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The Linguistics of Inhabiting Space: Spatial Reference in the North-East Ambae Language [1].


North-East Ambae, a member of the Oceanic sub-group of Austronesian, is spoken on the volcanic island of Ambae, in northern Vanuatu. Like many Austronesian languages, it has a complex system of spatial reference. In this paper I describe one aspect of this system, the use of the members of the word class of 'directionals'. Directionals can be used to refer to both direction of movement and location in space, and involve the interaction between an absolute and a deictic system. The absolute system is based on a division of the environment that uses both the vertical axis and the landward-seaward axis, although it also uses other divisions. Onto this absolute system is mapped a partially deictic system, such that each of the oppositions of the absolute system can be marked according to a three-way distinction relative to the participants of the speech act. That the speakers are highly attuned to their environment is reflected in the use of this complex spatial reference system. The paper underlines the importan ce of detailed analyses of spatial reference systems in describing languages, reflecting the significance of such systems in common language use.


While carrying out fieldwork on the Lolovoli dialect of the North-East Ambae language of Vanuatu, I spent time living in the village of Lolosangga with Roselyn Garae, a fieldworker involved in the Women's Culture Project of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. Roselyn assisted me in all areas of my research on Ambae, from initiating contacts to translating data. With her endless energy and enthusiasm, she was always aware of what I, as a linguist, wanted to know and needed to be taught. It was Roselyn who, on the first day of my stay on the island, alerted me to the importance of the landscape when using the language to talk about the direction of motion. When she said that we would be going up (hage) to the village of Lovusi, located uphill from Lolosangga, she pointed out that an entirely different verb would be used if one was going down (hivo) to the sea. She expressed the importance of the distinction between movement up, down, and across -- distinctions salient to the language of Ambae. She remarked that it is not possible simply to use a general verb meaning 'go' to refer to movement in any direction, as is the case in English. Rather, no matter how near or far the destination, one must always pay attention to features of the landscape, which determine the appropriate verb. My interest in the spatial reference system operating in North-East Ambae was thus sparked right from the start of my fieldwork.

This paper focuses on a class of directional verbs that comprise one feature of the spatial reference system in the language. The primary distinction made by these directionals is in specifying movement according to absolute direction, contrasting motion across, up and down. This distinction also reflects the landward-seaward axis, where motion up equates with motion in a landward direction, and motion down equates with movement towards the sea.


The island of Ambae is located in the north of the Vanuatu chain, east of the large island of Espiritu Santo (see map 1). It is formed by the cone of a dormant volcano, which peaks at 1496 metres in the centre of the island. As the island has a relatively small area, less than forty kilometres in length and approximately fifteen kilometres at its widest point, a considerable elevation is reached over a relatively short distance. The result is an island that rises steeply from the sea and continues rising steadily to the volcano's peak. Apart from small areas at the north-eastern and south-western ends, the island's topography almost entirely consists of steep, densely vegetated hillsides, which fall away at places into creek-beds formed by ancient lava flow. Ambae receives considerable rainfall, and many of the creeks are rendered impassable after heavy rain. Few of these creeks offer a regular water supply, however, as they tend to stop flowing shortly after the rain has ceased.

As a result of this fairly inhospitable environment, areas of habitation are generally restricted to the flatter north-eastern and south-western areas, and a narrow coastal strip rounding the island. In only a few areas are there villages located more than two kilometres inland from the coast. Most of the rugged interior is not only uninhabited, but it is unused for planting gardens. In fact, people rarely venture far inland, and few have travelled the difficult path to the top of the volcano. The people plant their crops of taro, banana, sweet potato, yam and manioc in steep, hillside gardens, either close to the sea or slightly further inland from their villages.

Because it is a volcanic island, Ambae is not surrounded by many areas of reef, and it has few beaches. For the most part, the coastline consists of large black rock rising out of the sea, making the shoreline considerably less accessible than it is in areas where there is reef. As the land rises so steeply in these places, villages are generally not located directly adjacent to the sea. This means that while most people visit the seashore to collect crabs and shellfish, and occasionally fish, the sea is only relied on as a source of food in areas where the reef provides easy catches. Traditionally, however, like all Oceanic peoples, the people of Ambae were very much a seafaring people, using canoes not only for travel to other parts of the island and the nearby, visible islands of Maewo and Pentecost, but for much lengthier journeys to distant islands, for which they required considerable navigation skills. While the art of canoe-building is still practised today, only small canoes are used for fishing the coastline close to home. The detailed knowledge of wind systems and navigation by the stars has been lost, with few people even knowing the names of the stars.


The research for this paper is part of a larger project, on a grammatical description of the North-East Ambae language. While little has previously been written on the languages of Ambae, [2] the island has been the focus of research by several anthropologists. The most significant are Michael Allen's study of the social structure of the Nduindui in west Ambae (Allen 1964); William Rodman's on the male-graded society (Rodman 1973); Margaret Rodman's research on land tenure (Rodman 1987); and Lissant Bolton's study of the women's tradition of weaving and the ceremonial use of woven mats on the island (Bolton 1993).

Generally linguists writing grammatical descriptions of undescribed languages have paid little attention to how the system of spatial reference is grammatically encoded in the language, nor have they specified in any detail the semantics that determine the use of spatial terminology. When I carried out a typological description of spatial deixis (Hyslop 1993), I found it difficult to comment in detail on the precise semantics and use of spatial deictic systems, as little information was given on spatial deictic forms in descriptive grammars, beyond simple definitions. Considering how central spatial reference is to common language use, particularly in a language such as Ambae where the system is quite detailed and complex, it is important that a full description be given in a grammatical description of the language.

