University of Virginia linguist Lise Dobrin first traveled to Papua New Guinea in 1997 to research Cemaun Arapesh, an endangered language spoken by a shrinking number of villagers on the country’s northern coast. She was a long way from the University of Chicago, conducting dissertation fieldwork on the Arapesh system of noun categorization in an enormously diverse country encompassing the eastern half of a Pacific island, just north of Australia.

Shortly after Dobrin’s arrival, a friendly villager named Jacob Sonin welcomed the American graduate student into his household. By the end of her stay, Sonin, his wife and their children regarded Dobrin as a beloved family member, one whom Sonin still calls “daughter.”

That family bond endured. Now an associate professor of anthropology in the College of Arts & Sciences and the director of UVA’s Interdepartmental Program of Linguistics, Dobrin returned to Papua New Guinea in 2013 with her husband and Department of Anthropology colleague Ira Bashkow to visit Sonin and to introduce their teen-age daughter and son to their adoptive family.

Earlier in 2015, it was Sonin’s turn to travel a third of the way around the world. After months navigating a series of bureaucratic hoops, Sonin secured a plane ticket and visa and arrived at Dulles International Airport to a snowy, unfamiliar landscape. The tropical climate of his island country hardly prepared him for the chill of a Charlottesville winter that lingered well into March, but the two months that Sonin spent at UVA as a visiting scholar could end up playing a key role in preserving the Arapesh language that drew Dobrin to his village 18 years ago.

And for the undergraduate and graduate students taking Dobrin’s workshop-style class in linguistic field methods, Sonin’s extended visit offered a unique opportunity to personally interact with a native speaker eager to share his culture and language.

“It took a leap of faith on both our parts,” Dobrin said of Sonin’s time on Grounds. “But I have to say, it was completely successful, in every way.”

Preserving a fading language

More than 800 languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, but it has been estimated that fewer than 100 people still speak Cemaun Arapesh. Jacob Sonin, now in his mid-to-late 60s, is one of them.

With the help of UVA’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and the collaboration of Sonin’s family and other Papua New Guineans, Dobrin created the Arapesh Grammar and Digital Language Archive to preserve Arapesh. Curated by Dobrin with assistance from 2013 UVA graduate Amanda Glass, the archive features digital copies of Dobrin’s field notes and a collection of the stories, songs, conversations and speeches she recorded with an analog cassette recorder in the late 1990s.  

“We’re harkening back to an earlier period where researchers are trying once again not just to theorize about languages, but to try to preserve what is known about languages, especially those that are soon likely to be lost,” Dobrin said. “There’s been a movement to do basic research on languages, to record them, document them and describe them by creating dictionaries and transcribing texts. But now we can harness digital technology to that end.”

Dobrin began the archive in 2005, but until recently, Internet availability in Papua New Guinea was so limited that the people who had befriended her during her time in Sonin’s village were unable to access her work. Eventually, some of the villagers who had relocated to cities to study and pursue careers discovered the archive via Facebook and reached out to Dobrin, eager to relearn – or in some cases learn – their ancestral language.

Emmanuel Narokobi, the owner of an information technology business in Papua New Guinea, was one of those who began collaborating with Dobrin and visited UVA in 2012 to help with the project.

Then Dobrin began receiving emails from Sonin’s son, who had relocated to the capital city of Port Moresby. Dobrin sent him a link to a recording she had archived of his mother, Sonin’s wife, telling a story in Arapesh, accompanied by a written transcript.

“So he’s hearing his mother’s voice, and seeing it written, and with that moment of him emailing back and saying, ‘I heard it, and it’s wonderful,’ I just realized, wow, this is actually possible,” Dobrin said.

One challenge remained, however: translating the archived recordings. For the young Arapesh people Dobrin was corresponding with in Papua New Guinea, to fully benefit from the recordings would require the Arapesh to be translated into Tok Pisin, the creole language now commonly spoken by members of that generation. For that, Dobrin would need the help of native collaborators.

It was Daniel Pitti, IATH’s associate director, who first planted the seed for Sonin’s visit.

“Well, you know, you have all these texts, and maybe one day you’ll get an Arapesh speaker to help you translate them,” Dobrin recalled him saying two years ago. “He kind of said it in an offhand way, but because of the technological changes that had by then taken place, it suddenly became conceivable.”

Translating with time for tea

Sonin’s residency as a visiting scholar at UVA was made possible by a grant from the University’s Center for Global Inquiry+Innovation. When she was applying for the funding to support Sonin’s trip and residency, Dobrin worried that Sonin did not fit the traditional mold of a visiting scholar. Sonin is brilliant and resourceful, Dobrin said, and he served a term as his village’s representative on the local-level government council. 

Brian Owensby, the center’s director and a professor in the Corcoran Department of History, was not dissuaded. He was open to the idea that the University would benefit from Sonin’s willingness to share his language and cultural knowledge.

“At a time when indigenous peoples face growing challenges to their ways of life, it is crucial that work like Dobrin and Sonin’s to preserve a living, endangered language be honored and supported,” Owensby said. “Universities are only one way of engaging a complex world, and we in the academy must be open to other ways of knowing, regardless of how they are come by.”

