Published: April 7, 2023

Author: Maisa Nammari
Advisor: Prof. Andrew Cowell 
Project: Senior Honors Thesis  
LURA 2023


It started with a Reddit post. In my Junior year, I saw a post about a girl who grew up in a remote village in the Solomon Islands. She was answering questions regarding her life there as a child. One comment particularly intrigued me—she mentioned that her first language hadn’t been documented. I was always fascinated with language documentation and the preservation of endangered languages, and Professor Andrew Cowell’s work with Arapaho was a huge inspiration to me. I messaged the poster, hoping to get more information. While she no longer lived in the Solomon Islands, she directed me to her uncle, Cornelius, who still lived in the Solomon Islands and was enthusiastic about sharing his language with others. 

 I contacted Cornelius and asked if he would be interested in helping me document his language. He agreed and we were off to the races. From him, I found out more about the language —It is called Touo, and it is spoken in Rendova, the island where Cornelius and his family are from. There are two dialects; Lokuru and Baniata—Cornelius speaks the Lokuru dialect.  

I spent the final months of Spring semester 2021 submitting grant proposals. CARTSS (Center to Advance Research and Teaching in the Social Sciences) gave me a generous grant, with which I was able to compensate Cornelius for his time and assistance. My goal was to document the language, but I also wanted to focus on cultural aspects of the language. Cornelius’s goal was to share his language and preserve aspects of it as it is now—already, there are words that have been lost and replaced with English or Solomon Islands Pidgin. I asked Cornelius to share oral narratives in Touo, and through those, I would describe some aspects of the grammar. In July 2021, Cornelius and I had our first Zoom meeting. From then on, we met once a week on Zoom, going through his narratives word by word.  

In total, I collected eight brief narratives and we had two sessions of elicited speech. Cornelius shared stories of traditions of Rano village where he grew up, folktales, and a poem he made for his niece. For background information on this language, I had limited resources. One of my few sources, Palmer, ed. (2018), states that “the only information available on Touo is a short description in Todd (1975); a Masters thesis on serial verb constructions (Frahm, 1998) and unpublished field-notes from fieldwork carried out between 2000 and 2002 by Michael Dunn and Angela Terrill”. From these sources, I learned that Touo is a Papuan language, and some of the work done by scholars (primarily Terrill and Dunn) has been to establish a genealogical connection between the four Papuan languages spoken in the Solomon Islands. However, no definitive evidence of a language family has been found (Terrill, 2011). I was able to contact Angela Terrill, and thanks to her, I was able to reference Frahm’s work. Without these crucial resources, my thesis would have lacked important insights into the language that I did not have the time or knowledge to cover.  

Working on this thesis taught me that in fieldwork (even remote fieldwork), one must be flexible and prepared for unforeseen circumstances. In November 2021, in the middle of Cornelius’s and my work, there was political unrest in the capital of Honiara, where Cornelius lived. Government and city buildings were burnt down, and there was a lockdown for all citizens. Fortunately, Cornelius and his family were safe, but Cornelius was a government employee, and he had used his office to record his narratives, as well as meet me on Zoom. For several weeks we were unable to meet. There was little to do besides communicate via email. Toward the end of the project, he moved back to Rendova. 

My thesis revealed some interesting uses of the irrealis and realis moods in Touo narratives, and some of my data illustrated alternative uses for certain grammatical functions. I also described features that had not been described in other researchers’ works, which may have been partly due to my decision to collect narratives, which often have different linguistic features compared to conversational discourse.  

I plan to submit the recordings Cornelius made and my glosses of the narratives to the University of Hawaii’s Kaipuleohone Language Archive. Cornelius and the folks of Rendova will be able to have access to these records, along with all the data in my thesis and the appendices. I share Cornelius’s hope that more of the language will be documented in the near future, in order to preserve the language for future generations. As the world’s languages diminish, the necessity for language documentation and preservation grows. Language and culture are tightly intertwined, and to preserve a language is to preserve a culture and a heritage.  


Image Credit 

Terrill, A., & Dunn, M. (2003). Map of Rendova (image in Orthographic design in the Solomon Islands). Written Language and Literacy6(2), 177–192.


  1. Terrill, A. (2011). Languages in contact: An exploration of stability and change in the solomon islands. Oceanic Linguistics50(2), 312–337.
  2. Terrill, A., & Dunn, M. (2003). Orthographic design in the Solomon Islands. Written Language and Literacy6(2), 177–192.
  3. Terrill, A., Evans, B., & Stebbins, T. (2018). The Papuan languages of Island Melanesia . In B. Palmer (Ed.), The languages and linguistics of the New Guinea area: A comprehensive guide (pp. 868–876). essay, De Gruyter Mouton.
  4. Frahm, R. M. (1998). Baniata serial verb constructions (thesis).