A great deal of interest in 'space' has recently developed in the fields of linguistics and anthropology. The topic of space in language, culture and cognition has been the main area of research of the Cognitive Anthropology Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, where researchers have looked in detail at spatial reference systems in a diverse range of languages and cultures. A number of publications have resulted, including, significantly, fieldwork guides for linguists, offering advice on collecting spatial language (Levinson 1992, Pederson & Wilkins 1996) and its importance when writing grammatical descriptions.

Two recent books concerned with spatial issues, and of particular interest to anthropologists and linguists working in Austronesian studies, are Fox's The Poetic Power of Place: Comparative perspectives on Austronesian ideas of Locality (1997), and Senft's Referring to Space: Studies in Austronesian and Papuan languages (1997). These works contain excellent descriptions of systems in languages ranging from New Caledonia (Ozanne-Rivierre 1997) and the Solomon Islands (Keesing 1997, Hill 1997), through Indonesia (Bubandt 1997), and as far as Madagascar (Adelaar 1997). To date, there has been no adequate description of the spatial reference system of a Vanuatu language, and this paper serves as an attempt to fill that gap.


When referring to the location of objects in space or the direction of movement incorporated in an event, there are a number of different types of systems that languages employ. Many make use of an intrinsic frame of spatial reference, whereby an object's location can be specified according to its relation to an inherent feature of an item with which it is being compared. This covers such expressions as, 'in front of me' or 'behind the house'. Humans, due to their asymmetry, are usually thought of as having fronts, backs and sides, and certain objects can be thought of as having comparative inherent features. Because these are inherent features, they do not alter with a change in perspective; the front of the house will always be the front of the house, no matter which angle it is viewed from.

'In front of the tree', however, is an example of relative rather than intrinsic spatial reference. Using a relative system, the manner in which one describes an object's position depends on the speaker's position in relation to it. Thus the description will change with speaker's position. Trees, at least for speakers of English, and for that matter of Ambae, do not have inherent fronts and backs, but in English we can talk about the location 'in front of the tree'. When we refer to the position of an object in relation to a tree, the speaker treats the tree as if it were facing him/her, and thus that part of the tree 'facing' the speaker is considered its front. It is thus possible to say, 'in front of the tree', but the area of space which this refers to will change according to the viewer's perspective. In Ambae, it is not possible to say 'in front of the tree', as one can only talk about a location 'in front of something' in relation to objects that have intrinsic fronts. A different frame of reference m ust be used to express this relation; in these situations an absolute system is used.

Many languages possess an absolute system, based on fixed, salient reference points in the speaker's environment. Our cardinal system, distinguishing north, south, east and west, is an absolute system, and many other languages possess a system such as this, which is ultimately based on the path of the sun. Other languages have an absolute system which is based on physical landmarks, such as up-river versus down-river, or landward versus seaward, or else based on the direction of prevailing winds. In English our cardinal system is rarely used as a frame of spatial reference, and indeed many speakers cannot use this system very competently. However, in some languages this is the main type of spatial system used, and all specifications of direction and location are stated accordingly. Absolute systems are prominent in Austronesian languages (see, for example, Senft 1997), and it is the distinction between landward and seaward that is most salient to the island residing, seafaring peoples of Oceania.

The system which operates in Ambae is fairly representative of the spatial reference systems which operate in Vanuatu languages. For example my recent research into the closely related languages of the neighbouring island of Maewo reveals that the systems operating in the three languages spoken on this island are virtually identical to that used in Ambae. Likewise in Tamambo, another Northern Vanuatu language spoken on the island of Malo, there are cognate directional forms which distinguish the same divisions. However, while in Ambae hage colexifies the meanings 'up', 'inland', 'southeast when travelling to other islands' and 'to other countries from Vanuatu' and hivo means 'down', 'seaward', 'northwest when travelling to other islands' and 'to Vanuatu from other countries', the cognate form sahe in Tamambo also means 'up' and 'inland' but the distinction for more distant locations is the reverse, specifying 'northeast when travelling to other islands' and 'to Vanuatu from other countries'. The cognate form jivo colexifies the meanings 'down', 'seaward', 'southwest when travelling to other islands' and 'to other countries from Vanuatu' (Jauncey 1998:306).

In Vures, another member of the Northern Vanuatu subgroup of languages spoken on the more distant island of Vanua Lava in the Banks group, once again the seaward-landward distinction is important. However in other ways the Vures spatial reference system differs. Unlike in Ambae, Tamambo and the Maewo languages, 'up' is not colexified with 'inland' and 'down' is not colexified with seaward; these meanings are expressed by four different forms. Another significant difference in the Vures system, but which also demonstrates the importance of the division between land and sea is the specification of the direction 'to one's right when facing the sea' (i.e. in a clockwise direction around this round island) as opposed to the direction 'to one's left when facing the sea' (i.e. in an anticlockwise direction around this round island).

All languages possess a system of spatial deixis, whereby the location of objects and their movement in space can be described in relation to the location of the speech act and its central participants, the speaker and addressee. Deictic expressions are tied to the context of each individual speech act; they do not refer to fixed points or items in space, but rather identify the location of things relative to who is speaking, and where and when they are speaking. In terms of deixis, the deictic centre of any speech act is me, here, now. And any information requiring knowledge of the context of the speech act in order to be correctly interpreted, is deictic information.

In Austronesian languages there is a tendency to combine intrinsic, absolute and deictic systems. These languages do not generally have a relative system. [3] While there are terms for left and right, front and back, above and under, in most Austronesian languages these terms are only used intrinsically. In fact, with respect to left and right, these terms are often restricted to talking about the left and right sides of a person's body. While it is possible to say that someone is sitting on a person's left or right, in many Austronesian languages, this relationship would usually be expressed in absolute terms, for example, X is sitting on the uphill side of Y. Further, in most Austronesian languages left and right can never be used relatively to state the location of one object in relation to another. One is not able to say, 'The child is to the left of the tee.' Nor, when giving directions, can you direct someone to turn to the left or right. Those readers familiar with Melanesian languages may recognise t hat this is the same pattern that occurs when talking about spatial relationships in NeoMelanesian pidgins. For example, if you were in Port Vila giving directions, you wouldn't usually tell them to go left or right, but rather to go antap or go daon. These are absolute specifications, antap basically meaning either in a direction uphill or away from the sea, and daon meaning either downhill or towards the sea. We can see that while the lexical items used in Bislama derive from English, the ways in which these terms are used derive from the local languages.


In Ambae there is a set of spatial terms that incorporate interaction between an absolute and a deictic system. The absolute system is based on a division of the environment which generally reflects both the vertical axis and the landward-seaward axis, although the situation is a lot more complicated than that. Onto this absolute system a deictic system is mapped, such that each of the oppositions of the absolute system can be marked according to a three-way distinction relative to the participants of the speech act. That is, it is marked according to whether an item's direction of movement or location is away from the speaker, towards the speaker, or alternatively, towards either the addressee or a place which was the deictic centre at a time other than that of the speech act.

Grammatically, this spatial system is encoded by a set of forms that can function as demonstratives, locational nouns and directional verbs. These forms constitute a separate word class which I refer to as 'directionals'. In this paper I mainly look at the set of directional verbs in order to illustrate how this system, which incorporates both absolute and deictic oppositions, functions.

There are nine members of the directionals class, as shown in table 1. The primary distinction reflects the absolute system, in which direction on the vertical axis is specified, distinguishing motion across, on the level (vano), from motion up (hage), and motion down (hivo). This parameter also reflects a division of the landward-seaward axis, in that motion up equates with motion in a landward direction, motion down equates with motion in a seaward direction, and motion along equates with motion parallel to the coastline. The distinctions are more complex; it is the semantics of the divisions made in the absolute system that want to concentrate on, so I will briefly describe the specification of the three-way division relating to movement relative to the participants of the speech act before addressing the specifics of the absolute system.

MOTION AWAY - [theta]

Noting the forms in table 1, the unsuffixed forms (that is vano, hivo and hage, which have no ending on them) specify movement away from the speaker, or the deictic centre. But, they are also the forms used to refer to non-deictic movement, that is motion which is not related to the location of the speech act. Thus in sentence 1, the first example of the word hage is deictic, as it refers to motion away from the place of the speech act. The speaker is referring to 'us', 'here' in Lolovoli, and motion away from that place, 'up' to Maewo is referred to. The second instance, however, is not deictic, it simply refers to movement from one specified location to another.
1) Gide Sao da=ni hage Maewo, gide tahingaha Lolovoli, me
 1NSG.IN [4] many 1NSH.INS=IRR go.up Maewo 1NSG.IN here Lolovoli COM
1) i ngire la-lavasigi tau Longana ra=ni hage vage.
Lots of us will be going (up) to Maewo; us here at Lolovoli, and some of
them from Longana will go too.


The forms suffixed with -mai are strictly deictic; they can only be used to refer to movement towards the place where the participants of the speech act are at the time of the speech act. In example 2 the speaker is directing the addressee to go up to a place away from the location of the speech act, and then return to this same place.
2) Ale ne=hage lo sitoa, ne=himei siseri.
 CONJ 2NSGS=go.up LOC store 2NSGS=go.down:to.sp quickly
OK, go up to the store and come back again quickly.

3) Go=tu beno, na=ni hagatu! ([hage.sup.*]/[hage.sup.*]) [7]
 2SGS=stay already 1SGS-IRR go.up:DIR go.up go.up:to.sp
Just stay there, and I'll come up to you!

The meaning and use of the forms suffixed with -atu is much more complicated than the unmarked forms and those suffixed with -mai. There are two distinct meanings. Firstly, atu means motion towards the person being spoken to, as in example 3:

Note that in the context of this utterance only the form hagatu is acceptable. Hage could be used in a different context, but if it were used, then this would mean that the speaker was intending to go up, not to the addressee, but to another place, in a direction away from both the speaker and the addressee. To use the form hamai in this sentence would simply be ungrammatical and nonsensical, as hamai means 'to come up to the speaker', and it is obviously not possible for the speaker to move towards her/himself.

However, the -atu forms can also specify motion towards a past or future deictic centre. By this I mean motion to a place either where the speaker was in the past, or will be in the future. That is, the speaker is referring to an event that took place in the past or will take place in the future, and the speaker is treating this event as the deictic centre, relating the motion involved in the event to the location at that centre. To illustrate this, compare sentences 4 and 5. In sentence 4 the meaning imparted is, 'come up to the place where we will be tomorrow', with the response, 'OK, we'll come up to the place where you will be.' The movement involved in this situation is towards the future deictic centre. On the other hand, in sentence 5 the motion referred to is simply movement up to a place, and the position of the participants, either at the time of the speech act or in the future when the action will take place, is not relevant.
4) Ne=ri hagatu mavugo. Garea, ga=ri hagatu
 2NSGS=DL:IRR go.up:DIR tomorrow good 1NSG.EXS=DL:IRR go.up:DIR
4) ([hage.sup.*]).
You two come up tomorrow. OK, we'll come up.
5) Ne=ri hage mavugo. Gerea, ga=ri hage.
 2NSGS=DL:IRR go.up tomorrow good 1NSG.EXS=DL:IRR go.up
You two go up tomorrow. OK, we'll go up.

