Alexandre François

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Alexandre François
Alexandre François meeting with Maten Womal, the last storyteller in the Olrat language (Gaua, Vanuatu, 2003).
Academic background
Academic work
Institutions CNRS
Main interests Oceanic languages
Notable ideas Colexification

Alexandre François is a French linguist specialising in the description and study of the indigenous languages of Melanesia. He belongs to Lattice, a research centre of the CNRS and École Normale Supérieure dedicated to linguistics.



Language description and documentation

François has done linguistic fieldwork in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.

In 2002, he published a grammatical description of Araki, a language spoken by a handful of speakers on an islet south of Espiritu Santo (Vanuatu). [1]

Most of his research focuses on the northern islands of Vanuatu, known as the Torres and Banks Islands, an area where seventeen languages are still spoken: Hiw, Lo-Toga, Lehali, Löyöp, Mwotlap, Volow, Lemerig, Vera'a, Vurës, Mwesen, Mota, Nume, Dorig, Koro, Olrat, Lakon, Mwerlap. After describing Mwotlap, [2] the language with most speakers in that area, he has published articles comparing the languages of the area more generally – both from a synchronic and historical perspectives. He has described the sociolinguistic profile of this area as one of “egalitarian multilingualism”. [3]

In 2005, François took part in a scientific expedition to Vanikoro (Solomon islands), whose objective was to understand the wreckage of the French navigator La Pérouse in 1788. As a member of a multidisciplinary team, he recorded the oral tradition of the Melanesian and Polynesian populations of this island, concerning popular representations of this historical event. [4] On that occasion, he also documented the three languages spoken on VanikoroTeanu, Lovono and Tanema – two of which are highly endangered. [5] [6]

In 2015, he coauthored with Jean-Michel Charpentier the Linguistic Atlas of French Polynesia, an atlas showcasing the internal linguistic diversity of French Polynesia. [7]

In 2020, he was elected a member of the Academia Europaea. [8]

Documentation of languages and cultures in Melanesia

François recorded texts from the oral literature – myths, legends, folktales – in various language communities of Vanuatu and the Solomons.

He provided local communities with various books in their languages, in the perspective of promoting the use of vernacular languages in writing. [9]

Together with ethnomusicologist Monika Stern and anthropologist Éric Wittersheim, he ran a multidisciplinary project on traditional music and poetry in Vanuatu. [10] This led to the publication of Music of Vanuatu: Celebrations and Mysteries, a CD album of songs and dances recorded during social events in the field. [11]

Contribution to linguistic typology and theory

François coined the term “colexification”. [12] This term captures the fact that certain concepts, which some languages distinguish in their lexicons, are encoded in the same way (“colexified”) in other languages. Colexification is increasingly used in research about lexical typology.

Together with Siva Kalyan (ANU), he also developed Historical glottometry, a non-cladistic approach to language genealogy, inspired by the Wave model. [13]

Selected publications


  1. François (2002).
  2. François (2003); François (2019).
  3. François (2012).
  4. Bremner, Charles (13 May 2005), "Sea hero's fate revealed after 217 years", The Times.
  5. Traufetter, Gerald (15 June 2012), Climate Change or Tectonic Shifts? The Mystery of the Sinking South Pacific Islands. Part 2: A Language's Lone Survivor, Der Spiegel
  6. François (2009).
  7. Charpentier & François (2015).
  8. "Alexandre François". Academia Europaea . Retrieved 2020-10-08.
  9. “Building up vernacular literacy” with free access to literacy materials.
  10. The Poet’s Salary (2009), award-winning documentary by Éric Wittersheim, about François' and Stern's fieldwork in northern Vanuatu.
  11. François & Stern (2013).
  12. François (2008).
  13. François (2014), Kalyan & François (2018).

Related Research Articles

Polynesian languages Language family

The Polynesian languages form a language family spoken in geographical Polynesia and on a patchwork of outliers from south central Micronesia to small islands off the northeast of the larger islands of the southeast Solomon Islands and sprinkled through Vanuatu. Linguistic taxonomists classify them as a subgroup of the much larger and more varied Austronesian family, belonging to the Oceanic branch of that family. Polynesians share many unique cultural traits that resulted from only about 1000 years of common development, including common linguistic development, in the Tonga and Samoa area through most of the first millennium BC.

Torba Province

Torba is the northernmost province of Vanuatu. It consists of the Banks Islands and the Torres Islands.

Oceanic languages Subgroup of the Austronesian language family

The approximately 450 Oceanic languages are a branch of the Austronesian languages. The area occupied by speakers of these languages includes Polynesia, as well as much of Melanesia and Micronesia. Though covering a vast area, Oceanic languages are spoken by only two million people. The largest individual Oceanic languages are Eastern Fijian with over 600,000 speakers, and Samoan with an estimated 400,000 speakers. The Gilbertese (Kiribati), Tongan, Tahitian, Māori, Western Fijian and Tolai languages each have over 100,000 speakers. The common ancestor which is reconstructed for this group of languages is called Proto-Oceanic.

Mwotlap is an Oceanic language spoken by about 2,100 people in Vanuatu. The majority of speakers are found on the island of Motalava in the Banks Islands, with smaller communities in the islands of Ra and Vanua Lava, as well as migrant groups in the two main cities of the country, Santo and Port Vila.

Mangareva, Mangarevan is a Polynesian language spoken by about 600 people in the Gambier Islands of French Polynesia and on the islands of Tahiti and Moorea, located 1,650 kilometres (1,030 mi) to the North-West of the Gambier Islands, where Mangarevians have emigrated.

Austral is an endangered Polynesian language that is spoken by approximately 8,000 people (1987). It is spoken only on the Austral Islands and the Society Islands of French Polynesia. The language is also referred to as Tubuai-Rurutu, Tubuai, Rurutu-Tupuai, or Tupuai. In structure, it is similarly compared to Tahitian.

Temotu languages

The Temotu languages, named after Temotu Province of the Solomon Islands, are a branch of Oceanic languages proposed in Ross & Næss (2007) to unify the Reefs – Santa Cruz languages with the Utupua - Vanikoro languages.

The North Vanuatu languages form a linkage of Southern Oceanic languages spoken in northern Vanuatu.

Tanema is a nearly extinct language of the island of Vanikoro, in the easternmost province of the Solomon Islands.

Volow is an Oceanic language variety which used to be spoken in the area of Aplow, in the eastern part of the island of Motalava, in Vanuatu.

Darrell T. Tryon was a New Zealand-born linguist, academic, and specialist in Austronesian languages. Specifically, Tryon specialised in the study of the languages of the Pacific Islands, particularly Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and the French-speaking Pacific.

The Malakula languages are a group of Central Vanuatu languages spoken on Malakula Island in central Vanuatu. Unlike some earlier classifications, Lynch (2016) considers the Malakula languages to form a coherent group.

The Torres–Banks languages form a linkage of Southern Oceanic languages spoken in the Torres Islands and Banks Islands of northern Vanuatu.

Rutan is a Malakula language of Vanuatu.

Alovas is a Malakula language of Vanuatu.

Najit is a Malakula language of Vanuatu. There are fewer than 5 speakers.

Njav is a Malakula language of Vanuatu. There are about 10 speakers.

Colexification, together with its associated verb colexify, are terms used in semantics and lexical typology. It refers to the case when a language expresses different meanings using the same word.

Historical Glottometry is a method used in historical linguistics. It is a quantitative, non-cladistic approach to language subgrouping.