Category Archives: Pacific

Stages of Language Attrition

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 171-172:

So that, then, is what I eventually discovered became of the children I spent so much time with in the mid-1980s. All of them acquired some Tayap, and a few of them came to be passive active bilinguals, possessing good competence in Tayap but never putting it to any use. Perhaps as they get older, speakers like Mbonika and Orbmes will begin to use their Tayap in the village. But I predict that if they do so, they’ll use it mostly to sourly chastise people younger than themselves for not speaking Tayap. And by then, it will be too late.

As I looked closely at young people’s Tayap, I saw how the very idea of language death is misguided. A language never just dies; it isn’t here one minute and gone the next. Instead, languages dissolve; they waste away. Looking at young people’s Tayap is like watching ink fade or flesh wither: the language loses its suppleness and becomes etiolated and spare. It shrivels from blowzy fecundity to become a kind of stiff, desiccated husk.

In young people’s Tayap, the first thing to go is the ability to construct intricate synthetic verbs like “She intends to carry him down on her shoulders.” Next to disappear are the complicated ways of linking verbs and forming relative clauses and subordinate clauses (so no “the pig that I speared yesterday” or “we were eating when you came”). Verbs of motion—except “come” and “go”—melt away too.

As speakers get younger in age and less competent in their command of the language, Tayap’s range of tenses disappears, and gender agreement gets wonky. The youngest and least fluent speakers lose the ability to inflect any verbs for their correct subjects and objects; they collapse all classes of verbs to a single paradigm, and they replace Tayap vocabulary with Tok Pisin words.

In their language, the mighty tree that once was Tayap has been whittled down to a skinny toothpick.

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Hidden Language Skills

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 166-168:

Not only were young villagers eager to narrate; it turned out that all but the very youngest of them were also able to narrate in Tayap. Many of the narratives were short, and most of them were scaffolded by the narrator’s relatives and friends, who sat on the floor with them and helped the teller remember what things were called and figure out how verbs were inflected. But what emerged in the narrative sessions was that all young people in the village over age eighteen have some active competence in the vernacular, and some of them have excellent active competence—even though they never use it.

Several of the young villagers in their mid- to late twenties were highly proficient storytellers. They spoke relatively unhesitatingly, they had a broad vocabulary, they used a variety of tenses and verbs of motion (which are often irregular in Tayap and very tricky to inflect correctly) in the stories they told, and they also commanded other features of the grammar that showed unexpected mastery of Tayap. The truly curious thing about the speakers is that outside of these sessions, they never displayed their command of the language. I once asked Membo, a twenty-six-year-old woman, what she thought about her twenty-five-year-old husband Ormbes’s competence in Tayap. Membo laughed dismissively. “Oh, he messes it all up,” she told me, “He doesn’t speak Tayap.”

I later asked Ormbes to tell me a story in Tayap. He narrated an almost flawless tale of how he and his brother went hunting in the rainforest and speared a pig. Ormbes turned out to be one of the most fluent younger speakers in the village. That his wife, who not only had been married to him for ten years but also had grown up with him and had known him all her life, was convinced that her husband didn’t speak Tayap, was remarkable—and telling.

I scoured the linguistic literature for a label to name people like Ormbes, and I came up empty. Ormbes isn’t what’s known as a passive bilingual because he is capable of relatively advanced language production. Nor is someone like Ormbes quite the same as what linguists who work with endangered languages call a semi-speaker. Semi-speakers are speakers of a dying language who have perfect passive competence and perfect communicative competence in that language. In other words, they understand everything that fluent speakers say to them, and they respond in culturally appropriate ways, using short bursts of the language. Semi-speakers’ ability to get jokes, interject comments, and actively participate in conversations by contributing a few well-turned utterances here and there is deceptive, and it often masks the fact that they can’t actually say very much. Linguists who work with endangered languages report cases in which their work with semi-speakers has caused extreme embarrassment to a whole community. The linguists have given such speakers language proficiency tests because they assumed that they were fluent speakers (having seen them conversing with fluent speakers, and because fluent speakers identified them as fluent speakers). When confronted with a language test, though—and to everybody’s dismay—the people who everyone thought were fluent, in reality, could barely manage to compose a single grammatically correct sentence on their own.

