Real or unreal: $345,000 study on Vanuatu languages


A world-first study is about to begin into an intriguing feature of the languages used by Vanuatu’s indigenous populations.

While other languages indicate whether an event is in the past, present or future, the Oceanic languages of the French Pacific republic look at whether something is real or unreal.

New Zealand linguistics lecturer Julie Barbour has been given a $345,000 grant from her country’s Marsden research fund to carry out the study.

Dr Barbour, from Waikato University on the North Island, told Radio Australia’s <a href=””>Pacific Beat</a> her research will look at a specific element of the grammatical system, known as “mood marking”.


This covers the tenses of a language, and how it is done in Vanuatu “a little bit differently to the Indo-European languages”.

Dr Barbour said: “In a language like English we can mark our verbs as being in the past, the present or the future.

“And in these (Vanuatu) languages they seem to mark events and situations as whether they are real or unreal.”

The study covers the oral use of language, where a prefix on a verb gives that “real” or “unreal” mood.

The academic told Pacific Beat 100 different languages are spoken in Vanuatu and her mood-marking research will help unravel how the different languages are used.