Property and Language in the Outer Islands

Ownership of family lands is of prime concern to Outer Islanders, and works through a complicated matrilineal system, but this understanding of property differs from Western ideas about private property in several important ways. Land usually belongs to a family (extended or nuclear) rather than an individual and is not regulated by a formal code, but rather consensus. This view of ownership is even less rigid when it comes to things other than land. Property, like so much of Outer Island life and society, is centered on the family rather than the individual.

This extended family is most significantly defined through the mother’s lineage, and it is through the woman’s line of descent that most property and title inheritance occur. This is not strict a matriarchy (in which the eldest mother in the group holds control of the family or community) because men fill the role of village and island chiefs. There are however important roles for women on the Outer Islands, both in positions through the formal women’s organizations, as well as their place of authority in a society that places high esteem on the elderly.

An interesting example of communal ownership is found in the use of adjectives. In the Ulithian language there are three classes of words that serve to qualifying a noun through the definition of a relationship. They are almost as common as the English “the” but also denote ownership (mine, hers, etc...). Understanding this helps to appreciate the Outer Island conceptualization of ownership, and how it has begun to change in recent times

The stem ya- is used for common items; yai botoaw my basket, yamw kahool your box. The stem la- or lu- is usually reserved for living things; lai yaelweech my kid, lomw pabiiy your pig. Wa- which means canoe when it is said alone, is the stem for vehicles; waal his canoe, wamw barko your ship. With the arrival of expensive Western goods, radios and televisions for example, the la- stem has come to cover more and more inanimate objects. These include radios and now televisions. Most objects retain their common ownership in speech. Generally Outer Islanders still make use of the first person plural, asking where is our basket, or our knife, even when speakers and listeners are not related.