s clan for their part in his up-bringing. (This derives from the fact that a person belongs to the clan of his or her mother, and is obliged to reimburse the father’s clan for his input during the child’s growing up. Traditionally, part of the funeral rites were taken up with distributing gifts of food and shell money to a dead man’s clan, contributed by everyone in the child’s clan (i.e., that of the child’s mother); these days the distribution takes place sometime before the death of the father, while the funeral itself is a Christian affair.)

The payment of brideprice is another event that still occurs. All clans belong to one of two exogamous moieties. At some point before the wedding or within a couple of years after it, money is paid to the woman’s lineage. Most of the money comes from the husband’s lineage but most people in the relevant moiety will contribute. The sums come to a bit over 1,000 kina, and the monetary value of traditional shell money given, as well as pigs for the concomitant feast are factored in, and the amount publicly announced. The bride’s parents do not name a sum, it all depends on the strength of the groom’s clan and moiety. In that sense it is an occasion for the moiety to show its strength.

Generally it is felt that the ancestral knowledge has been lost, and many people seem to be sad about that, in spite of being devout Christians. I suppose the feeling is that they are not in a direct "interactive relationship" with their environment, where the individual has the power to influence the growing of taro and so on – even if you can pray to a Christian God, you are sort of handing it over to someone else (not that anyone said so in so many words).

The village where I did my fieldwork, Bimun (map, (pinched from Robert Eklund)), was situated in the mountains above its present location until the 1930’s (or so), along with all the present-day Kuot villages on the east coast. The customs and traditions of the mountain villages were somewhat different from the coastal villages (on the west coast), and presumably the shift of location has contributed in some measure to the loss of traditional culture.

The above all sounds a bit sad, so I should add that it is my impression that Kuot people are generally rather happy. Without romanticising too much, I would say that food and water resources are adequate to good (except in El Niño conditions), and people own their ancestral land and have a large degree of self-determination. As in most rural areas in PNG, health care and education could be improved.

I could go on for much longer about Bimun, the Kuots and New Ireland, but for now I just want to say that I don’t think there could be a better place to do fieldwork.


Kuot – Linguistic information (condensed!)

Kuot is a language spoken in north-central New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. It is the only non-Austronesian language in New Ireland Province, but is significantly different both from surrounding languages and from non-Austronesian languages on the PNG main island of New Guinea (often called Papuan languages), in both grammar and vocabulary.

Kuot has the unmarked word order V(S)(O). It is head-marking on the clause level (i.e., does not have case but indicates the grammatical role of arguments by affixes/clitics on the verb), and both subject and object are cross-referenced on the verb. The morphology is mainly agglutinative. The genders masculine and feminine are distinguished in the singular; there is also dual and plural number, and a distinction between inclusive and exclusive is made in the first person non-singular. The language is very strong on agreement and cross-referencing: demonstratives in the noun phrase, verbs and adjectives, the possessive markers and sometimes even prepositions have markers indicating the person/number/gender of participants. The order of cross-referencing morphemes is different with different verbs, depending on which of the three verb classes the verb belongs to. Two of the verb classes are closed, and only one is still productive. Adjectives in Kuot also form a closed class, of about 60 members, syntactically similar to verbs but with some features shared with nouns and their own morphology. Both possessor and possessee are indexed in markers of alienable possession; inalienable possession, indexing only the possessor, is used for all parts and many partitive-like and other relations.


Short text sample

Here is a small excerpt from the beginning of a story about the arrival of the taro (in the form of a woman), told by Pauline Kotete and recorded 20 March 1998 in Bimun [‘à’ stands for the central vowel schwa; ‘ng’ is the velar nasal]:

Gas o bulalam là maiop lop na ileng
The story of the taro who sought out the children in the day

  Makabun  là  mu-i-o  ma-i-op  lop  na  ileng. 
  woman  RELR  come-3fS-stm2  3pO-3fS-find/visit  children  in  daytime 
‘A woman came and visited the children in the day.’

  Màn  me-onàma  tàtak  lop 
  CONT  3pS-sit/live  little  children 
  ga  màn  me-aua-am  iop  ma  paparak-iap  meiam. 
  and  CONT  3pS-make.mumu-3pO  ‘mumu’.pl  food-pl 
‘The little children were staying (in the village) and they were cooking their food.’

  Tinan,  na  tàrà  tinan  là  tàle  me-me  me-o  pàgà  ba, 
  before  at  time  before  RELR  NEG  3pS-HAB  3pS-eat-3sO  thing  one 

  me-me  me-o-m  muap  ma  kaus-up  ga  muap  ma  uraràp 
  3pS-HAB  3pS-eat-3pO  ‘gorgor’-pl  and 

  ga  kimabip  là  me-me  ma-kau=meng  ga  me-me  me-o-m, 
  and  RELR  3pS-HAB  3pO-dig=3pS  and  3pS-HAB  3pS-eat-3pO 

  muana  là  tàle=ka  bet=ieng  parak  ba  meiong  me  eba  màn  me-ong. 
  base/reason  RELR  NEG=yet  arrive=3fS  food(f)  one  their-3f  for  FUT  CONT  3pS-eat.3sO.fut 
‘Before, previously, they didn’t use to eat anything, they used to eat the bases of ‘gorgor’ and bases of cordyline and earth (that) they used to dig (up) and used to eat, because no food hadn’t arrived yet for them to be eating (it).


Abbreviations used in excerpt:

S subject 3s 3rd person singular RELR relator FUT future
O object 3f 3rd person fem CONT continuous - affix boundary
pl plural 3p 3rd person plural HAB habitual = clitic boundary
stm2 2nd part of stem     NEG negation . indivisible


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Page created on May 25, 1999
Last updated on November 12, 2002
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