Turaga Nation and Avoiuli

Republic of Vanuatu - Location on a Globe
Republic of Vanuatu – Location on a Globe


Artificial languages, also known as constructed languages, have been around since the 15th century and their purpose has been to bring people from different cultures and different linguistic backgrounds together without having to learn each other’s native language.

There are many well-known artificial languages in existence today such as Esperanto or Klingon, but little is known about the Avoiuli language spoken by the Turaga indigenous movement on Pentecost Island, in Vanuatu.

Avoiuli is a rare example of a constructed language that has been used by a community of speakers, rather than simply existing as an academic exercise. It is a unique language closely associated with the Turaga cultural movement, which was founded in the 1970s and has gained popularity in recent years.

Vanuatu map - Britannica
Vanuatu map – Britannica

Turaga Nation

The Turaga nation (from tu “stand” and raga, a tribal name) is an indigenous movement rooted in the traditional culture and beliefs of the people of Pentecost Island, Vanuatu. The indigenous population, called ni-Vanuatu, is overwhelmingly Melanesian, though some of the outlying islands have Polynesian populations.

The three major cultural areas in the Pacific Ocean: Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia
The three major cultural areas in the Pacific Ocean: Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia

The island is known for its unique land diving ceremony, in which young men jump from tall towers with vines tied to their ankles. This ceremony is seen as a test of bravery and a way to ensure a successful yam harvest. The land diving ceremony has become a popular tourist attraction and a symbol of Vanuatu’s cultural heritage

Land Divers of Pentecost Island, Vanuatu. Source – National Geographic

The Turaga indigenous movement is based on the idea of turaga, which means “chief” or “leader” in the local language. Turaga are seen as spiritual guides and guardians of traditional culture and knowledge.

Central to the beliefs and practices of the Turaga nation is the idea of kastom, or custom. Kastom refers to the traditional ways of life, beliefs, and practices of the people of Pentecost Island. This includes traditional medicine, music, dance, and storytelling, as well as the land diving ceremony.

The Turaga nation also places a strong emphasis on environmental conservation and sustainability. They believe that the land and sea are sacred, and that humans have a responsibility to care for and protect the natural world.

The Turaga indigenous movement has also influenced other indigenous movements in the Pacific region, inspiring similar efforts to promote and preserve traditional culture and knowledge.

Avoiuli Language

The Turaga cultural movement was founded in the 1970s by a group of young people who were dissatisfied with the way their traditional culture was being eroded by Western influences and technology. The movement aimed to revive and preserve traditional culture and practices, including language. Avoiuli was created as a result of this movement, with the first written records dating back to the 1980s.

The Avoiuli script was created by Chief Viraleo Boborenvanua, drawing inspiration from traditional sand designs. Its purpose was to offer a native alternative to the Latin alphabet and it is mainly used for writing in the local Raga language, but it can also be used for writing in other languages such as ApmaBislama, and English.

Chief Viraleo Boborenvanua is photographed in Port Vila where he is on bail awaiting trial [Edward Cavanough-Al Jazeera]
Chief Viraleo Boborenvanua is photographed in Port Vila [Edward Cavanough-Al Jazeera]

The creation of Avoiuli was inspired by traditional Pentecost Island designs, which consist of intricate patterns made up of straight lines and angles. It is a powerful tool for preserving and sharing traditional knowledge and culture, and its visual nature makes it a highly adaptable and expressive writing system.

The creators of Avoiuli wanted to develop a writing system that would reflect these designs, and that could be used to record the traditional stories and knowledge of the Turaga people.

Sand drawing in Vanuatu (2007)
Sand drawing in Vanuatu (2007)

Avoiuli is a unique and fascinating language that uses a combination of geometric shapes and lines to represent sounds. It is a syllabic system, meaning that each symbol represents a syllable, rather than a single sound. The symbols are arranged in a grid-like pattern, with each row representing a different vowel sound and each column representing a different consonant sound.

One of the unique features of Avoiuli is that it can be read in multiple directions. This is because the symbols are designed to be symmetrical, so that they can be rotated or mirrored without changing their meaning. This flexibility allows Avoiuli to be written in any direction, making it a highly adaptable writing system.

Another characteristic of Avoiuli is that it is a highly visual system, with each symbol representing not just a sound, but also a visual image. For example, the symbol for the syllable “ka” represents a bird in flight, while the symbol for the syllable “bu” represents a basket. This visual aspect of Avoiuli makes it a powerful tool for conveying meaning and cultural knowledge through images as well as words.

The letters of Avoiuli script.
The letters of Avoiuli script.

Students learn to write in Avoiuli at Turaga’s traditional school at Lavatmanggemu in north-eastern Pentecost, Avoiuli is also used in record-keeping by the Tangbunia indigenous bank.

While Avoiuli is not widely spoken, its recent revival and growing interest from outside the Turaga community suggest that it will continue to play an important role in the cultural and linguistic landscape of Vanuatu and beyond.


Avoiuli is primarily used to record traditional stories, songs, and cultural knowledge. It is also used for ceremonial purposes, such as writing invitations to traditional events. While Avoiuli is not widely spoken, it is still an important part of the Turaga cultural movement and is taught to young people as part of their cultural education.

The digits of Avoiuli script
The digits of the Avoiuli script

In recent years, there has been growing interest in Avoiuli outside of the Turaga community. In 2016, a group of linguists and designers collaborated with the Turaga cultural movement to create a digital font for Avoiuli, making it more accessible to a wider audience. This font is now available for download, and has been used in art installations and other creative projects around the world.


The Turaga nation and the Turaga indigenous movement are important examples of the power of grassroots activism and cultural preservation. Through their efforts to promote traditional culture and practices, they have helped to ensure that the unique cultural heritage of Pentecost Island is passed down to future generations.

Carved stone at Lavatmanggemu inscribed with the names of local figures in the Avoiuli alphabet
Carved stone at Lavatmanggemu inscribed with the names of local figures in the Avoiuli alphabet

Their emphasis on environmental conservation and sustainability also serves as a reminder of the importance of caring for and protecting the natural world.

The Turaga indigenous movement has also been involved in political and social activism, advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples and working to promote self-determination and cultural autonomy.

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1 thought on “Turaga Nation and Avoiuli: The 1980s Artificial Language of the Pacific Ocean

  1. Wow, I had never heard of the Turaga Nation and the Avoiuli language before reading this post! It’s fascinating to learn about the development of artificial languages, especially one that has such a unique script. The fact that the language was created by a man as a way to connect his people and to preserve their cultural heritage is really impressive. It’s amazing how languages can be such a powerful tool for identity and community building. Thanks for sharing this interesting piece of history!