Naturalness and Frequency of Word Use

Last week, I met with five Onnele translators who are working together to produce three different translations of the Bible for four different Onnele dialects. These language varieties are quite closely related, and there is a high degree of mutual intelligibility between them. The communities that speak the Romei and Barera dialects have determined that their dialects are close enough that they can produce one translation together. Even though the Goiniri and Wolwale dialects are also closely related, the decision to produce separate but related translations is frequently confirmed for us as we recognize various dialectical differences. In the case of the word aiyem ‘rejoice’, it is simply a difference in frequency of use.

The verb aiyem/ainem is an interesting one. Normally, verbs in Onnele have a different prefix depending on the person and number of the subject that performs the action of the verb. This verb, however, is a complex form such that the normal prefixes appear in the middle of the word. Thus, the difference between aiyem ‘you rejoice’ and ainem ‘they rejoice’.

But we made another discovery about this verb last week. Different Onnele dialects use this verb more or less frequently. While they each can use it and understand it, it is not as commonly used in the Goiniri and Wolwale dialects as it is in the Romei and Barera dialects. This observation was made when Joel (pictured above 2nd from the right), one of the translators from the Wolwale dialect, refused to follow the Goiniri and Romei-Barera translations in their use of the word. When he thought about it, he said, “Yes, we can say that. We know what it means when someone says that. But I hardly ever hear people using this word in Wolwale. When I go over to Romei-Barera, however, they use it all the time.” The other Wolwale translator, Felix (far right), readily agreed with him. Dominic (far left) agreed that the people in Romei and Barera use the word a lot, but he was confident that is was also okay to use in the Goiniri translation.

I decided to add up all the times in the Gospel of Luke that these three different translations use variations of this verb and see if it corresponded to their observations about how frequently it is used in their communities. Sure enough, it appears 24 times in the Goiniri translation, only 7 times in Wolwale’s, and 49 times in Romei-Barera’s.

In place of ainem ‘they rejoice’, Joel and Felix are using two different verbal expressions – woluporo ‘liver-good’ and wolpuna ‘liver-stomach’ – to express the same meaning of ‘rejoice’. The liver and/or stomach is the seat of the emotions for most Papua New Guinean cultures, so expressions related to joy often involve a liver or stomach idiom. The Romei and Barera dialects also have these idioms, but their word of choice of expressing joy and happiness is aiyem. This is a case where the different Onnele communities will be able to read and understand the various Onnele translations, but when they read their own, it will really sound like the language of their heart using the words that are most natural to their dialect.

See the post over at the Living Letters blog for more of this story.

2 Responses to “Naturalness and Frequency of Word Use”

  1. Happiness, joy, or a good liver? « Living Letters Says:

    […] For more about the dialect differences in this verse, see the post over at the AGAPHSEIS blog. […]

  2. penn98 Says:

    What a cool story of how one’s understanding of the details of a language will aid a better translation. It also highlights the value of the men from the different dialects working together! Fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

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