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Jakarta Post

In Nias a mother tongue is in distress

  • Aulia Adam

    The Jakarta Post

Gunungsitoli, Nias   /   Mon, August 25, 2014   /  10:16 am
In Nias   a mother tongue is in distress

Repository: The Museum Pusaka Nias in Gunungsitoli, Nias in North Sumatra.

Many foreign linguists are interested in studying the native language of Nias, an island off the western coast of North Sumatra, due to its unique characteristics. Although still spoken, its existence is being eroded by the progress of civilization.

'€œYa'€™ahowu!'€ said a middle-aged man around 50. '€œYa'€™ahowu, bapak,'€ Beni replied with a smile. They turned out to be relatives.

Beni Harefa, the owner of Mitra Pangkas, a barbershop in Binjai, near Medan, North Sumatra, was cutting my hair when we began to talk. The man greeted Beni in a language I was familiar with, Li Niha.

'€œAre you a native of Nias?'€ I asked. '€œYes, I am. But I'€™ve been here for a long time,'€ he said. '€œThen I remembered what Father Johannes, a Catholic missionary, had told me.'€ He said Li Niha '€” the Nias language '€” was dying out due to the island'€™s outbound travelers forgetting their mother tongue.

The indigenous people of Nias call it Li Niha. Li means language and Niha is Nias.

It belongs to the language family of Austronesia, which includes Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Oceania. It'€™s the only language in which all words end in vowels: a, i, u, e, o or ö.

H. Sundermann was the first to write a book in Li Niha. The German missionary made a Li Niha version of the New Testament in 1911 in Amsterdam. The Bible is now used by Protestants in Nias, although the vowel ö is still printed as õ due to old typewriter limitations.

The sixth vowel was created to make it easier for locals to alphabetize this particular speech sound, which is indispensable because it has appropriately rendered the meanings of various words and can'€™t be substituted with any other vowel.

The word tölö-tölö, meaning esophagus, for instance, has a different meaning if printed as tolo-tolo, which means relief.

This feature has prompted foreign linguists to research Li Niha.

On display: On display: Megalithic stones at the Museum Pusaka Nias.On display: On display: Megalithic stones at the Museum Pusaka Nias.

However, an indigenous linguist has also analyzed Li Niha in his studies '€” Wa'€™Ã¶zisökhi Nazara '€” who wrote his undergraduate thesis about Li Niha in the 1990s and doctoral dissertation about the same subject in 2001.

Wa'€™Ã¶zisökhi faced difficulty finding references on the Nias language, despite visits to various institutions believed to have records of Li Niha, including the regional library of North Sumatra.

Luck led him to the Rev. Johannes M. Hämmerle, a missionary from Hausach, Germany, who has resided in Nias since 1971.

Johannes is a familiar name in Nias literature. Most Nias people also know the priest as the founder of Pusaka Nias Museum, an heirloom museum in Gunungsitoli.

Wa'€™Ã¶zisökhi met with Johannes at Museum Pusaka Nias to get a hold of research reports on the Nias language. The reverend was happy to receive such researchers as Wa'€™Ã¶zisökhi. He said Wa'€™Ã¶zisökhi wasn'€™t the first to visit the museum for references. Many other academics had consulted him. '€œOne of them was Lea Brown,'€ said Father Johannes.

The linguist from Australia visited the museum and met with Johannes to prepare her dissertation. Brown, working with the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, focused on South Nias.

Johannes suggested Wa'€™Ã¶zisökhi contact Lea. They communicated, once in a while by telephone and several times they met in Padang, West Sumatra, where Wa'€™Ã¶zisökhi took up residence.

Although born in Nias, he had little knowledge of his birthplace. The more he studied, the more realized this. '€œStudying an ethnic language is inseparable from its history,'€ said Wa'€™Ã¶zisökhi.

Another unique aspect of Li Niha is that a word mutation only affects its base with no change to its end. For example, amagu '€” my father '€” becomes namagu when used as a verb.

Wa'€™Ã¶zisökhi also pointed out how Li Niha'€™s sentence structure was different than other languages in Sumatra and its surrounding areas. While generally the order takes the form of subject + predicate + object, Li Niha sentences comprise predicate + object + subject.

Wa'€™Ã¶zisökhi is the first to analyze the morphophonemic aspect of Li Niha. '€œI'€™ve done this out of my concern for the very few ono Niha (Nias people) willing to study their own culture,'€ he said, adding '€œIt'€™s ironic that those carrying out research are foreigners like Lea.'€

Today, only around 700,000 people are active speakers of Li Niha. The number puts the language at risk of extinction. '€œThe other threat is posed by loanwords now being mixed up with genuine Li Niha,'€ noted Wa'€™Ã¶zisökhi.

Edward Halawa, a native of Nias now living in Australia shares the same view. He is aware that Li Niha words normally ending in vowels have been filled with those derived from Indonesian and other foreign languages with no vowel ends.

Words such as plane, tour and surfing are often used in Niha conversations, or seen on signs on in public transportation, at cafes or the beach or the harbor.

According to Edward, apart from technological advancements, the other threat is the very small number of Nias linguists.

'€œYoung people do not have the guidance of Nias,'€™ according to Edward. '€œIt should be followed.'€

'€” Photos by Aulia Adam

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