A way with words
A love of language has taken Åshild Næss to unexpected places.
Linguist Dr Åshild Næss is an unlikely person to have gravitated to field research. The researcher with the Faculty of Education and Arts' Endangered Languages Documentation, Theory and Application Group admits to liking her creature comforts and claims to not have an adventurous bone in her body.
Her first field trip, as a 23-year-old Norwegian Masters student, involved a treacherous boat trip to one of the tiniest, most remote islands in the Pacific, where food and water were scarce, power supply non-existent and her sleeping quarters frequently invaded by spiders the size of small dinner plates.
"I swore then that I would never do field work again," recalls Næss, who promptly moved to the Netherlands after that experience to pursue a theoretical PhD on verb transitivity, which she researched within the safe, comfortable confines of the University of Nijmegen library.
However, when her former Masters supervisor Even Hovdhaugen offered her a postdoctoral research opportunity back in the Solomon Islands, where she had made her first field trip, Næss once again packed her bags and insect repellent.
Næss has since forged a niche specialising in the description and documentation of two languages - Äiwoo and Vaekau-Taumako - spoken in the isolated Reef Islands area of the Solomons. Äiwoo has about 7000 speakers, sprinkled across a number of islands, and Vaekau-Taumako about 1500.
The two languages have existed in close proximity for an estimated 1000 years, yet are quite different, something that has long intrigued researchers across a range of disciplines. Næss' work on Äiwoo led to a breakthrough finding on the origin of the language that settled a decades-old debate between linguists and provided researchers in other fields with new insight into the migratory pattern of the region's settlers.
It had been theorised that Äiwoo had a Papuan language foundation, because of its apparent difference to the Austronesian group of languages common to the area. However, by analysing the language in collaboration with an historical linguist, Næss proved that the Papuan hypothesis was incorrect and Äiwoo was an Austronesian language.
"Archaeologists had been struggling for years with the idea that there were Papuan languages in this area because they had never found any evidence that the Papuan migration had advanced that far," Næss says.
"So our result, while unexpected among linguists, verified what archaeologists had found, which was an important outcome because this is a key area for understanding the settlement of the Pacific."
In 2011, Naæs published a reference grammar of Vaekau-Taumako, co-authored by Hovdhaugen, and hopes her appointment this year to the University of Newcastle will provide her with the opportunity to further her work in the description and documentation of Äiwoo. She is also keen to expand her research into the effects of contact between the 13 languages spoken in Temotu Province, the easternmost province of the Solomons, analysing the lexical and structural borrowing that has taken place.
While still a reluctant field worker, Næss says her love of language ultimately outweighs any trepidation about spartan living conditions and oversized arachnids.
"I find it incredibly stimulating and challenging," she says. "It is a bit like doing a really big and complicated crossword puzzle. You figure out one bit, then another bit changes completely as a result of that, then you have to go back and revise everything."