The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #5 September / October 2013
Special Feature
by Erik Zidowecki
September / October 2013 | 

Language and culture are always intertwined. We gain some knowledge of a culture when we learn its language, and when we learn about a culture, we have to incorporate the language.

Sometimes, the two become even more closely linked. That is the case the Raga language, the Avoiuli writing system, and sand drawing, in which a tradition helped give birth to a new writing system for a language.


Nakamal (traditional meeting house) in Vanwoki village, Pentecost Island, Vanuatu

In the South Pacific Ocean is the island nation of Vanuatu. It is an archipelago, or group of islands, which was first inhabited by Melanesian people. The first Europeans arrived there in 1605 in the form of a Spanish expedition, led by a Portuguese navigator named Fernades de Queirós. They claimed the islands for Spain and named the island they landed on Espirtu Santo, or "Holy Spirit". No more Europeans returned until 1768, when Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a French admiral and explorer, rediscovered the islands. Several years later, in 1774, Captain Cook named the islands "New Hebrides".

The United Kingdom and France both claimed parts of the archipelago in the 1880s, and for many years, the island was managed by a British-French Condominium, a unique form of government, with separate governmental systems. This was a disaster, with a duplication of laws, police forces, prisons, currencies, education and health systems. Under this rule, the native Melanesians were banned from becoming citizens of either power, becoming officially stateless.

Thankfully, in the 1970s, an independence movement arose, and the Republic of Vanuatu was founded in 1980. The new name was derived from the word vanua ("land" or "home") and the word tu ("stand"), reflecting its new independence.


Although among the islands of Vanuatu the official languages are Bislama, English and French, the language of Raga is also widely in use. Sometimes known as Hano, Raga had an estimated 6,500 speakers (as of 2000), which makes it the seventh largest of Vanuatu’s hundred or more languages, as well as Pentecost Island’s second largest. It is an Austronesian language and has borrowed many words from Bislama, although there is a movement to replace those with new Raga words.

Raga spread to the other islands as people emigrated from Pentecost, sometimes creating new dialects of the language. However, it is now relatively homogeneous, with the last distinctive dialect, Nggasai, becoming extinct when it's last native speaker died in 1999. In general, Raga is considered an easy language to learn, and it is known as a second language by many speakers of other Vanuatu languages. While a few grammatical sketches, vocabulary lists and short papers have been published on Raga, there is no thorough description of the language.

Sand Drawing

Sand has long been a medium of art and communication for thousands of years in many parts of the world. Tibetan monks create mandalas with colored powder, and these are used to to teach. Native Americans use naturally coloured sand to make paintings on the grounds of their sacred lodges. Indigenous Australian Aborigines have used sand paintings for both story telling and recording history.

In Vanuatu, another form of sand drawing exists as part of the culture. Known also as sandoing in Bislama, the sand drawing of Vanuatu is a ritual tradition, even recognized by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity".

Image of sand drawing from Vanuatu

These drawings are created in the most basic method of using a single finger to trace a continuous line in sand or wet clay. The patterns are composed of graceful curves and are normally symmetrical. Not merely artistic, these drawings are also a means of communication among over 80 different languages in the region. They act as mnemonic devices (learning techniques that aid in information retention) to record and teach rituals, mythology, histories, and more. Most of these are very intricate, with many meanings, and can often be read in many ways. Masters of this tradition must be able to not only create them but also interpret them for others. It is probably more accurate to view this as a form of writing, rather than art.

Sadly, this tradition, like many old cultural practices, is losing its importance, with many of the drawings being used just as graphics in advertising or as tourist displays. These beautiful symbols of Vanuatu identity are often shown as a form of decorative folklore, and if sand drawings become only viewed on an artistic level, they will lose the tradition’s deeper symbolic significance and social function. A "National Action Plan for the Safeguarding of Sand Drawing" has been created by the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, with the help of the Save Sand Drawings Action Committee and UNESCO to help keep this tradition alive.


Carved stone at Lavatmanggemu inscribed with the names of local figures in the Avoiuli alphabet

Despite this danger of lost meaning, one aspect of these sand drawings has actually evolved into another form. Over a period of 14 years, Chief Viraleo Boborenvanua developed a writing system based on the designs in traditional sand drawings. It was intended as an alternative to the Latin alphabet, containing equivalent characters for the letters A through Z, numbers and a few other symbols. It was named Avoiuli, from the Raga words avoi ("talk about") and uli ("draw" or "paint"). Avoiuli is used mainly for writing Raga, but can also be used for writing English, Apma, and Bislama.

Like the sand drawings, the letters of Avoiuli are drawn using a single stroke, and these letters can be written either right-to-left or left-to-right. Furthermore, each word can be written using a single continuous stroke.

Avoiuli is taught at a school in Lavatmanggemu in north-eastern Pentecost, and scholars will often pay large school fees to learn it. It is also used for record keeping in the Tangbunia indigenous bank, which deals with many traditional forms of wealth, like shells, mats and boar tusks.

It is not uncommon for languages to have new writing systems created for them, but it is rare for those writing systems to come from a cultural practice. Do you know of similar occurrences in other languages? If so, please tell us about it.

Special Feature - Avoiuli
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Phillip Capper: Port Vila (title)
Andrew Gray: Nakamal in Vanwoki village
PhillipC: Image of sand drawing from Vanuatu
Tabisini: Carved stone at Lavatmanggemu
Petey: Map of Vanuatu
• "Avoiuli" Wikipedia <>
• "Sand drawing" Wikipedia <>
• "Raga" Omniglot <>
• "Raga (Hano) language" The Languages of Pentecost Island <>
• "Raga language" Wikipedia <>
• "Vanuatu sand drawings" UNESCO <>
• "Birth, death, and infinity in sand paintings" <>
• "Vanuatu" Wikipedia <>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


comments powered by Disqus
Subscribe now
and never miss an issue!

In this issue:

Missed something?
Find previous issues in the archives.

Become a Patron and help support us


Subscribe to Parrot Time!

Copyright © 2013-2018 Scriveremo Publishing