Siberian Learning Sonsorolese.

A couple of years ago I posted about Vadim Drozhzhinin, a character in Aksyonov’s novella Surplused Barrelware who prides himself on being an expert in the (imaginary) Latin American country of Haligalia, and wondered about other examples of “total immersion in another country.” Now Joel of Far Outliers has provided a fine example (from A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling, which sounds like a very interesting book):

I met San Sanych’s friend Sergey, the most exotic inhabitant of Abaza. He was an instrument maker. His house was stuffed with self-made didgeridoos and shaman drums, which he sold at Siberian folklore festivals. The business was going well; Sergey had almost enough money saved to realise his life’s dream. He wanted to emigrate. Abaza was not remote enough for him. He was drawn to a tiny island named Sonsorol, located in the middle of the Pacific. It had 23 inhabitants; Sergey wanted to be the 24th. So far he had only seen the island on pictures, but through the Internet he was in contact with two residents who supported his relocation plans. ‘They both know the Governor of the island,’ Sergey said proudly. I wanted to argue that with 23 inhabitants, every second one was presumably related to the Governor, but I bit my tongue. Sergey meant business. He had already filled out the visa form for the Pacific Republic of Palau. Now he was teaching himself the local language. Fascinated, I leafed through his rudimentary Russian-Palauan dictionary:

Mere direi – Babushka [Grandmother]

Haparu ma hatawahi – Spasibo [Thank you]

Hoda buou – Do svidaniya [Goodbye]

Joel adds:

According to the page, these are genuine words in Sonsorolese, a Chuukic language related to Woleaian and Ulithian in Yap State, which lies to the north of the Republic of Palau. The Palauan language is very different. One of my graduate school classmates did her dissertation on Pulo Anna, a dialect of Sonsorolese.

Does anybody know where the stress goes in the word Sonsorol?


  1. The stress goes on the first syllable, as far as I can hear in this video (various mentions, starting about 1:42).

    There’s information at the Sonsorol website, including a language section. There’s a great deal of documents available on the southwestern islands of Micronesia at the Friends of Tobi website, including many scaneed publications and dissertations. A short sketch from 2014, by Esther van der Berg, gives the recent history of these islands: most of their people evacuated to Palau following a typhoon and didn’t come back. Capell’s 1969 grammar of Sonsorolese proper (at the above site and also at gives the autonym as /doŋoˈsaro/. The Sonsorol website adds, “As in Woleaian, silent vowels are common at the end of Sonsorolese words. For example, in ‘Dongosaro’, the native name for Sonsorol island, the final ‘o’ is not pronounced.” The Tobian name is Songotsor. My guess, based on exactly nothing, is that Sonsorol is a Palauan exonym.

  2. Thanks very much!

  3. The book was published in 2015. Time for the sequel — did he move there? did he stay?

  4. January First-of-May says

    at the Friends of Tobi website

    …huh. That basically disproves the (in retrospect overly fanciful) “Hotani” story that used to dominate the Wikipedia article on Tobi (this version approximates what I saw two and a half years ago).

    Hatohobei (where Tobi is located) is said to be the world’s least populous first-level national subdivision. Sonsorol has more people, though still not very many.

  5. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Is Sonsorol only spoken by the 23 people on Sonsorol? And it has dialects? (A adoptive Siberian does not count for dialect discovery, I’m pretty sure).

  6. According to there are about 300 Sonsorolese speakers living in Koror, the capital of Palau. When I was in grad school in the 1970s, working on a bilingual education and teacher training project for Micronesia (I focused on Yap), we understood that Sonsorol, Tobi, Pulo Anna, and Merir were four dialects of a Chuukic (Trukic) language spoken on islands south of Palau, which have since been almost depopulated. During its Japanese colonial period, Palau had more Japanese (including Okinawans and Koreans then) living on the islands than native Palauans. Many Palauans have Japanese family and/or given names.

    Yap State (to the north) has a much larger population of “outer islanders” speaking Chuukic dialects from Ulithi (a huge US Navy base during the Pacific War), Woleai, Satawal, and Fais. Many of those who migrated to Colonia, the capital district of Yap, live in Madrich (from “Madrid” in Spanish colonial days). Land rights of the various “municipalities” on the Yapese main islands are very closely monitored, and Yap had (and still has) a caste system that once relegated the outer islanders to low caste status. Outer Island men could only wear white loincloths when arriving on the main islands of Yap. The tiny atoll dwellers were great sailors. One of the Yapese outer islanders, Pius “Mau” Piailug, was the man who taught traditional celestial navigation techniques to the early members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which recently circled the globe using those techniques. When I was on Yap, people would tell stories of outer islands who would hop in their canoes and sail to Yap when they ran out of cigarettes (or beer).

    Saipan also has a population of Chuukic speaking outer islanders, called Saipan Carolinians (from the Caroline Islands, which include most of the Federated States of Micronesia), who first migrated there when the Spanish killed or exported most of the rebellious native Chamorro-speaking people on Saipan.

    The State of Pohnpei also has Chuukic-speaking outer islanders as well as two Polynesian-speaking outer islands, Kapingamarangi and Nukuoro, and large numbers of those outer islanders live on the main islands.

  7. Mühling’s follow-up travelogue had him circling the Black Sea. Its English translation appeared in 2022, and I have excerpted many passages from it earlier this month. His chances of getting back to Siberia are not so good these days.

  8. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Thanks, Joel, that makes more sense now. Though calling Pulo Anna a dialect “of” Sonsorol would seem to be a stretch — they are both dialects of the same language. Oh, and now I see that in the OP you were quoted as saying that Pulo Anna is a dialect of Sonsorolese, I just assumed Sonsorol and Sonsorolese was the same thing, but maybe the latter denotes all of the “Chuukic (Trukic) language spoken on islands south of Palau.”

  9. Consulting Bender et al.’s reconstruction of Proto-Micronesian, Sonsorolese and Pulo Anna alone reflect the PMc phoneme denoted T, as /d/. Elsewhere in Chuukic it is reflected as /s/ or /h/. PMc *l is reflected as /r/ in Sonsorolese alone. So some Chuukic **soŋosalo could correspond to the recorded endonym doŋosaro. If the middle /o/ is somehow lost before or after the name is borrowed into (non-Micronesian) Palauan, the cluster *-ŋs- will undergo the regular Palauan change to -ns-. And the final vowel may be devoiced or lost, as mentioned above. So we end up with Palauan *sonsor or such. What’s with the other liquid? Was it old and lost, or new?

    The 1944 U.S. Hydrographic Office Gazetteer gives the variants Sonsoru Shoto (< Japanese), Sonsol, Sonsonrrol, Sonesor, Sonseron, Songosor, and Sontserol. I wish they’d given sources for all these variants, but that’s not the business they are in. Some of them could be back-formed (from Palauan?) into different Micronesian languages.

  10. I should have said “Palauan *sonsol or such”. That also fits with one of the recorded variants.

  11. The Cumulative Decision List of the United States Board on Geographic Names gives the larger list Sanserol, Sansoral, Soisol, Sonesor, Songosor, Sonrol, Sonserol, Sonseron, Sonsol, Sonsonrrol, Sonsoral, Sonsorol, Sonsoru-To, Sonsoru-shotō, Sontserol, Sonzeral, Sonzerol (< German?), Souserol (typo?), Sansorol, Songosor, Sonisol.

  12. One of the main Japanese naval bases durin the Second World War was at Truk. The lagoon there was ideal, as it is large but easily defended by a fairly narrow entrance. While the base farther south at Rabaul, New Britain was isolated and bypassed, the Japanese had to be actually driven from Truk. Together, the bases could support one-another, so at least one had to be reduced. Most of the fleet at Truk fled before the air bombardment of Operation Hailstone, but they were forced to move to distant anchorages near Singapore; that was far out of the way, but it was close to the remaining Japanese-controlled oilfields around the East Indies.

  13. The long and varied dialect continuum makes it very hard to draw boundaries within Chuukic. “Lagoon Chuukese” is the standard for Chuuk State, but the rest of the Federated States of MIcronesia and the Commonwealth of the Marianas all host different varieties. Yap’s Satawal and Chuuk’s Satawan are the same name in different dialects. There are two dialects of Carolinian in Saipan. In one, it’s Seipel, in the other it’s Seipen. And Chuuk (Truk) is Rhuug in one and Schuugh in the other, according to the Carolinian-English Dictionary (1991). Word-initial geminate consonants take some getting used to.

    Hatohobei and Hotani (Sail Valley?) sound like they could be from Japanese, but I would need the kanji to be able to make sense of them.

    I blogged about my impressions (linguistic and otherwise) of Saipan back in 2006 when I had to take a 1-day trip there to renew my 90-day visitor’s visa in Japan.

  14. David Marjanović says

    country of Haligalia

    There’s a Circus Halli Galli out there.

    Word-initial geminate consonants take some getting used to.

    Swiss German is full of them (“geminates all over the word“), and so is much of Italian.

  15. David Marjanović says
  16. Many Palauans have Japanese family and/or given names.

    Indeed Japanese is a ‘recognised regional language’.

    Palau has maintained close ties with Japan, which has funded infrastructure projects, including the Koror–Babeldaob Bridge.
    [wp, aka “Japan-Palau Friendship Bridge”]

    I was aware of Palau because Taiwan also is keen to foster ties. (The wp page has a photo of Taiwan’s President with Palau’s.) This is of course to keep at bay you-know-who.

    I thought the state was tiny. (Yes, Pop’n 18,000 or so.) I’m astonished at the variety of languages.

    How the heck do you pronounce ‘Ngchesar’? (name of a district of the largest island.) I notice there’s many place names with word-initial ‘Ng-‘. Would they correspond to word-initial ng- in Te Reo Māori?

  17. [ŋ̩ˈʔɛsar]. Palauan <ch> is the glottal stop.

    It would be hard to draw correspondences between Palauan and Māori. They are quite remotely related, though both are Malayo-Polynesian (non-Formosan Austronesian).

  18. I decided long ago that I ever were to retire to a tropical island, I would go to Palau. This documentary made a profound impression on me.

  19. Japanese and Other Loanwords in Palau

    My sister-in-law who has relatives in Palau says the famous Medusa jellyfish population there is very much depleted now.

  20. …Haligalia previously on LH…

    LH may already know that, but “хали-гали” is known here as a part of the chorus of Russian versions of a certain song composed by a proud citisen of the vast mountain realm of San Marino. Serenissima Repubblica di San Marino.

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