In example 6 the movement described is motion towards a past deictic centre. So, at the time of the past action, the first-person participants ('us') were located at a particular place, and 'they', the people from Maewo, came down to that place, to the speakers' deictic centre, and joined them.
6) Ngire tau Maewo ra=mo hivatu ra=mo bulu gamai.
 3NSG from Maewo 3NSGS=REAL go.down:DIR 3NSGS=REAL join 1NSG.EX
Those from Maewo came down and joined us.

Sentence 7 is commonly said if a person stops on the path in front of you, and you want them to move ahead. Effectively, you want the addressee to move forward, in the direction that both you, the speaker, and the addressee are travelling, to the place which will become the deictic centre of both the speaker and the addressee.

7) Go=hagatu!


You go up (first)! (i.e., lead)

Finally, to demonstrate the contrasting use of the forms, sentence 8 is an utterance in which either of the directional verbs occur depending on the context:
8) Sinobu ra=u hivo/ himei/ hivatu lo bongi
 many.people 3NSGS=TEL go.down go.down:to.sp go.down:DIR LOC death.feast
Lots of people went/come down to the feast for the dead person.

Note that this refers to an event that took place in the past, and the variation in meaning, dependent on the form is:

* hivo = the people went to a place away from where the speaker and addressee are now. Further, this place is not the place where the speech participants were at the time of the event, or where they are commonly known to reside.

* himei = this could only mean that the motion of the people was to the place where the speaker and addressee are now, or at a place which is also down from the point of origin.

* hivatu = the people went to a place where either the speaker or the addressee was at the time of the event (typically the place of residence), but not where they are now.


With regards to the absolute system, one can see from table 2, that the situation is more complicated than simply specifying motion uphill in contrast to motion downhill or along a level plane. In different contexts, different oppositions are relevant.


Ambae is a mountainous volcanic island with very few flat areas, and a location can generally be specified with respect to another location in terms of its relative height. Movement from one village to another that is some distance downhill, must be specified as hivo 'motion down'. It is not acceptable to refer to this motion as simply vano 'motion along'. That is, it is not correct to assume that there is a choice, as there is in English, between saying, for example, either 'go down to the sea' (hivo), or simply 'go to the sea' (vano). As the ungrammatical sentence 9 suggests, it is not possible to use the verb vano to refer to motion towards the sea. Rather, if in any given context it is appropriate to specify motion up or down, this direction must be specified, no matter how slight the incline. In an example such as sentence 10, where the house is in fact located only metres away from the speaker and the person spoken to, due to its slightly uphill location movement must be referred to using the directiona l verb hage, specifying 'motion up from the deictic centre'. The distinction of relative height will always be made for any direction of movement or location, regardless of the distance involved; the specification of height is relevant in every context.
9) [Da.sup.*]=vano lo tahi!
Let's go to the sea!
10) Go=hage lo vale, go=maturu.
 2SGS=go.up LOC house 2SGS=sleep
Go up to the house and sleep.

Considering Ambae's environment, the forms specified for direction that is level to the deictic centre are less commonly used. Sentence 11 gives an example of a situation where vano is used to describe crossing a creek, where this involves movement which is neither up nor down.
11) Ga=u vano tavalu wai.
 1NSG.EXS=TEL go side creek
We want to the other side of the creek.

While vano is the form marked for direction across or level with the deictic centre, it is also used when direction is not known. It is, therefore, used when asking where someone has gone to (example 12) or come from (example 13).
12) Bui u va [8] logo?
 Mum TEL go where
Where has Mum gone?
13) Ne=vanai logo?
 2NSGS=go:to.sp where
Where have you (all) come from?

As may be expected, these forms can also be used to express motion up into the air and down to the ground, as opposed to motion along on the surface. Thus in example 14 a movement to a place up on top of something is expressed using hage, as is motion up in the air above the ground (example 15). Likewise, hivo refers not only to movement from a place up high downward to the ground (example 16), but also motion descending down into the sea (example 17).
14) Mo kalo mo hage lo hune-i vale.
 REAL climb REAL go.up LOC roof-CONST house
She climbed onto the roof of the house.
15) Da=mo olo da=mo hage lo ulu-i dodo.
 1NSG.INS=REAL fly 1NSG.INS=REAL go.up LOC high-CONST cloud
We flew up above the clouds.
16) Go=hivo vine!
 2SGS=go.down down
Get down! (e.g., out of a tree.)
17) Gu hivo gu sarovo lo bulo-gi? Hate, u bue lawagi.
 2SGS:TEL go.down 2SGS:TEL arrive LOC bottom-AL no TEL deep too.much
When you went down did you reach the bottom? No, it was too deep.


Considering that the land rises up directly from the sea, it is not surprising that inland locations are equated with being 'up', and locations towards the sea with 'down'.
18) Mo=vo na hivo na ga-garu lolo tahi.
 REAL=say 3SG go.down 3SG REDUP-swim in sea
He wanted to go down and swim in the sea.
19) Da=hivo lo tahi da=si-siu! Hate, da=ni mas
 1NSG.INS=go.down LOC sea 1NSG.INS=REDUP-fish no 1NSG.INS=IRR must
19) hage a-ute huri na qeta.
 go.up LOC-bush PURP ACC taro
Let's go down tot he sea and fish!
No, we must go up to (the gardens in) the bush to get some taro.

While motion away from the sea is associated with hage and towards the sea with hivo, movement along the coastline is associated with vano (example 20).
20) Ra=ni vano ra=ni huri lolo one.
 3NSGS=IRR go 3NSGS=IRR follow LOC beach
They will go along the beach.

In most situations on Ambae, downhill and towards the sea will be the same direction. It may not, then, be possible to state in a given context the specific direction hivo refers to, as the direction is one and the same. There are also very few flat places, so it is difficult to test whether or not there really is an opposition relating to direction with respect to the sea, or if in fact this is coincidental. However, when one walks with an Ambae speaker through the few streets of Luganville, a small town on the coast of Santo island, the opposition of inland and seaward is clearly demonstrated. The central part of town is flat, but turning through the streets one must go hage ('up') a street if it is away from the sea, hivo ('down') towards the sea, and vano ('across') if it is parallel to the shore. Likewise, a group of people playing football on a level playing field will say, 'pass the ball here, hamai or himei', meaning in an inland or seaward direction towards the speaker. As the area is flat, a distin ction on the vertical axis is not relevant, but the speakers are aware of the sea's position and they use this as a reference point.


The specification of direction is extended to describing movement between the land and sea. For example, when at sea movement towards the land is equated with moving inland or upward, and is thus hage, whereas movement further out to sea is equated with moving towards the sea or downward, hivo. Therefore, if one is on a ship in the harbour and another ship is heading towards your ship from further out to sea, you would say, 'Sip mo hamai' ('The ship is coming (up)'). Likewise, if you were standing on the shore and the ship was coming in, the same statement would apply. So when a boat travels into the harbour, it travels hage (see example 21), as does the wind blowing ashore from out at sea (example 22). If, however, a ship was coming towards the ship which you were on from a position closer to the shore, then you must say, 'Sip mo himei'(' The ship is coming (down)'). This direction of motion is illustrated in sentence 23, which describes swimming further away from the land, out to sea.
21) ...ra=mo hage vovohoi lolo halea...
 3NSGS=REAL go.up straight in harbour...
...they would go straight into the harbour...
22) Dueliu mo hamai lolo gowana Pentecost Maewo.
 wind REAL go.up:to.sp LOC open.sea Pentecost Maewo
The 'dueliu' wind comes up from the open sea between Pentecost and Maewo.
23) Vo go=ni geru go=ni hivo vagahao, tahi vi=ni weli=go
 if 2SGS=IRR swim 2SGS=IRR go.down far sea 3SG.IRRS=IRR take=2SGO
23) vi=ni hivo me=go vagahao.
 3SG.IRRS=IRR go.down COM=2SGO far
If you swim out a long way, the sea will take you and carry you out a long

As is the case on shore, movement on the sea that is parallel to the coastline is vano (see example 24). Further, if one is on a ship in the middle of the sea and the land cannot be seen, and nor is the speaker aware of the ship's position with respect to land, then motion in any direction is described as vano.
24) Da=ni hage samwegi varea, da=vano lo mata-i Wai Rigi.
 1NSG.INS=IRR go.up outside 1NSG.INS=go LOC eye-CONST creek Rigi
We won't be able to get (up) out (of the water), let's go along to the
mouth of Rigi Creek.


While travelling around Ambae, there are a number of factors to consider when specifying direction of movement. Moving towards a place close by, one must consider its position relative to the sea, or its position up or downhill, in relation to the centre of reference. But when travelling greater distances, how does one refer to places when relative height is not significant? And what if both places are on the coast? The same forms are still used, so what factors determine which directions the terms specify? If one is travelling a considerable distance, the direction relative to the sea or in terms of physical height may not be immediately obvious or particularly significant, but these factors must be considered first. Thus, if one is travelling from a village some distance from the coast to a village by the sea, this movement will always be hivo, regardless of the direction and distance travelled. Similarly, if one travels to a place further up the volcano, this must be hage. It is only when one travels to pl aces a considerable distance away or on a similar level, that other comparisons need to be made. A choice is made based on two factors. A clear division exists between the two 'sides' of the island (see map 2), and this distinction is due to the shape of the island with its two long sides. But more significantly, the north-western side of the island is the lee-side and the south-eastern side the weather side, the trade winds coming from the southeast. Travel from one side of the island to the other is always expressed as vano, as this suggests movement 'across' the island (example 25).
25) Langi mo vanai lo westen pat.
 wind REAL go:to.sp LOC western part
The wind comes from the west. (Stated at Lolovoli in the south-east.)

When one is moving 'along' the coast, however, a division made on the northeast/southwest axis, and anywhere following the north-eastern line of the island is considered 'up', while movement in a southwest direction is 'down'.

To illustrate this, the Lolovoli district on the eastern side of the island is only a few hundred metres from the coast, but because it is up quite a steep incline from the sea, and as generally villages are closer to the sea, movement to most places is hivo irrespective of the direction travelled in. Thus Lolowai and Saratamata to the northeast, Redcliff to the southeast, and Walaha to the southeast on the other side of the island, are all hivo. The only places that are hage from Lolovoli are those places located higher up the mountain, such as the village of Ambanga to the northwest, and Lake Manaro, a crater lake in the volcano. Nduindui, located on the other side of the island, is vano, as is Longana, due to the fact that it is quite close to Lolovoli and at the same level. These variations have made it difficult to determine the exact system for specifying direction within Ambae.
26) ...tahingaha lo duvi tano-da tahingaha da=ni veve
 here LOC end land-1NSG.INP here 1NSG.INS=IRR say
26) da=ni vano lo tavalu-gi Nduindui...
 1NSG.INS=IRR go LOC side-AL Nduindui at the end of our land here, if we want to go to Nduindui on the
other side ...

Starting from a place on the coast, however, it is easier to determine the factors that come into play. The following example from Nduindui on the west coast, indicates the importance of absolute direction addressed:
27) Niko ngaha go=ni toga bibi tahingaha Nduindui, ale niko ngaha
 2SG this 2SGS=IRR live tight here Nduindui so 2SG this
27) go=ni hage Vuinikalato, ale niko ngaha go=ni hage Walurigi, niko
 2SGS=IRR go.up Vuinikalato so 2SG this 2SGS=IRR go.up Walurigi 2SG
27) ngaha go=ni hage Lombaha, ale niko ngaha go=ni vano Longana, Niko
 this 2SGS=IRR go.up Lombaha so 2SG this 2SGS=IRR go Longana 2SG
27) ngaha go=ni vano lo tavalu-gi, ra=vo, Lovuinimatui
 this 2SGS=IRR go LOC side-AL 3NSGS=say Lovuinimatui
You are going to stay here at Nduindui, and you are going to go up to
Vuinikalato, and you are going to go up to Walurigi, and you are going
to go up to Lombaha, and you are going to go across to Longana, and you
are going to go across to the other side, which they call Lovuinimatui.

As Lombaha is also inland from Nduindui this may be the reason that it is hage, and Vuinikalato, while on the coast, is perched on top of cliffs. However, Walurigi is a relatively flat place by the sea, and the only reason this could be considered hage from Nduindui is because it is to the northeast. Therefore, we begin to see distinctions made on a basis other than relative height and relative position to the coast, as in this instance such contrasts are not valid.

To sum up the factors involved in determining the directional verb used to refer to travel within Ambae -- particularly to more distant places -- the various contrasts are addressed in the order listed below:

* is the place up, down or level from the deictic centre?

* is the place towards the sea, inland or parallel to the coast?

* is the place on the opposite side of the island (to the east or west)?

* is the place to the northeast or southwest along the coastline?

If the primary opposition is not relevant to the particular situation, the more secondary factors are addressed. Relative height is always most important, and only if no clear decision can be made on the basis of height or position relative to sea, will a decision be made in terms of absolute direction. While there is a distinction based on the northeast/southwest axis, a decision is made according to this only after all other factors have been taken into account.


The distinctions made when travelling beyond Ambae to other Vanuatu islands or even further afield, are more straightforward and simple to describe, although an interesting difference can be observed. Naturally, divisions of height and position relative to the sea and land are no longer relevant, but nevertheless the same directional forms are used. Rather than observing relative height to the deictic centre, a division is made between all islands to the south and east, which are considered hage ('up'), and those to the north and west, which are hivo ('down') (see map 1). You will recall that the absolute distinction made when describing motion within the island follows the southwest/northeast axis, so the distinction for travel between islands follows a quite different axis. [9]
28) ... ra=u walau-gi na aka-ra ra=mo hage Maevo, sege ra=mo
 3NSGS=TEL run-APPL ACC canoe-3PLP 3NSGS=REAL go.up Maewo or 3NSGS=REAL
28) hage Pentecost, sege ra=mo hivo Santo.
 go.up Pentecost or 3NSGS=REAL go.down Santo
... they took their canoes and went up to Maewo, or up to Pentecost, or
down to Santo.
29) ... vataha na vanue mwere mo tavuigi Aneityum mo hivo mo
 ... every ACC island like REAL start Aneityum REAL go.down REAL
29) dadari Banks ...
 reach Banks ...
... every island, starting from Aneityum and going down as for as the Banks

We can conveniently describe this spatial division in terms of the familiar cardinal direction points, though obviously this is not how the distinction developed. It seems plausible that the reason for this division relates to the shape of the island and the direction of the winds. The people of Ambae were originally very much a seafaring people, and the south-east side of the island is the weather side, the trade winds coming from this direction. Wind direction is very significant for people of the sea, and it is easy to see how a division could develop that distinguishes the direction from which the wind blows, from the direction followed when travelling into the wind. It is not unreasonable to suggest that people would equate travel away from the island and into the wind with going up, just as up is often associated with what is in front, or forwards, and down with what is behind. Suffice it to say that this is speculation, and we can only describe the directional terms that are used for referring to trav el between islands as they are in use today. This does suggest a reason for the difference between the axis operating on the island and that operating between islands. Clearly, while we may discuss the axes in terms of cardinal points, on the island the axis is based on the coastline, which runs southwest to northeast, and when travelling across the sea, the axis appears to be based on the prevailing winds.

Considering the axis which divides islands in the southeast from those in the northwest, there is only one island lying exactly on this axis, and that is Malakula to the southwest. This provides further confirmation of the division, as Malakula is the only island to which one travels vano; and if the part of the island is specified, one travels hage to those places in the northwest of Malakula, and hivo to places in the southeast.
30) ... gide tahingaha da=veve vo da=vano Malakula ...
 ... 1NSG.IN here 1NSG.INS=tell if 1NSG.INS=go Malakula
... us here say that we want to go to Malakula ...

There is no directional division related to movement to other countries, they are all referred to as hage ('up') from Vanuatu, irrespective of the direction in which they lie. Australia to the west, Fiji to the east, and the Solomon Islands to the north are all hage (see example 31). The reasons for this can only be guessed at, but perhaps movement to the unknown is equated with moving forwards, and thus going 'up'. Bubandt notes a similar situation in Buli (Indonesia), where not only are all overseas countries thought of as 'up', but so are most seemingly 'foreign' places within Indonesia, that is, outside the immediate Buli area. He observes that '[t]he "upward" domain is thus both socially and morally distinct from the rest of social space: it is the foreign, the distant, the invitingly prosperous yet treacherous unknown.' (Bubandt 1997:148).
31) Go=ni hage Ostrelia/ Fiji/ Solomons?
 2SGS=IRR go.up Australia Fiji Solomon Islands
Are you going to go to Australia/Fiji/the Solomon Islands?


