A Cautionary Tale by Michael Main

Michael Main Portrait
Michael Main has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University. Michael’s PhD research focused on the Huli population in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) highlands and the impact of ExxonMobil’s Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas project. Michael has a professional background in geology and environmental science, which underpins his interest and work in the anthropology of development and resource extraction.

A major problem for Huli ethnography is the fact that there exists only one Huli ethnographer who has anything close to a working knowledge of the language. Neither myself, Holly Wardlow, Chris Ballard, Steven Frankel, nor Robert Glasse became fluent in Huli, leaving Laurence Goldman who managed to obtain a very deep and nuanced understanding of the language. Huli is profoundly difficult for a number of reasons; partly because it is grammatically complex, the orthography is not standardised, non-Huli hear consonants like ‘t’ and ‘d’ and ‘b’ and ‘p’ differently in different areas, but also because it is often an unrelenting stream of idiom and rhetoric that is extremely difficult to unravel. Huli is also a full tonal language that is spoken very quickly, and the subtlest tones can completely change the meaning of a word, as can the substitution of a different consonant. Another major problem is the amount of error contained in the available Huli dictionaries, and works by Lomas and Murray Rule. 1 Wardlow has taken the brave step of trying to understand the complex and subtle world of sentiment and love via her interpretation of Huli language. My interpretation of the same facets of Huli life is often quite the opposite of what Wardlow has concluded, however I am fortunate to have had a very close working relationship with Goldman, and my reliance on the intricacies of Huli language in parts of this thesis is the reason why Goldman 2 is so heavily cited: to proceed otherwise would have been at my own peril. 3

Wardlow uses the example of love spells in the modern context to support her theory of the production of modern love in the modern Huli person, and Wardlow translates hubi bi as “love spell”. 4 Hubi bi means “to knot the talk”, from hubua “to bind,” 5 and is a corpus of spells used in the context of argument or some types of dispute. For Huli the concept of binding or knotting together is a common Huli idiom that expresses disorder. Hubi bi can be used to bind the mind of your opponent so that he can’t win an argument, or by women to bind the arrows of their enemies in a situation of clan warfare, or, in the case of a relationship, to have power over the mind of a man. Hubi bi is an aggressive act, which is why Wardlow writes, “love magic is seen as an aggressive act” 6 I would not translate hubi bi as “love magic” because, in the context of a relationship, it is about power rather than love. Romantic love magic does exist in Huli, which I write about below.

Wardlow uses songs from the dawe anda to support her argument about Huli romantic love and desire. She translates a dawe song, Pibiya iriani laragola Alu wangale yuwa hole ngaba as “When the stars fall down on the trees [an image denoting frost], we will put down our bows and go back to Alu.” 7 Wardlow explains this line in terms of ribald sexual desire and states that stars falling down is a metaphor for orgasm and that bows are a metaphor for penises. In the footnote Wardlow cites personal communication with Goldman, who suggested that the first line of the song could be translated as “when the birds fly from the trees…” Wardlow translates pibiya as “stars” but states that this denotes frost. The Huli word for star is yakundi. Ballard translates pibiya as “frost;” 8 but the Huli word for frost is keware. The Huli dictionary provides two translations for star, only one of which is ya pibiya. Pibiya means “dew,” and this reinforces the point made above that the difference between hearing pibiya and bibiya can radically alter the statement made. Ya pibiya would mean “sky dew”. My own view is that the word Wardlow most likely heard was bibiya, rather than pibiya and I offer an alternative explanation: Ega bibiya is the omen bird mentioned in Chapter 3.

  1. “When the bibiya [omen bird] comes to the tree…” Wardlow has translated wangale as “bows.” Wangale is a praise term for arrows and is derived from the word for the three-pronged arrow used to spear fish, wanga. The line means, “When the bipiya comes to the tree we will lay down our arrows in Alu.” The omen bird is a signal that fighting is over and it is time to lay down your arrows. This makes sense in the context of the dawe song because the men are prepared for making love, rather than war.

The suggestion that bows are a metaphor for penises seems unlikely. Huli did not use weapons as a metaphor for male sexual organs, and would use tree, pandanus nuts, or even a bridge as in the bi te provided by Wardlow. 9 Wardlow does state in her note that “dawe songs are quite difficult to translate in the abstract. Everyday words can take on different meanings at dawe anda; abstruse, esoteric vocabulary is often used; and the erotic implications of specific verses sometimes only emerge contextually in relation to the specific women being sung to.” This is a succinct illustration of the use of Huli language in the context of spells and songs, and highlights the unrestrained creativity that individual Huli may wish to deploy in their own translations, especially in the contemporary context where connections to more traditional understandings have been severed. The Western constructions that Wardlow has revealed are evidence of the incorporation of Western idiom and metaphor into traditional Huli forms, and the playful free-form translations that Huli can be very adept at inventing on the spot. Wardlow concludes that the sociality around romantic love is “associated with being a modern person.” 10 I am not convinced of this argument, and much is to be understood via translation and praxis of Huli female love ritual.

(An extract from, “Until Hela Becomes a City”, The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity. Michael Main. A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the Australian National University. Canberra, April, 2020., pp. 188-191.)

  1. Laurence Goldman, pers. comm. There are numerous examples, one being a translation for “star” provided in this section. G Lomas, “The Huli Language of Papua New Guinea” (Unpublished PhD thesis, Macquarie University, 1988), 448 translates madane as “be mean; be spiteful”. []
  2. Goldman has the largest corpus of recorded Huli texts and is thus able to provide transcripts and sound bites for many of the Huli words over which other ethnographers disagree []
  3. This section has been greatly assisted by Laurence Goldman as well as as Goldman’s Huli informant, Mabira Lakali. []
  4. Holly Wardlow, “All’s Fair When Love is War: Romantic Passion and Companionate Marriage among the Huli of Papua New Guinea,” in Modern Loves: The anthropology of romantic courtship and companionate marriage, ed. Jennifer Hirsch and Holly Wardlow (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2006), 68. []
  5. Laurence Goldman, “Talk Never Dies: an analysis of disputes among the Huli,” 150. []
  6. Holly Wardlow, “All’s Fair When Love is War: Romantic Passion and Companionate Marriage among the Huli of Papua New Guinea,” 68. []
  7. Holly Wardlow, Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society, 202. []
  8. Chris Ballard, “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.” Vol. 1, 120. []
  9. Holly Wardlow, “All’s Fair When Love is War: Romantic Passion and Companionate Marriage among the Huli of Papua New Guinea,” 67. []
  10. Holly Wardlow, “All’s Fair When Love is War: Romantic Passion and Companionate Marriage among the Huli of Papua New Guinea,” 62. []