Young people in Gapun like Ormbes aren’t semi-speakers partly because they can construct grammatically correct sentences, and also because they don’t ever actually converse in Tayap. They actively participate in conversations when older speakers speak Tayap, but their own contributions are always in Tok Pisin. With the exception of lexical items and a few formulaic phrases like “Give me betel nut,” they never use Tayap at all.

Rather than calling the young people in Gapun who can narrate stories in Tayap passive bilinguals or semi-speakers, I’ve taken to calling them “passive active bilinguals.” The convolutedness of that label seems fitting to describe speakers who possesses sufficient grammatical and communicative competence in their second language to use that language, but who never actually do use it because social and cultural factors make it unnecessary or undesirable to do so.

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The First Casualty of Tok Pisin

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 36-38:

The first casualty of the villagers’ increased acquisition of Tok Pisin was their competence in other local languages. Before the arrival of Tok Pisin, Gapuners were a highly multilingual people. No one in the surrounding villages bothered to learn their little language—a situation that suited Gapuners just fine since it meant that they could employ Tayap as a secret code that nobody else understood.

To communicate with people from other villages, men and women in Gapun learned the local vernacular languages that those people spoke. During my first long stay in the village in the 1980s, I listened to old people who had grown up before the Second World War confidently speaking two other local languages that were unrelated to Tayap or to each other, and I also heard those old people responding to one or two other languages, which they clearly understood even if they couldn’t speak them.

In the generation born after the war, when Tok Pisin “came up big,” competence in other village vernaculars plummeted. People no longer needed to learn local languages because, at that point, it was easier to communicate in Tok Pisin. Women lagged behind men, and they continued to learn other vernacular languages for another generation, largely because women in the area generally still did not speak Tok Pisin as easily as men did. By the 1970s, though, even Gapun women’s active competence in other vernaculars was eclipsed by Tok Pisin.

Once women started speaking Tok Pisin, they started directing it at their young children. This in itself didn’t necessarily mean very much. Unlike middle-class parents in places like northern Europe and the United States, adults in Gapun don’t spend a lot of time talking to small children. They don’t use language to try to teach their kids anything since they don’t believe that toddlers learn by being taught. And to try to converse with a baby is nonsensical since a baby can’t hold up its end of the conversation and talk back.

But when children, especially girls, start to get pressed into service to help mothers care for a new baby, mothers begin to give the kids orders. And those orders—to fetch firewood, to hand the baby whatever it is crying for, to climb up a tree to get betel nut—increasingly got formulated in Tok Pisin. Women started doing to their small children what men had been doing to boys and young men (and their wives) for decades—ordering them about in Tok Pisin. And indeed, the men who ordered their sons, nephews, and wives around in Tok Pisin learned the language themselves in situations where they had been ordered around in Tok Pisin by white overseers.

In language death, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. . . .

This, then, is how a language dies: in Gapun, Tok Pisin was incorporated into the villagers’ linguistic repertoire first at the expense of other village vernaculars, and, ultimately, at the expense of their own vernacular. There has been a steady reduction in the number of languages that villagers command, to the point where their impressive multilingualism has in the course of four generations been reduced to monolingualism. A people who used to command many languages now increasingly command only one. And that one is not their ancestral language, Tayap. It is, instead, Tok Pisin.

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How Tok Pisin Came to Gapun

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 31-33:

Tok Pisin entered Gapun in around 1916. A year or so before the outbreak of the First World War, word spread from the coast that white men were in the area searching for young men to work for them. These white men were German labor recruiters, and the men they recruited were to be shipped off to the copra plantations that the Germans had established along the Rai Coast of eastern New Guinea (at that time, it was German New Guinea) and on various distant islands. Two Gapun men, Ayarpa and Waiki, went to the coast to find those white men. They resisted the protests of their relatives, who believed that the white men wanted to lure them away from the village to kill them. The two men were itching for an adventure. They ignored their relatives, found the recruiters, and left with them.

Ayarpa and Waiki joined the scores of men from various parts of the mainland who were taken to a copra plantation on Kokopo near the German settlement of Rabaul, on the faraway island of Neu-Pommern (“New Pomerania”). They remained on this plantation for at least three years, and they apparently witnessed the Australian occupation of Germany’s New Guinea territories at the outbreak of World War I (at which time “New Pomerania” was imperiously changed to “New Britain”). My language teacher in Gapun, old Raya, recalled Ayarpa—who was Raya’s father—describing how the inglis (that is, the Australians) rounded up the Germans and “put them into big crates. They put them all inside the crates, nailed them shut, and sent them back to their country.”

Sometime after the Australian takeover of German New Guinea in 1914, Ayarpa and Waiki came home. The stories that survive them recount how they arrived triumphantly in the village, carrying with them the fruits of their labor. Each man had a small wooden patrol box filled with “cargo”: steel knives, machetes, axes, bolts of factory-made cloth, European tobacco, saucer-sized ceramic plates that looked like seashells. (Villagers throughout New Guinea regarded such flat seashells as valuable items, and knowing that, the Germans mass-produced counterfeit ones in white ceramic to pay their laborers.) But just as impressive and even longer lasting than the goods they brought with them were the stories they told about working on the plantation. And most impressive of all was the new language the men had acquired while working for the white men.

As most people in New Guinea did at the time, Ayarpa and Waiki assumed that Tok Pisin was the language of white men. And like the steel axes and fake seashells that entered the village’s redistributive networks, so did the white men’s language: Ayarpa and Waiki immediately set about sharing the language with their peers.

A few years after Ayarpa and Waiki returned to Gapun, a group of Australian labor recruiters suddenly appeared in the village. This was the first time any white person had actually come to the village, and panic ensued. Most of the terrified villagers fled into the rainforest. Only Ayarpa, Waiki, and a few old people who were too frail to run fast enough to escape were left. Seeing the village thus deserted, the Australians resorted to what was presumably a time-tested technique of persuasion: they gathered together the old people who remained and prevented them from leaving, and then they waited until their anxious cries brought back a few young men. At that point, Ayarpa and Waiki did the recruiters’ work for them: they told the men that if they went off with the white men, they would go to where the two of them had gone, and they would learn Tok Pisin. “We’ve taught you some of the white man’s language,” they are said to have told the men, “but you don’t know it well. If you go away to the plantation, you’ll learn it well.”

Five men left with the recruiters.

And so a pattern of learning Tok Pisin became established. Young men acquired a basic knowledge of the language in the village. They then went off to work as contracted laborers to learn Tok Pisin “well.” Later, when they returned to the village, they taught the language to the young men.

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On Language Use in Fieldwork

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. ix-x:

Long gone are the magisterial days of departed anthropologists like Margaret Mead, whose attitude about the people she worked with was neatly summed up in an article she published in 1939 in the professional journal American Anthropologist. Mead wrote in response to one of her colleague’s claims that for anthropological work to be believable, anthropologists needed to learn the languages spoken by the people among whom they did fieldwork. Margaret Mead thought that earnest counsel like that was nonsense. She waved it away like an irritating housefly. All the fuss about learning native languages was intimidating to anthropology students and just plain wrongheaded. It wasn’t necessary. To do their job, Mead insisted, anthropologists don’t need to “know” a language. They just need to “use” a language. And to “use” a language requires only three things.

First of all, you need to be able to ask questions in order to “get an answer with the smallest amount of dickering.” (What you were supposed to make of those answers if you didn’t speak the language in which they were delivered was not something that Mead seemingly bothered herself about.)

The second thing Mead thought that an anthropologist needed to use a language for is to establish rapport (“Especially in the houses of strangers, where one wishes the maximum non-interference with one’s note taking and photography”).

