Screeching Parrots, Squawking Cockatoos: Exploring the Metaphoric Couplets of Sumba

David Mitchell (Monash University)


The surviving orally-transmitted parallel speech traditions of Indonesia are rich and complex, often reflecting pervasive preference for dyadic modes of thought, and the prevalence of dyadic social structures. This paper focuses on the Sumbanese case, and presents a sample of the metaphoric couplets that make up this parallel speech. Each can be viewed as pearl of traditional wisdom. Typically short and compact, each couplet presents two metaphorical images only, with no explanation of what they refer to. Each couplet is thus a riddle, demanding an explanation, asking to be unpacked and explored at length. In this way they are like the haiku poems of Japan. But they are also a very Austronesian form, comparable to first two metaphorical lines in the four-line pantun of the Malay world. The absence of any explicit explanation makes the Sumbanese couplet a more intriguing, mysterious and more lively mode of expression. .But since it remains almost entirely an orally transmitted tradition its survival is becoming a major issue.
Traditional story-telling and religious genres of parallel speech have already disappeared in many places, displaced by television and the global religions. At the same time however, a new identity politics has arisen, and internet publishing provides new opportunities. In this environment we identify a number of powerful couplets that encapsulate aspects of Sumbanese tradition and appeal even to those Sumbanese whose first language is Indonesian. The collection and study of these couplets needs to be developed and introduced into school curricula to improve the chances of survival for this fascinating Austronesian oral tradition.

Keywords: parallelism, survival, haiku, pantun, Sumba