During his residency, Sonin, who speaks some English, made a presentation at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. He also fielded questions during a Feb. 26 presentation in Brooks Hall about the way Arapesh communities used to exchange items of value such as shell ring currency, wooden carvings and hand-woven net bags in order to establish and maintain social ties with neighboring communities.

“I’m proud to come here to help Lise, because I know that this is a very important project,” Sonin said. “For her, and also for me. And not just me, but for future generations.”

A portion of most of his days on Grounds were spent on the third floor of Alderman Library, seated in a cubicle within IATH’s offices alongside Glass, who graduated from the College in 2013 with a B.A. in linguistics. Because Sonin comes from a culture reliant on oral rather than written communication, Dobrin and Glass needed to devise a comfortable way for Sonin to provide line-by-line translations of the collected recordings. They ended up setting up two computer screens: one which displayed an individual line of the audio recording, another displaying Sonin’s translation as Glass typed it out.

For a few hours each day, including frequent breaks for tea and casual conversation, Glass would start and stop the recordings, and Sonin would translate, viewing the line of transcription and translating as best he could into Tok Pisin.

“It was a beautiful process,” Dobrin said. “Amanda plays a line, Jacob translates it and she just types it up. And they did it that way, and they’d stop and chat in between when she has questions, and they go off on cultural notes.”

One morning, the project at hand was to translate and transcribe a coastal villager’s story about a dramatic drop of the sea level that opened up vast stretches of the beach. The villagers braced themselves for a tsunami, but ended up puzzled by what amounted to a seismic glitch that left the village unharmed as sea levels gradually returned to normal.

“It’s sad listening to some of these recordings from 1998, 1999, because I’m listening to so many people that I interviewed who have since passed away,” Dobrin said.

By the end of Sonin’s residency, they had translated 42 texts from four different dialects of Arapesh into Tok Pisin. The translation efforts covered approximately 170 pages of handwritten notes and six hours of recordings, not including three additional video-recorded narratives transcribed in Arapesh and then translated. Eventually, Dobrin will translate them again from Tok Pisin to English, which will make them a valuable tool for research on Tok Pisin as well as the folklore of Sonin’s community.

“Sure, we could follow along, and Lise has studied it many more years than I have, but Jacob has that native speaker’s intuition for the language that we don’t,” Glass said of the breakthrough the team made in translating the archived Arapesh recordings. “He could teach us new things we couldn’t possibly know. For example Jacob explained that ‘youg’ is [the Arapesh word for] ‘saltwater,’ whereas ‘yous’ is ‘beach.’ Until then we had understood ‘youg’ as the singular form of ‘yous.’”

“It’s one of those things that you’d wonder about forever,” Dobrin said.

A family of students

It didn’t take long for the students in Dobrin’s field methods seminar to welcome Sonin’s friendly presence. With a scarf wrapped thickly around his neck and a knit cap atop his head to ward off the unfamiliar cold, Sonin greeted students and visitors to the classroom with a bemused smile and gentle handshakes.

One afternoon shortly after Sonin’s arrival on Grounds, Dobrin gave a couple of her students some money to invite Sonin to lunch on the Corner.

“We walked down to the College Inn and just talked about ourselves and asked him about New Guinea,” recalled Michael Jones, a linguistics graduate student from Staunton. “It really added a lot, having Jacob in the class, because we’re not just learning theory. We’re actually through experience learning how to learn a language, and so it’s much different than a theory class because we have a person speaking a language.”

Sonin sat in on the weekly seminar to assist students in learning about the grammar of his language, but the students’ queries also detoured to questions about Sonin’s village and culture, questions that couldn’t be answered with a textbook.

“It’s amazing, because in a lot of other linguistics classes, you’re just getting textbook examples,” said McKenna Hughes, a fourth-year student from Orange County, California double-majoring in linguistics and English. “And so this was like actual field work where … it’s ‘here’s a person, try to interact with them. Try to get what you’re trying to figure out about the language,’ and you realize he’s a person, he may misunderstand you, or that idea might not exist in their culture, so it’s a learning experience that you would never get from just a textbook.”

Sonin stayed with Dobrin and her family during his time in Charlottesville, and at the end of his scholar-in-residency program, Dobrin hosted a traditional Arapesh feast for Sonin and her class. Among the students’ parting gifts for Sonin were a UVA ball cap and water bottle and a group photo of the class taken on the front steps of Brooks Hall, where their class met twice each week.

“I am very proud to help the young people in Lise’s class,” Sonin said at a farewell reception organized by the Department of Anthropology. “They are doing well. I really like their effort and the time they take trying their best to learn my language.

“When Lise went to New Guinea, she stayed with me and my family, and we adopted her. Lise is a daughter in our family. … When I come here, I feel like I am home, because of Lise and the grandchildren.”

Sonin was speaking of Dobrin and Bashkow’s children. But by the time he left Charlottesville, he had a whole class of students who also now call him “Grandfather.”

Media Contact

Lorenzo Perez

Senior Writer, Office of the Dean College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences