Documenting Ahamb, a Small Island Language of Vanuatu

Documenting Ahamb, a Small Island Language of Vanuatu

Language: Ahamb (ISO639-3:ahb)
Depositor: Tihomir Rangelov
Location: Vanuatu
Deposit Id: 0457
ELDP Id: IGS0304
Level: Deposit

Summary of deposit

Ahamb is one of over 100 vernacular languages spoken in Vanuatu. It has around 800 native speakers and is primarily spoken on the Ahamb island off South Malekula. The language is endangered because of pressure from Bislama and migration due to climate change and other socioeconomic factors.

This archive deposit will include the data collected during a three-year project (2017-2020) to document the Ahamb language. It includes audio and video recordings, transcriptions, translations and annotations as well as the resulting grammatical description, word list and other materials.

The same project also aims at creating literacy materials so that the language can be used for instruction in primary school and other domains, which will raise its status.

Group represented

The Ahamb language has around 800 speakers, most of whom live on the namesake island, with smaller pockets of speakers living on the adjacent mainland of Malekula and in the urban centres of Vanuatu, mostly in Port Vila.

The island is situated in Umbeb bay in South Malekula around 2 km away from the mainland. According to local oral tradition, the island was inhabited before the first Europeans arrived, at a time when the majority of the population of Malekula was spread over the rugged mountainous interior of Malekula. As part of the process of Christianisation virtually all residents of Malekula moved to the coastal areas, which might have brought new residents to Ahamb. Historically, however, the people of Ahamb own the part of the Malekula mainland that is nearest to Ahamb, between the non-Ahamb speaking villages of Farun and Hokai. Most Ahamb people live on the small island and travel to the mainland daily to tend to their gardens. In the past couple of decades, due to population pressure and the effects of climate change, some Ahamb speakers have moved to the mainland to form at least four small settlements there. There are also around 100 Ahamb speakers living in Port Vila.

This project aims to look at the language as it is spoken in all of these areas with a focus on Ahamb island.

Language information

General Information and Classification

Ahamb (the language name is alternatively spelled Axamb, Akhamb or Akamb and pronounced with a velar fricative) is an Oceanic language and as such, a part of the Austronesian language family. It is spoken by approximately 800 people primarily on the small low-lying Ahamb island (covering only 0.3 sq km) off the south coast of Malekula, the second largest island in the Republic of Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific. Malekula, with its population of just 23,000, is one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world with more than 30 vernacular languages spoken today. Ahamb, together with a few other languages including Unua, Lamap, Uluveu (Maskelynes) and Avok, form the Southeast Malekula linkage. Ahamb shares many cognates and structures with these languages but their mutual intelligibility is not sufficient to consider them dialects of the same language.

Sociolinguistic factors

Virtually all speakers of Ahamb are bilingual in Ahamb and Bislama (a dialect of Melanesian Creole), the national language of Vanuatu. Some Ahamb speakers also speak English. French is not commonly spoken. Bislama is the more prestigious language and the language of choice for trade and communication with the authorities and people from other language areas. It is also the more common language for church services. Bislama and English are used in teaching at the local primary and secondary schools. Ahamb is mostly used at home and for everyday purposes and sometimes for custom ceremonies. Ahamb borrows heavily from Bislama and code switching is common.

Ahamb is a predominantly spoken language with very few written sources, including a handful of songs and a short Bible comic story published recently. There is no established standardised orthography for Ahamb yet.

Although it is passed to virtually all children living on Ahamb island, the language is considered endangered due to Bislama being the dominant and more prestigious language and the limited domains, in which Ahamb is used. Other socioeconomic factors that contribute to Ahamb’s endangerment status include migration due to climate change (more frequent and severe storms and cyclones and the resulting erosion), overpopulation and the general effects of globalisation.


The basic grammatical structure of Ahamb is typical of Oceanic languages. Nouns lack inflection for gender, number or case but they usually feature a noun marker (historically an article). Possessive constructions are complex and depend on a semantical distinction between inalienable (e.g. body parts, kinship terms) and alienable (all other) nouns. Alienable nouns are further divided into ingestible items (food and drink) and other nouns. This means that the phrases "my eye", "my water (for drinking)" and "my water (for bathing)" are expressed by different constructions.

