Lost lan­guages re­dis­cov­ered with song


‘‘I wanted to give voice to the peo­ple who didn’t get their sto­ries told, whose lan­guages don’t get per­formed very of­ten.’’

Seven en­dan­gered lan­guages will get the rare chance to be heard in song in Welling­ton next week.

Welling­ton’s 56-per­son choir Su­per­tonic is per­form­ing in Aboriginal, Inuit, Navajo, Welsh, Nahu­atl, Guanche, and te reo Maori for Van­ish­ing Voices, a con­cert at Te Papa and Pataka mu­se­ums.

Choir di­rec­tor Isaac Stone, 28, spent four months find­ing mu­sic to al­low peo­ple to ex­pe­ri­ence dif­fer­ent lan­guages.

‘‘I wanted to give voice to the peo­ple who didn’t get their sto­ries told, whose lan­guages don’t get per­formed very of­ten,’’ he says.

The con­cert fea­tures six new wa­iata writ­ten by Stone and Vin­cent Olsen-Reeder, a re­searcher and lec­turer at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity.

Olsen-Reeder, who wrote the lyrics, pro­duced a PhD about Maori lan­guage, which he wrote in the lan­guage – a first for the univer­sity.

‘‘Isaac care­fully crafted mu­sic around the mes­sage and in­tent of each song,’’ says Olsen-Reeder.

Stone says the aim of Van­ish­ing Voices is to hon­our and cel­e­brate the lan­guages.

‘‘We wanted to look for­wards for the te reo Maori work by hav­ing new po­etry by some­one who is of our gen­er­a­tion or younger, to cel­e­brate their mu­sic.’’

Stone’s in­ter­est in how lan­guages de­velop and de­cline be­gan while study­ing the so­ci­olin­guis­tics of te reo Maori.

‘‘When an­other lan­guage with more so­cial power and wealth comes along, gov­ern­ment pol­icy, eco­nomic need, and the de­sire for par­ents to raise their chil­dren with the best pos­si­ble op­tions, means that peo­ple wind up speak­ing the dom­i­nant lan­guage more.’’

One song in Guanche, the dead lan­guage of the Ca­nary Is­lands, tells a har­row­ing story of in­va­sion by the Span­ish in 1402.

‘‘The lyrics in the piece are say­ing how they are full of ter­ror, but have to now marry their con­querors oth­er­wise they will die along with their fam­i­lies,’’ he says.

‘‘That’s the story of all the lan­guages. In the end, peo­ple have to sub­mit to sur­vive.’’

Stone says Maori re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion should be a gov­ern­ment pri­or­ity.

‘‘If I were the gov­ern­ment, I would be try­ing to use mu­sic as a way to al­low peo­ple to ex­pe­ri­ence lan­guage in an au­then­tic con­text.’’

While still an en­dan­gered lan­guage, te reo Maori is a world leader in lan­guage re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion.

Dr Nathan Al­bury, a for­mer lan­guage pol­icy ad­viser to the New Zealand gov­ern­ment, says Hawaii and Scan­di­navia have learned from New Zealand.

‘‘[The Kura Kau­papa move­ment] be­gan with the Ko­hanga Reo that Maori com­mu­ni­ties ini­ti­ated when re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion be­gan. Other in­dige­nous poli­cies have taken this con­cept and ap­plied it in their coun­tries,’’ says Al­bury.

How­ever, Al­bury’s re­search found te reo may not be as safe as it looks. ‘‘Many peo­ple think it is not en­dan­gered be­cause we see it on pub­lic signs, be­cause it is an of­fi­cial lan­guage, and taught in schools. Just be­cause we can see it, doesn’t mean peo­ple are us­ing it in con­ver­sa­tion, or pass­ing it on to their chil­dren.’’

Tick­ets are avail­able for Van­ish­ing Voices, Sun­day, May 21, Te Papa Marae, 6:30pm. Tick­ets $19 waged, $14 un­waged from Eventfinda.


Su­per­tonic is per­form­ing Van­ish­ing Voices, a con­cert sung in at-risk lan­guages. Choir di­rec­tor Isaac Stone

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