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A picture tells a thousand words

Besides being a linguist, George Saad is also a photography fanatic. He shares his most beautiful and telling pictures, shot during his field research in Eastern Indonesia.

On the Lesser Sunda Islands in Indonesia, the Papuan language Abui is losing ground to Indonesian, which the locals find to be more modern. A local movement is promoting the use of Abui and, for this, needs answers to questions such as ‘what exactly is changing?’ George Saad studied language change by asking over 60 people between the ages of 9 and 75 to recount the events shown in a video clip.

Complex language

‘Abui is a complex language, including words for different sleeping positions and different ways of falling. The elderly make use of these words, but younger generations often simply choose one variant, causing subtleties to disappear. This results in a significant difference in language use between generations.’


‘Around 600 to 700 years ago, the inhabitants of Islamic Flores braved the seas and settled  on the island of Alor, where they intermarried with speakers of Papuan languages. This crossing has not been documented, but can be deduced from their language as it displays similarities with the Lamaholot languages of eastern Flores and contains numerous loan words from Papuan languages.’

I love black people

‘Older people usually know more words than younger people, so in order to record these words, we asked elders to share them with us. During this session, they translate around six hundred Indonesian words into Abui. The children often show great interest: some of these words are new to them too.’

‘Many people in Indonesia wear shirts with texts they often cannot read. However, the text “I love black people” is not completely meaningless in this case. The Lesser Sunda Islands form the western border of Melanesia, the “black islands”, and they stretch to New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia in the east. The Papuan languages spoken here differ from the rest of the languages spoken in Indonesia. Melanesian people feel like they are looked down upon by their fellow Indonesians.’

Juggling breasts

‘In order for research to be successful in this community, it is very important to be able to make jokes in their own language while spending long nights with the locals. During this interview about childhood we discussed ideophones: words with sounds that are associated with an image. His example was boq baq boq baq, the juggling up and down of a woman’s large breasts as she runs.’

Two warriors from the Laani tribe of the Papuan Highlands.


‘Having a job like mine breeds a curiosity to travel around other remote parts of Indonesia, use Indonesian to connect with people, and learn about their own indigenous languages and cultures.'

Language for society

This article was previously published in Language for Society, a magazine by Taalmuseum Leiden. See their website for more information.

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