Chico State professor Graham Thurgood puts his linguistic expertise to work in northern Indonesia
In the northern corner of the Indonesian island of Sumatra lies Aceh (pronounced ah-chey). Its capital, Banda Aceh, has been an important port for more than 500 years. In 1398, Marco Polo wrote of it—he stayed there for five months while waiting out the monsoon season on his way home. And for the past 60 years, the region has been in turmoil—it never did see itself as part of Indonesia and in fact is considered a “special territory” and therefore is granted much autonomy.
In December 2004, when an earthquake hit in the Indian Ocean resulting in what has been termed “The Tsunami,” Aceh was arguably the hardest-hit, as it was the closest piece of land to the epicenter. About 230,000 of its residents were killed and 500,000 of them left homeless.
In the years following the disaster, homes—and entire villages—have been rebuilt. The government, which had been in much turmoil, has declared peace. And though things seem to be going well, everything is not the way it used to be. Some villages were rebuilt, yes, but others were not, forcing their survivors to join other villages or form new ones.
“Rebuilding quite clearly has been done,” says Graham Thurgood, a professor in the English Department at Chico State who visited the region in February. “Some of it was totally ruined—it’s now under water, or something.”
At the same time, he adds, “They’ve done a better job than New Orleans as far as accepting that some things shouldn’t be rebuilt.”
Thurgood, who has taught at Chico State since 1999 and before that at Cal State Fresno, is one of the world’s foremost scholars on Southeast Asian languages. That’s why he was chosen to speak in Aceh at the first International Convention of Aceh and Indian Ocean Studies.
He was one of about 30 experts from around the world in six fields: seismology and geology; history; language, culture and society; post-tsunami relief; conflict resolution; and Islamic law. The goal was to evaluate the region, after the earthquake and tsunami, and see what there was to be learned, about the past and for the future. The convention was sponsored by the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Executing Agency for Aceh and Nias and the Asia Research Institute, NUS, Singapore.
“They chose me because I knew more about languages and how they fit in with others in the area than anyone else,” Thurgood says. He is modest, though. He admits he isn’t the specialist he would have chosen—but he’s honored nonetheless.More than 600 Acehnese turned out for the conference, where Thurgood spoke about the area’s history based on language.
“I was overwhelmed by how enthusiastic these people were to learn about their own history,” he says.
Many of them, Thurgood guesses, know little about where they come from. The destruction of museums with historical items just adds to that. But others at the conference, including representatives from the British Museum as well as libraries in Portugal and Holland, both of which occupied the territory at one time, offered their resources to rebuild Aceh’s digital library and museum.
“In a way, they have better access to materials than ever before,” he says.
The 61-year-old Thurgood is an unimposing figure who hides his smile quietly behind his thick mustache. In January, Chico State awarded him its highest honor, that of Outstanding Professor, for 2006-07. He shares a love of language with his wife, Elzbieta, also a professor at Chico State. She is an instrumental phonetician.
Thurgood, who has spent the better part of his life studying language, found himself interested in the subject while serving in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia in 1969-70. He started to notice that students made mistakes in their English based on their first language. He was so fascinated by the phenomenon that when he returned to the United States he decided to go back to school and study ESL, or English as a second language. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Berkeley in 1976 and became well-versed in Southeast Asian languages by chance.
“I took a course once [on the region],” he says. “Ten years later someone told me, ‘You’re a specialist on Southeast Asia.’ And I thought, ‘I guess I am.’ “Thurgood has authored four books, including The Sino-Tibetan Languages, which has become a standard reference for scholars. He has also studied intently the Chamic languages—those spoken in areas of Vietnam and Cambodia—and Malay dialects. Acehnese is a Chamic language that is related to Malay, Thurgood explains. He has a great interest in languages that are endangered—and he believes Acehnese, or at least its regional dialects, is among them.
Because of the tsunami, many Acehnese were displaced. And for those whose villages were not suitable to return to, that displacement was permanent. Their regional dialects, therefore, face extinction at the hands of stronger dialects. Thurgood hopes to trace at least some of them before they are lost.
For his part, Thurgood is concerned about the past. The very distant past—as determined through language. He is considering returning to Aceh to perform a series of dialect surveys that would take a year to two years. A dialect survey consists of creating a phonetic sketch, looking at texts in the language and writing it down in both English and Indonesian. He would want to work with a local.
The studies would help him to put together prehistory on the region and its people—the earliest writings of the area are from around the time Marco Polo landed there. This is something Thurgood has done before—he received two Fulbright Scholar awards and lived in Malaysia for two years. If he doesn’t go back to Aceh himself, however, he said he will find someone younger to go in his place.
“There are parts of that history that I know how to get now,” he says. Thurgood wants to find answers to questions like: “Who was there first?” He can tell, for example, who the Acehnese first came into contact with based on the different words they picked up. And he needs to look now.
There is urgency partly because of the merging of dialects, and partly because of Islam, the dominant religion in the area that only got stronger after the tsunami. “As soon as they change their names, it’s gone,” Thurgood explains.
“In 40 years we might not be able to do this.”