The picturesque Atoll of Ulithi, located in the Central Pacific, is home to 700 islanders. These Micronesians live on a chain of coral islands a thousand miles east of the Philippines. Most have learned to read and write in English, but their native Ulithian language remains a largely undocumented.
A US-based charity is looking to help. The Habele Outer Island Education Fund just published a Ulithian-to-English and English-to-Ulithian Dictionary. Copies of this first comprehensive Ulithian dictionary will be donated to students, educators and aid workers.
Historically, there has been little agreement between speakers about the spelling of Ulithian, a problem for both young islanders learning to read and write in English, as well as for English speaking U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers teaching on the islands.
“We’ve worked hard to create a consistent and intuitive pattern of Roman alphabet spelling,” explained John Hancock, a Habele linguist and dictionary co-author. “This makes the Ulithian-to-English transition simpler for students in elementary and middle schools.”
There are four inhabited islands in the Atoll of Ulithi, itself part of a larger archipelago that spans hundreds of miles across the States of Yap and Chuuk in the Central Pacific nation of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). These so-called “Outer” or “Neighboring Islands” lack the population density and educational resources found in the larger state capitals of Yap and Chuuk. A perceived lack of opportunity has fueled emigration that threatens the existence of the many distinctive Outer Island languages.
Despite various attempts over the past few decades, Micronesian Outer Island languages such as Ulithian, Woleaian, and Satawalese lack stable spelling systems. Non-native speakers have found the scattering of existing language materials to be confusing, inconsistent, and even unhelpful.
“An important secondary goal of this ongoing project is the documentation of Ulithian, a distinctive Trukic Language in the Austronesian family, observed Neil Mellen, Habele founder and board member. “More and more families are moving in from the Outer Islands to live on Yap Proper and the distinctions between Ulithian, Woleaian, and Satawalese have become less clear as the result of intermarriage and greater exposure to English language media.”
Worldwide, there are an estimated 3,000 living Ulithian speakers. The language is spoken natively on the islands of Falalop, Mogmog, Federai, and Asor on the Ulithi Atoll, as well as the Island of Fais, 40 miles to the southeast.
The Habele Outer Island Education Fund is an all-volunteer non-profit organization. It was established in 2006 by a group of former Peace Corps Volunteers and works to expand educational access and accomplishment across Micronesia. The group awarded 18 scholarships to Outer Island students attending private elementary and high schools during the 2009-10 school year.