Language of the week: Petats

This week’s language is the first I ever did any “fieldwork” on. It was the field methods language when I first took field methods in 1997, when I was a third year undergrad at ANU. Sasha Aikhenvald was in charge of the class.

Petats is an Austronesian language. It’s a member of the Oceanic subgroup and is spoken by a few thousand people on Buka Island, just north of Bouganville in Papua New Guinea. Our consultant had lived in Australia for quite a few years at that point, and before that she’d been a school teacher in Rabaul. She spoke a huge number of languages to various extents – not only Petats, her mother’s language, but also her father’s language, Hiri Motu, Tok Pisin, English, and several other languages from the Bouganville area.

Petats was a great field methods language. The segments are quite straightforward, but there’s enough going on allophonically that it was necessary to do a lot of testing of different allophones. Morphologically it’s a fairly typical of Oceanic languages of the area. There’s person agreement cliticisation, and applicative markers, and fairly minimal tense marking.

There’s not much Petats available online or elsewhere (another reason it was a good language to do for field methods – nothing like feeling you’re adding to the documentation of the world’s languages as a motivation for doing well in a class!) but there are a few things:

  • Paradisec’s record of Arthur Capell’s field notes on Petats.
  • Two papers on Petats phonology: here (Petats phonemes and orthography) and here (Petats phoneme data).
  • This page links to the Global Recordings Network, a missionary organisation which has gospel and other recordings in various languages. This is the Petats page.

11 responses to “Language of the week: Petats

  1. So if I’m reading Allen and Beaso correctly, the name of the language is pronounced petač? I’m always annoyed when spelling conventions produce incorrect phonetic renderings from uninitiated readers (i.e., everyone except the few hundred who have read the academic papers or studied the language). Why not Petach or Petatch?

  2. Our consultant said Petats (ie [ts]), but I don’t remember anything about the allophony of ts/tsh now.

  3. Iam a native speaker of Petats language. Petats should be spelt like Petats now because missionaries could not pronounce it. But it was originally pronounce Petaj.

    Petats change its pronounciation through the translation of Methodist hymnals and the Four gospels in 1960.

    Petats is also an Island which you can find with search engines such as google earth.

    Thank you

  4. Thanks for commenting Liz and sorry for not replying earlier. The person we worked with was in her early 50s and had grown up on Petats, but had worked in many other places in PNG and Australia since then.
    Is the sound that’s written ts sometimes pronounced like ts too (like in English cats) or is it always supposed to be lick ch or j?

  5. The langauage changed because foreign missionaries couldn’t pronounce some of the sounds in our language. So other sounds were adopted similar but not the same. Hence now Petats is prounced as it is spelt if you were an English speaker and the old pronoucation of Petaj has been dropped.

    Petets is spoken by the inhabitants of Petets Island. Dialects of Petets are spoken on Matsugan Island and Poraran Islands. Petats is also more widely known as a secound language because it with Saposa Language was adopted by the Methodist Church (now the United Chuch) for West Buka.

    I was born and brought up in Petats but now live in Sydney Australia

    Liz Corner.

  6. Thanks for the information Liz. What sort of status did the missionaries have on Petats and Matsugan Island? Also, where did they mostly come from? Were they from Australia, or England, or from mainland PNG or Bouganville?

  7. Hi Liz Corner or anyone originaly from Bouganville Island,

    I am of the voiceofmelanesian program on 88.9FM/Sydney monday nights 9pm till midnight.

    I just want to know how many indigenous Melanesian languages,you do have in Bouganville?

    Example – West Papua has 480 languages
    Papua New Guinea – 867 languages
    Vanuatu 113 languages
    New Caledinia 28 languages
    Solomon islands- 62 languages
    Torres Strait Islands- 2 languages-4 dialects
    Fiji- 14 provinces-300 dialects/more than 100 languages-Bau is one of their national language etc.

    So any help re Bouganville Island languages/dialects will be a blessing.

    Take care/regards-Philippe WT (

  8. Hi Philippe,
    I count 26 languages from this map, of which 14 are Papuan and 12 are Austronesian. Ethnologue can be a bit unreliable though but it’ll be a reasonable estimate in case Liz doesn’t see this.
    All the best,

  9. Judith Zale-Gabong

    Hi Phillip, just going thru your email. I’m Judith Zale-Gabong and a cousing to Liz Corner who now lives in Sydney. I will list what I know about indegenious languages on Bougainville;

    Languages on Buka Island alone
    Petats – Widely spoken in buka – Common
    Haku language ” ” ” – Common
    Halia ” ” ” – Common
    (About 10+ different languages and the above are commonly known)

    Bougainville Mainland (11+ languages)
    Siwai – Nasioi
    Buin – Uisai

  10. I am the eldest child of Rev. Allan Cropp the 1st Methodist Missionary of Petats and Skotolan (Buka Island) who 1st arrived at Petats in 1921.
    i am compiling a history of my father’s years in the Solomons and wold appreciate any contacts of anyone who could be of help. Especially anyone who lives in the Petats area.
    sincerely, Mrs. Joan Menzies (nee Cropp)

  11. Mrs Menzies, I would love to read your book. I was with the United Church Bougainville 1968/8 (at Kekesu) and visited Petats in June 1968 during synod at Skotolan. I have some photos taken then. Ray Grindley, Sydney

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