Language of the Month: Belep

We are extremely fortunate to be “based” out of Maryland as a Museum, as we always have a wide variety of voices and languages surrounding us every day. Recently, we had a linguist, Dr. Chelsea McCracken, reach out to us, and through her connection I learned about a wonderful language named Belep. 

While the word Belep may be unfamiliar to many of us, New Caledonia or the overseas French territories may sound a bit more familiar. Belep, the name referencing an ancient chief, is the name of not only a language, but also a people, and also an island in New Caledonia, with around 1,600 people total.Early European observers noted the large number of nasal vowels and consonants in the language, and today other Kanaks describe the unique intonation of Belep by saying “they sing when they speak.” These observations were some of the only evidence we had of Belep linguistics until extremely recently. 

Although the island is named Belep, it is not the only language spoken. Nyâlayu, specifically the Balade variation of the language, is also quite common, and while many Belep people are multilingual and can use both languages, the two are distinct from each other.

Belep’s main notable difference is the significant lack of consonants and vowels compared to other languages spoken in and around New Caledonia, only 18 consonants and 10 vowels. As McCracken points out, this is due to a lack of contrast between sounds such as “y” and “yh”  like in similar New Caledonian languages. Other linguistic features include four classes of nouns, determined by their relation with alienable and inalienable possessives, and a lack of complement clauses.

Although McCracken’s research is the most up-to-date so far, Father J.M. Neyret has a collection of religious hymns and text in Belep that allow for linguistic comparisons, and provide more insight into the French influence still felt on the island today, as in many parts of the overseas territories. However, Belep as a language is its own strong cultural indicator; in fact, on the island itself, many Belep can speak French but may prefer their indigenous languages, showing the importance of language as a component of strong cultural identity. Hopefully this more thorough research will raise a greater awareness of the language, and the rich linguistic diversity of the Asia-Pacific islands as a whole. Though the term “Polynesia” is still commonly used, it does not accurately reflect the sheer variety of languages and cultures of the region, and this type of research helps us to stop classifying those on outdated colonial concepts and appreciate the culture we can find even between individual islands. 

A huge thanks to Chelsea McCracken for her editing and contribution. Language of the Month is an ongoing series; if you have a language you are passionate and knowledgeable about, and wish to share with others, please feel free to use our contact form and we will be in touch.

Further Reading

A Grammar of Belep

Language Contact in the Early Colonial Pacific