Direction or location within an enclosed space, such as in a house or on a ship, requires that the same forms are employed, but there are two different systems operating. In a building such as a church, the place of focus, the pulpit, is the front, as is the forward-moving bow of a ship. Movement to the front is equated with hage ('up'), towards the back hivo ('down') and to the side vano ('across'). Thus sentence 32 was uttered in a church, with a young boy being told by a woman to go and sit on the other side of the aisle with the men, and sentence 33 refers to going 'down' to the stern of the ship. Some buildings, however, cannot be said to have a definite front and back (at least internally, for in Ambae the single door of a house is always located at the 'front'). Inside houses, where the floor is flat, people generally relate the position of objects within the room according to the lay of land outside. So if a house is positioned on a hill, and someone wishes to state the location of an object that is i n a position equated with the uphill side of the house from outside, then this object is hage ('up').
32) Go=vano go=toga me-na mwera ngire.
 2SGS=go 2SGS=sit COM-ACC man 3NSG
Go and sit with the men.
33) No=mo rau hivo lo boro-gi bana tangaloi ngire
 1SGS=REAL not.want go.down LOC stern-NOM because people 3NSG
33) ra=mo lue.
 3NSGS=REAL vomit
I don't want to go down to the stern because the people (down there)
are vomiting.


A number of Austronesian languages that have a spatial reference system based on absolute distinctions between uphill/downhill and landward/seaward contrasts, further extend this distinction, regarding places of 'higher' importance (note that the same metaphor exists in English) as 'up', no matter where the place is physically located. Ozanne-Rivierre notes of New Caledonian languages: 'the "up/down" contrast is not limited to spatial reference in the strict sense. It can also be applied to social relationships and mentalities associated with the hierarchical distinctions which characterize Melanesian societies.' (Ozanne-Rivierre 1997:90) She offers an example where motion 'up' can mean motion towards the place of a person of higher rank than oneself, regardless of the physical location of that place. In the Tukang Besi language of Sulawesi, Indonesia (Donohue 1995), the direction specifing a location 'up' or 'landwards', also denotes motion to a 'referential centre', that is, a social, political or cultural centre. Buli, Indonesia (Bubandt 1997), and Kwaio, Solomon Islands (Keesing 1997), similarly extend their spatial reference system.

In Ambae this extension of spatial reference to social or political significance is not made; here the physical environment is always the determining factor. The provincial headquarters at Saratamata, and the commercial centre at Lolowai are both located downhill from Lolovoli, closer to the sea, and travel to these places from Lolovoli is always in a hivo ('downward') direction. There is no notion that these politically and commercially important places are located 'higher' than other places. However, that is not to say that the directionals are only used to refer to motion and location in strictly physical terms. In Ambae there are several metaphorical uses of the directional verbs. One of the most significant ways of raising one's status in Ambae is by the ceremonial killing of pigs. This is not something that only men practise in order to achieve chiefly rank, but women and children are involved in pig killings as well. When anyone is involved in a pig killing ceremony, they hage ('go up, increase status ') as a result of their participation, as shown in sentence 34. The verbs hage and hivo can also be used in more general contexts, to refer to increase and decrease in status or importance.
34) ...ale mo vire, mo hage, mo vaga-rue, vaga-tolu, mo wehe
 so REAL 'flower'.grade REAL go.up REAL CAUS-two CAUS-three REAL kill
34) na boe hangvulu dowma-gi gai-lime.
 ACC pig ten plus-AL NUM-five
... so he takes the 'vire' rank of the grade taking ceremonies, and the
increases his status, and he does it a second time, and a third time, and he
kills fifteen pigs.

When transitive verb forms are derived from these directionals (hage and hivo, but not vano), the verbs take on further, extended meanings. The derived transitive meanings are 'to raise' from hage 'to go up', and 'to lower' from hivo 'to go down'. Note, however, that the transitive verbs with these meanings are never used in their literal sense to refer to directed motion. These two verbs are only used metaphorically. Simple examples are given in sentences 35 and 36, referring respectively to 'raising' and 'lowering' of prices.
35) Ra=mo hage-gi na voli-voli lague lawagi.
 3NSGS=REAL go.up-APPL ACC REDUP-pay big too.much
They raised the bride price too much.
36) Ra=mo hivo-gi na mane-i lako-lako.
 3NSGS=REAL go.down-APPL ACC money-CONST REDUP-goods
They lowered the price ofgoods.

The more common and interesting metaphorical use of these transitive verbs refers to 'raising' or 'lowering' someone's status, importance or worthiness. In the following sentence the meaning conveyed by a serial verb construction containing the verb lado ('to think') and hagegi, is: 'to think that one's status is raised'.
37) Moffat mo lado hage-gini=e.
 Moffat REAL think go.up-APPL=3SG
Moffat thinks highly of himself.

While the invariant meaning of these two derived transitive verbs is 'to raise' and 'to lower', different interpretations can result. Sentences 38 and 39, illustrate that hivogi can have both positive and negative connotations; one can humble oneself by letting others think that you have low status, but alternatively you can act in a way which may lower another person's status and cause them to be seen as less important.
38) Go=ni hivo-gi niko, go=ni vora-gi na retahigi.
 2SGS=IRR go.down-APPL 2SG 2SGS=IRR born-APPL ACC cheif
You will humble your self and become an important person.
39) Ngie mo hivo-gi tama-na.
 3SG REAL go.down-APPL father-3SGP
S/he dishonoured her/his father.