With the help of prefixes and particles, verbs in Ahamb inflect for person (including inclusive and exclusive first person non-singular), number (singular, dual and plural) and tense/aspect/mood. As in most other Oceanic languages, adjectives and numerals are structurally identical to verbs. Verb serialisation is common. The normal word order is SVO.

Ahamb demonstrates more innovations in its phonology. Unlike typical Oceanic languages, it has a large vowel inventory and atypical stress distribution, probably reflecting recent phonological changes. Voiced plosives are always prenasalised. Just as some other languages in southern Malekula, Ahamb uses extensively the typologically rare bilabial trills, both voiced and unvoiced.

Special characteristics
Due to some land ownership disputes on the island, some stories (especially historical narratives) might have to be archived with restrictions because publishing such stories can be used as an argument in disputes and in custom courts. All recordings will be archived with informed consent and in a few cases the participants may wish for their recordings to be archived with restricted access. Restricted access may also be specified for stories that include certain taboo topics (for example information available only to men/women, stories about diseased ancestors, etc.). Respect for the wishes of the speakers and for local customs is the top priority of all work related to this project.

Deposit contents
This deposit will contain at least 40 hours of recordings of the Ahamb language. These will include spontaneous speech (both monologues and dialogues) and some elicitation sessions. The recordings might be in audio or video format. Some of these recordings will be transcribed, translated and annotated to create a written corpus of the Ahamb language, that will be used as a basis for the analysis that will result in the grammatical description and word list. All these materials will be included in the deposit as well. Photographs related to the recordings or life on the island in general, will also be included.

Deposit history
The data for this deposit will be collected during the doctoral studies of Tihomir Rangelov, the principal investigator, at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. Tihomir Rangelov will collect the data during three trips to Ahamb of 8-9 months in total. The project spans the period from February 2017 to February 2020, by which time all materials will have been made available in this deposit.

Other information
None of the data in this collection may be used as evidence in court.


Users of any part of the collection should acknowledge Tihomir Rangelov as the principal investigator, the data collector and the researcher. The Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) shall be acknowledged as the funder of the project. All files in this deposit are accompanied by metadata that specifies the individuals whose voice and images appear in the materials as well as any other contributors, who might have been involved in the process of collection, transcription or translation of the data or in any other way. All such individuals shall be acknowledged by their names.

To refer to any data from the corpus, please cite as follows:

Rangelov, Tihomir. 2017. Documenting Ahamb, a Small Island Language of Vanuatu. ID: Ahamb[insert ID number here]. London: SOAS, Endangered Languages Archive, ELAR. URL: (accessed on [insert date here]).


Resources online and curated


Tihomir Rangelov

Deposit Statistics

Data from 2018 July 19 to 2018 July 19
Deposit hits:1
Downloaded files
Without statistics

Showing 1 - 10 of 64 Items

Morvel tells a bit about life on the island at the time of his youth. He talks about the way young men lived away from their families before they got married. The Grem talks about events related to World War 2, which are associated with their youth.

Recorded on: 2017-07-21

James tells the real story of a man from Ahamb who was accidentally shot by a rifle (brought by Europeans). The murderer had to run and hide to avoid the consequences but later rejoined the community and started a family.

Recorded on: 2017-07-21

Bognie tells the story of his trip to Wellington over Easter when he was working on a farm in New Zealand.

Recorded on: 2017-10-10

Aisen Opet, a former politician from Ahamb tells about his life, career and his participation in Vanuatu's independence movement in the 1970s.

Recorded on: 2017-11-27

Audio recordings of citation forms.

Recorded on: 2017-11-31

Elder Welken from the Malakula mainland village of Barmar tells the story of their settlement.

Recorded on: 2017-11-20

Morvel tells about blackbirding. Ahamb men were taken to Fiji to work on colonial plantations there.

Recorded on: 2017-10-18

Grem tells the story of a boy who goes into the bush to shoot birds, but meets the devil Lybebynhau and gets taken away by him. The boy manages to trick the devil and escape.

Recorded on: 2017-07-19

Grem Fred tells the story of how some Ahamb men went to work for a white man in Santo and brought cocoa seeds back. This is how Ahamb people started growing cocoa as a cash crop.

Recorded on: 2017-07-17