Among the languages of the Pacific, my work as a linguist is primarily focused on Melanesia, particularly Vanuatu and the Solomons. As for the Polynesian family – the most famous language group in the Pacific – it has been relevant to my work, but rather indirectly, like a remote cousin you meet every now and then, but don’t know that well. During my own fieldwork, the only Polynesian language I’ve worked on firsthand was Tikopian (Fakatikopia), an Outlier language spoken in the Solomon Islands.
Jean-Michel Charpentier in 2007,
during one of his fieldwork trips in French Polynesia
And yet, even though they were peripheral to my own fieldwork, Polynesian languages have played an important role in my research in the last few years. In 2004, my colleague Jean-Michel Charpentier offered me to coauthor with him a linguistic atlas, and I immediately accepted — knowing how fascinating I have always found language geography and dialectology, the art of drawing human landscapes with words.
Following a suggestion by Prof. Louise Peltzer – then the Minister of Culture in the government of French Polynesia – Jean-Michel had taken up the challenge to document twenty “communalects” across the various archipelagoes of French Polynesia. Between 2004 and 2010, he carried out the ambitious endeavour to collect massive lexical data in all these languages, travelling from island to island, in quest of the best connoisseurs of each local dialect. His surveys consisted in filling out a giant lexical questionnaire of his own invention, a form of onomasiological thesaurus composed of about 2250 entries. In doing so, Jean-Michel always benefitted from the friendly support of many speakers and experts of these languages, including language academies and clubs of speakers keen to preserve and promote their own linguistic legacy.
Once the data collection was over, Jean-Michel Charpentier handed me the 2500+ pages of fieldnotes he had put together, and asked me to transform his raw data into a linguistic atlas. Between 2009 and 2014 (in parallel with my research on Melanesia), I designed the final format of this book, wrote myself a script of dynamic cartography (using Toolbox, Php and Actionscript), and generated the 2253 maps of the atlas, one at a time. Besides the maps themselves, I also added about 200 pages of finderlists in three languages (French, English, Tahitian), and 120 pages of text chapters (in French and English) which we wrote together. Finally, I was in charge of contacting the publishers, De Gruyter and the UPF, for whom I prepared the camera-ready manuscript.
In sum, this volume is a good example of what a longhaul work of collaboration can be between its two coauthors. After his retirement in 2010, Jean-Michel Charpentier was always happy to monitor the steady progress of our joint work, as I sent him the maps and chapters I had created based on his data. Tragically, Jean-Michel passed away on 30 March 2014 – right when our atlas project was entering its final stage of production. Today, as our volume finally sees the light of day, I have a special thought for my colleague and friend Jean-Michel, who would be proud to see the result of our many years of work together.
(The first pages of the published volume include a tribute to the life and work of Jean-Michel Charpentier.)