Investigating Tonoexodus in New Caledonia

Investigating Tonoexodus in New Caledonia

By Samantha Soon

For the past three years I have been working on a language called Kwényï, spoken in the South Pacific on the Isle of Pines of New Caledonia. I was drawn to study this language because it has been described as tonal, a feature that is rare in the South Pacific area.

As a language feature, tone can be ‘infectious’ and can spread across a language area/family. This can be seen in the languages of Asia and Africa. As a tonal language, Kwényï is not only unusual among its largely atonal Austronesian family, but has not been in contact with any other tonal languages. Historical records describe tone in Kwényï as ‘vague and unstable’ (Rivierre, 1978; Gouraya, Kombaouare and Vernaudon, 2011). What does that mean? This mystery brought me to the Isle of Pines at the start of my PhD journey.

I spent six months living on the Isle of Pines, learning and documenting the language to get to the bottom of this mystery. It turns out that tone has a diminishing role in Kwényï and can be described as having a low functional load in the language. Tone is mainly present in certain monosyllabic minimal pairs showing a marginal two-way contrast.

The loss of tone coincides with the local community’s struggle to preserve and teach the language to its next generation. While the local school introduced Kwényï classes to its curriculum in the last ten years, linguistic resources and educational material relating to the language are lacking. As a French territory, French is the official language and lingua franca among Kanak communities. French is now regarded as the superior language of success (Vernaudon, 2009).

Kwényï is a rare tonal Oceanic and Austronesian language. The loss of this language would be a loss to the understanding of the typology of tone within the Oceanic and Austronesian language family. It would also be a loss to its community of speakers. There is an urgent need for linguistic documentation of this language before its features are lost further. I hope to continue to support the community in their efforts to produce dictionaries and grammatical resources for their future generations.


Gouraya, E., Kombouare, F., and Vernaudon, J. (2011). Propositions d’ecriture du naa Kwenyi. Noumea: Academie des Langues Kanak.

Rivierre, J.C. (1978). Accent, Tons et Inversion Tonale en Nouvelle-Caledonie. BSLP 73.1.

Vernaudon, J. (2009) De l’oral à l’ecrit: les enjeux de la normalisation graphique des langues kanak. In Ihage, W. (ed.) Le role, la place et la fonction des academies en contexte plurilingue, actes du premier colloque de l’Espace Oralite. Noumea: Academie des langues kanak.

Samantha Soon is a Malaysian PhD student in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Sydney. As a native speaker of tonal languages, she is interested in the phenomenon of tone in the context of language contact and change.
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