The Vocabulary of Biga Bowoya

By Father Bernard Baldwin

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Father Bernard Baldwin and His Works
            By Dr. Allan C. Darrah
         The DEPTH Project

Vocabulary of Biga Boyowa the Language of the Trobriand Island, a masterpiece of early Papuan ethnolingustic studies,  has far too long languished in obscurity. (See Note 1)  It is being published with several goals in mind,  foremost of which is the hope that access to it will provide a starting point for Trobrianders to develop their own Kilivilian Dictionary.  If this were to happen it would indeed be a fitting legacy for Father Baldwin.  It is being published in digital format to minimize costs and increase accessibility.

Giancarlo Scoditti asserts that Father Baldwin’s vocabulary is a ...”outstanding piece of work, unequaled by any lexicographer or linguist who has worked in the Trobriands...”  In his acknowledgments to Kitawa Oral Poetry, Scoditti gives  the following evaluations of Father Baldwin’s work:

This work [Kitawa Oral Poetry] is also intended as an acknowledgment of the work of B. Baldwin and W. Cunningham(See Note 2) who, during different periods, lived at the Catholic Mission in Gusaweta, in the Trobriands.  The first, whom I never met personally, has left the most complete dictionary of Boyowa, spoken in the central area of Kiriwina..... It is a handwritten dictionary, full of archaic terms, some of which occur in Nowau [Kitawa] poetic formula, confirming the interlingustic exchange within  the Kula Ring.  Dated 1939 (See Note 3) —with all that this date may mean on the methodological level in the field of ethnolingustic studies—it nevertheless conserves, the fascination of mind and considerable linguistic sensitivity, superior to that of B. Malinowski, and inspired by a profound respect for Boyowa culture.  Together with his grammar which, like his dictionary, has never been published, it represents the only point of reference for anyone interested in the languages spoken in the central-western areas of the Kula, despite some recent publications. (See Note 4)

By all accounts Father Baldwin was a remarkable man with very post-modern sensibilities when it came to his appreciation of Trobrianders.  The following excerpt from his 1971 manuscript Dokinikani: Cannibal Tales of the Wild Western Pacific is characteristic of  his position:

Many books have been written about this most colorful part of the world, but they are all written more for the rest of the world rather than for the home folk.  They are not written by them but are written from strangers from outside.  These books are very interesting, sometimes widely known, and sometimes very valuable.  But in one way they are not satisfying.  They do not have that depth and insight which books have when people are witting about themselves.  Being merely undigested masses of observations, they often have an unsettling strangeness, especially when they dwell over much on what is familiar and ordinary for those living at home.  The most wanted book on Papua New Guinea has not yet been written.  It is a book which would be adsorbing reading for the People of Papua New Guinea and the outside world; written by one born and raised in the liberal education of tribal life and proficient in English at the same time. 

                                                         Father Bernard Baldwin MSC [Undated manuscript]

Father Baldwin clearly read  Malinowski and  drew from his  works to flesh out his dictionary.  There are frequent references to Sexual Life of Savages [Sex], Argonauts of the Western Pacific [Argon.] and Coral Gardens and Their Magic [Coral].  With his familiarity of Trobriand culture and language, Baldwin was in a unique chronological position, twenty years after Malinowski’s fieldwork, to critique the works of the founder of modern anthropology.  Baldwin reports that he senses that Malinowski had missed something essential in Trobriand culture, stating that the world of his own first-hand experiences did not coincide with the world reported by Malinowski.  He gives examples of some of these disjunctures but does not fully delineate the sources of his unease. 

In addition to crafting several versions of his Boyowan Dictionary Father Baldwin has left us a considerable body of other works, most of them written during his years of service in Gusaweta. These include "Biga Boyowa: A notational study of the Trobriand Language," 110 pages. An Untitled Grammar ( first 6 pages missing written in Boyowan)  pp 7 - 342.  There is also Dokinikani: Cannibal Tales of the Wild Western Pacific, A Translation of Two Hundred pages of Vernacular Test incorporated in a concurrent commentary, Pekins, South West Australia, April 1971, a typed manuscript of  391  pages and its companion  Keibigibogwa (Boyowan versions of the stories) 167 pages,   A Sketch of the of the Boihilai Grammar, B. Baldwin MSC, March 19, 1943 , 25 pages,  Catechism of Christian Doctrine (in Boyowan) Teava, Gusaweta - Trobriand  Islands 1940 104 pages,  Katekism Kewkekita (Catechism for the Catechumenate in Boyowan)  56 pages, History of the Old Testament,  67 pages. History of the New Testament (in Boyowan) 67 pages. Kadaguwai: Songs of the Trobriand Sunset Isles 20 pages. Usituma! Song of heaven 37,  Kiriwinan Grammar, Kensington May 1, 1945,  85 pages.  There were also more than a dozen short articles about Trobrianders and their customs in The Annals of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart dating from 1937 to 1982.


In their unpublished state the manuscripts do not contain full acknowledgment for the assistance given by Trobrianders or other Members of the Mission of the Sacred Heart. In a letter dated March 10 [no year] Baldwin wrote to Father Morris requesting a copy of Malinowski’s Classificatory Particles in the Languages of Kiriwina which had been published in 1921.

I have a new language to learn. Very luckily I have been able to avail myself of the work of others, it is represented by a collection of well over three thousand words that I have written up in Alphabetical order Native-English, English-Native. 

In March of 1940 Baldwin gives credit to Father Genereux Norin, born February 2, 1887 at Le Blanc (Bourges) France and died April 3, 1945.

....I had help from Protestant translations, the studies of anthropologists, from vocabularies already collected, (See Note 5) but most of all from Father Norin, M.S.C..  Bishop de Boismenu sent him to help me seven or eight months ago, and all day, every day of the week, for five months, we have worked together.  A revised dictionary and grammar, two catechisms translated, and six hymns by Father Norin himself, are the result of our collaboration.  He has been doing the same kind of work for over twenty-five years in six or seven districts of Papua. [“10,000 Natives Want Their Own Books’, The Annals of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, March 1940]           

Father Norin was a linguist of some skill and compiled dictionaries of Fuyuguhe, the “Apekove” dialect of the Tawade language and the Motu language spoken in the vicinity of Port Moresby. 

In May 1939 he went to another linguistic destination: this time to the Australian mission of Eastern Papua to Kiriwina, one of the Trobriand Islands.  There, with Father Baldwin at first, and then with Father Dwyer he learnt Bweoiva and translated the Catechism, prayers and the Gospels.  As evidence from his collaborator, Father Baldwin who also was an excellent linguist, the work of Father Norin is of great value and this giant of an English priest who does not waste words, was full of praise for Father Norin.  [Annales de Notre-Dame du Sacre-Coeur Mars/Avril 1946 p 29 translation courtesy of Father Anthony Caruana]
In the Pacific Manuscript Bureau ascensions notes titled  The Papers of Father Bernard Baldwin, MSC list they report that:

             “Boyowan- Dictionary; annotated in Father Baldwin’s hand with acknowledgments to Fr. A Sorin, MSC “without whose help this work would never have been done”.  This copy belonged to the Catholic Mission, Trobriand Islands.  Pp 384, in good condition.

It would appear that Fr. A Sorin is a misprint and should have read Fr. G Norin.

Biographical Sketch:

Bernard Baldwin was born to Edward and Ellen Baldwin, at Preston, near Liverpool England, on March 30, 1907.  As an infant he moved to Western Australia along with his family and settled in Elleher late in 1907.  He attended the state school at Elleher and a convent school,  St. Joseph’s, in Albany;  his confirmation taking place in Albany in November or 1918.  He studied at St. Ildephonsus College for a year and a half and was then admitted to the Sacred Heart Apostolic School in Douglas Park, in 1921 where he studied for 5 years.  He was then admitted to the Sacred Heart Monastery, Kensington, NSW MSC where he studied philosophy and theology. He professed February 26, 1928 and was ordained November 30, 1933 in Sydney.

In 1929  A.G. Finch, MSC his Prefect for second year Philosophy recorded Bernard’s grades which were highest for Hebrew, foretelling his facility for languages and lowest for philosophy.  Under the heading for character he opinions that Bernard was:

Earnest but lacking in the fine points of culture.  He will never be the real gentleman. Still he is full of zeal and cherishes the .... ambition of devoting his life to the foreign mission.

Bernard’s early years in rural Western Australia could account for the rough edges of his demeanor but they also no doubt helped foster his interest in working in a foreign mission.  He has left this account of his childhood:

As a child I had for several years an intimate friendship and association with an Uncle Remus of the King George Sound tribe of aborigines of south Western Australia.  His name was Jordi and he was a pet of the countryside.  He was too old to follow the hunt.  So I learnt early that even primitive people have their ideas and that there is even perspicacity.  Predisposed to listen sympathetically from the start one becomes very naturally the repository of divergent views.

Father Baldwin’s capacity to listen to the ‘other’ with respect for their ideas informs all of his work.  Father Kevin Murphy, MSC suggests that the principal loves of Father Baldwin’s  life were anthropology and linguistics and at one point he professed an ambition to be published in the journal Oceania; an ambitions which was twice realized with the publication of two Kilivilian song cycles..

By varying accounts Father Baldwin arrived on Kiriwinia in late 1936 and had established his mission in Gusaweta by mid 1937.  A June, 1937 issue of the Annals of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart sets the date for the founding of the mission:

“Last month came the news that Father Baldwin had launched out once again; on this occasion his prow was turned to the north-east, and his flying pennant flamed the words “To the Trobriands!”  To the Trobriands at last.  For many months now the proposition of establishing a mission station there has been under consideration.  P 222

The Manuscript:

Though typed, for the most part the 1936-67 manuscript contains many hand-written entries written on the back of the single-sided pages of text.  These hand-written notations are often difficult to read, in which case the editors have indicated the dubiousness of their rendering with questions marks to warn the reader. It must be stressed that this digital rendering of the work of Father Baldwin is very much a work in progress and that the reader who wishes to use the Vocabulary for citation should check the PDF of the original.   This may be easier said than done,  for due to the incorporation of the handwritten notations in their appropriate alphabetical order the original pagination has not been retained.  To add to the difficulty entries in the original, complied well before computers,  do not strictly adhere to alphabetical order.   The editors have made a number of modifications to the formatting of the texts but have not corrected any suspected errors such as spelling.


The DEPTH Project would like to acknowledge the generosity and help of Mission of Sacred Heart, Kensington, particularly Father Tony Caruana MSC, Provincial Archivist,  who dropped everything to make us a rush copy of Father Baldwin’s manuscript and to Father Brian Gallagher, MSC Provincial Superior, MSC for granting permission for us to publish Father Baldwin’s works.

The digitizing of Biga Boyowa was a labor of love lasting several years and utilizing the efforts of numerous students of the Trobriand Seminar at CSUS.

Note 1: Microfilm copies of most of Baldwin’s unpublished manuscripts have been made available to the Melanesian Archives at the University of California, San Diego, along with selected other institutions through the good offices of the Pacific Manuscript Bureau, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University.

Note 2: Scoditti reports that Father Cunningham shared with him a number of his own linguistic writings but Father Cunnigham denies that he wrote the works attributed to him and recollects that he showed Scoditti only the works of Baldwin and Father Towmey.

Note 3: Scoditti frequently cites from Baldwin’s Boyowa Vocabulary 1939, Gusaweta: Catholic Mission MS.  This may be a different version than the one the editors have secured from the MSC Archives in Sydney which is undated but typed with many handwritten notations.  Scoditti citations from the 1939 Vocabulary indicate that it is more than 585 pages long and handwritten while the MSC Archives manuscript is 380 pages.  Father Callistus Corraya, who resided at Gusaweta in 1992 wrote the following description of a copy of a Baldwin Vocabulary obtained at Gusaweta by Scoditti.
Regarding the Kiriwinia dictionary of the MSC fathers, the title is Kiriwinan Dictionary and Grammar- it has 335 pages (photocopied in 8 ½ “ x 13 ½ “ white sheet of papers, only on one side) with two columns.  The English words are typed at the right hand side of the sheet and the Kiriwina words and the equivalents are written at the left hand side with some sentences.  It is quite legible, hand writings are quite clear.  Half of the book is full with sentences in Kiriwina and translation into English, regarding religious matters and also some proverbs.  There is a bit of grammar in the middle of the book.  I think that this book is not divided into English -Kilivila and Kilivila-English, it is not so systematic. 

The MSC Archive version is longer, it is not multi -columned, the format usually lists a Kilivilian term followed by a definition in English and usages in Kilivilian context with translation.  The MSC copy does not contain religious matters, and proverbs;  nor is there a grammar. On the basis of the number of pages alone,  it would appear from this description that the 335 paged Dictionary residing at Gusaweta in 1992 is different from the 380 page MSC Archives version and also different to the work sited by Scoditti. The PMB notes that Father Baldwin made some of his materials, including the Vocabulary of Biga Boyowa  available to the PMB in the early 1970's. But the PMB also notes that the manuscript is inscribed “Gusaweta Trobriand Isl. Nov 20th, 1939.  The PMB indicates that this version was compiled from 1936 to 1967.  Presumably these dates were based on information provided by Father Baldwin.  The dating of the MSC version, 1936-67 suggests that Father Baldwin felt this work represented a compilation of lexicographic work spanning all three periods that he spent in the Trobriand Islands. i.e. 1936-1941, 1946-48, and a short visit in 1967.


Note 4: It can be inferred that,  in making this evaluation,  Scoditti was including the works of both Gunter Senft and Ralph Lawton which are cited in his bibliography.
Note 5: These would have included Rev. S. B.  Fellows’  1902 "Grammar of the Kiriwina Dialect." published in the  British New Guinea:  Annual Report for 1/7/1900, 30/6/1901. Appendix N.2,  pp. 171-196.  Brisbane: Government Printer.