One can assume that previously, the people of Ambae needed to use their spatial reference system within the familiar setting of their village and district, and only more occasionally on different parts of the island, or further afield on other islands. Rarely would people uproot themselves and move to an alien place where they would be required to adjust their use of the system to suit a new environment. However, many people in Vanuatu now leave their home island to live in Port Vila or Luganville. These people seem to easily adapt their spatial reference system to suit their new environment. I, on the other hand, while learning to use the system relatively well on Ambae, floundered when faced with using it in Vila, finding it difficult to orient myself in this new environment. For people who are highly attuned to their island environment, it is a simple step to adapt their use of the system from one island to another, as they are familiar with orienting themselves to the coastline. As a city-dweller, my diff iculty arises from being used to orienting myself according to roads and buildings, rather than the coastline and other natural features.

An interesting further adaptation of the system is seen in the way it is used when speaking on the telephone. The first time I called Roselyn, the fieldworker on Ambae, from Vila, I was surprised to hear her say that she had hamai ('come up') to the telephone to speak to me. I knew that the direction she had travelled in was definitely downward from Lolosangga to Lolowai, on the coast. So why did she refer to her motion as 'up' rather than 'down'? After much pondering and unable to reason this seemingly unusual usage, I asked an Ambae speaker resident in Vila. He confirmed it was correct to talk on the telephone as if she had come up to Vila from Ambae to see me. I consider this a most intriguing adaptation of a spatial reference system that had previously only been used within the context of the speakers' immediate environment.

We can see that in the North-East Ambae language there is a set of deictically marked absolute direction terms that specify direction and location in all contexts, whether on a very small or a global scale. Thus, if two small items are located next to one another, it is possible to say that one object is hage ('up') with respect to the other; alternatively, when travelling across the sea, one can still use the term hage to state a particular relation between islands. Clearly, different contrasts apply in different settings, so while the linguistic forms remain the same, they cannot be ascribed a single invariant meaning. In different scales and contexts, different axes operate, and speakers must be familiar with their environment in order to competently use this complex system of spatial reference.


(1.) This paper is based on a chapter of my PhD dissertation on North-East Ambae grammar. I am grateful to Lissant Bolton and Bill Palmer for comments on earlier drafts of the paper.

(2.) There are two distinct languages spoken on the island, North-East Ambae and Nduindui, spoken in the west. My research is based on North-East Ambae language, henceforth referred to as Ambae.

(3.) Or rather what I have defined here as a relative system. There is some variation in the terminology used to speak about spatial reference. See, for example, Levinson 1996.

(4.) The linguistic abbreviations used in this paper for morpheme glosses in examples are: 1ag = first person singular pronoun, 1NSG.IN = first person inclusive non-singular pronoun, 1NSG.EX = first person exclusive non-singular pronoun, 2SG = second person singular pronoun, 2NSG = second person non-singular pronoun, 3SG = third person singular pronoun, 3NSG = third person non-singular pronoun, ACC = accusative case article, AL = alienable noun suffix, APPL applicative suffix, CAUS = causative prefix, COM = comitative preposition, CONJ = conjunction, CONST = construct suffix, DEN = 'denizen of', DIR = suffix indicting motion towards addressee, or past/future deictic centre, DL = dual number particle, IRR = irrealis mood particle, LOC = locative case article, O = object enclitic, P = possessive suffix, PERS = personal noun article, REAL = realis mood particle, REDUP = reduplication, S = subject proclitic, TEL = telic aspect particle, to.sp. = motion towards speaker.

(5.) Reflex of the reconstructed Proto Oceanic verb *mai 'come from' (Ross 1988).

(6.) Reflex of the reconstructed Proto Eastern Oceanic postverbal directional particle *[w]atu 'away, hence'. Proto Oceanic *[w,u]atu (Ross 1988).

(7.) Following linguistic covention, an asterisk (*) before a word in an example sentence means that the sentence would not be grammatical if it contained that word. An asterisk (*) at the beginning of an example sentence indicates that the entire sentence is ungrammatical.

(8.) Note that this reduced form of vano, va is that which regularly occurs in interrogative clauses.

(9.) While this would seem to be a curious variation in the division of absolute direction, this exact difference has also been observed in Tukang Besi, a Western Austronesian language of Sulawesi, Indonesia (Donohue 1995).
 The directionals
 across/traverse up/landward Down/seaward
away (from vano hage hivo
deictic centre) (vano-[theta]) (hage-[theta]) (hivo-[theta])
towards vanai hamai himei
deictic centre (van(o)-(m)ai) (ha(ge)-mai) (hi(vo)-mai)
towards addressee, vanatu hagatu hivatu
past/future deictic centre (van(o)-atu) (hag(e)-atu) (hiv(o)-atu)
 Specification of the vertical/landward-seaward axis.
vano hage
across up
parallel to land up (in air)
parallel to shore (on land) inland
parallel to shore (at sea) landward
East or west (other side of is.) northeast (along coastline)
Malakula (northeast-southwest axis) south or east (upwind)
 all other countries
To side (internal) in front (internal)
vano hivo
across down
parallel to land down (to ground)
parallel to shore (on land) seaward
parallel to shore (at sea) out to sea
East or west (other side of is.) southwest (along coastline)
Malakula (northeast-southwest axis) north or west (downwind)
To side (internal) behind (internal)
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Author:Hyslop, Catriona
Geographic Code:8VANU
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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