The final thing you need to use a language to do—this is my favorite—is to give instructions. Invoking an era when natives knew their place and didn’t dare mess with bossy anthropologists, Mead offered this crisp advice: “If the ethnologist cannot give quick and accurate instructions to his native servants, informants and assistants, cannot tell them to find the short lens for the Leica, its position accurately described, to put the tripod down-sun from the place where the ceremony is to take place, to get a fresh razor blade and the potassium permanganate crystals and bring them quickly in case of snake bite [wouldn’t you love to know how she barked that in Samoan?], to boil and filter the water which is to be used for mixing a developer,—he will waste an enormous amount of time and energy doing mechanical tasks which he could have delegated if his tongue had been just a little bit better schooled.”

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People Differing Only by Language

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 26-28:

As far back as anyone in Gapun has been able to remember, though, Tayap has never had more than, at most, about 150 speakers: the entire population of Tayap speakers, when the language was at its peak, would have fit into a single New York City subway car. Tiny as that count is, such a small language was not unusual for Papua New Guinea. Most languages spoken in the country have fewer than three thousand speakers. And linguists estimate that about 35 percent of the languages (which means about 350 of them) have never had more than about five hundred speakers.

Contrary to received wisdom, and common sense, this constellation of tiny languages was not the result of isolation; it didn’t arise because villages were separated from one another by mountain barriers or impenetrable jungle walls. Quite the opposite: throughout Papua New Guinea, the areas that have the highest degree of linguistic diversity (that is, the most languages) are the ones where people can get around relatively easily, by paddling a canoe along rivers and creeks, for example. The areas where travel is more difficult, for example in the mountains that run like a jagged spine across the center of the country, is where the largest languages are found (the biggest being a language called Enga, with over two hundred thousand speakers).

The conclusion that linguists have drawn from this counterintuitive distribution of languages is that people in Papua New Guinea have used language as a way of differentiating themselves from one another. Whereas other people throughout the world have come to use religion or food habits or clothing styles to distinguish themselves as a specific group of people in relation to outsiders, Papua New Guineans came to achieve similar results through language. People wanted to be different from their neighbors, and the way they made themselves different was to diverge linguistically.

Large swathes of neighboring groups throughout the mainland share similar traditional beliefs about what happens after one dies; they think related things about sorcery, initiation rituals, and ancestor worship; they have roughly similar myths about how they all originated; and before white colonists started coming to the country in the mid-1800s, they all dressed fairly similarly (and they all do still dress similarly, given the severely limited variety of manufactured clothing available to them today—mostly T-shirts and cloth shorts for men, and for women, baggy, Mother Hubbard–style “meri blouses” introduced by missionaries to promote modesty and cover up brazenly exposed breasts). Neighboring peoples hunt the same pigs and cassowaries that inhabit the rainforest; and they all eat sago, or taro or sweet potato—whichever of those staples their land is capable of growing.

In terms of the languages they speak, though, Papua New Guineans are very different from one another.

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Marine Returns Samurai Sword, 1967

From The Fighting Bunch, by Chris DeRose (St. Martin’s, 2020), Kindle pp. 291-292:

Bill [White] allowed the samurai sword he had sent home from Tarawa to be displayed at Tennessee Wesleyan. A group of Japanese businessmen had come to town to look at buying Mayfield’s Dairy. They visited the college and read the inscription on the blade. Word spread back in Japan that the sword had turned up in Athens, Tennessee. The Japanese government made a formal request for its return. Collectors offered Bill White serious money. He wasn’t interested. But he made it known that he would return it to the family of the man he’d taken it from.

In 1967, Pakaore Hashitami [sic; see below] arrived in the United States and traveled to the Tellico Lodge in the mountains of East Tennessee to meet the man who had killed his father. He admired the polished sharkskin scabbard and gold-tipped handle of his father’s sword. Before he could accept, he asked Bill to tell him how his father died. He had to know that he had lost his life honorably. Bill told him the story of Swede and the concrete blockhouse on Tarawa. Hashitami bowed to Bill, drew the sword from the scabbard, and held it over his head. Bill realized a second too late that he had given this man room to take a swing at him. Bill took a big step closer. But Hashitami had no intentions of revenge. He thanked Bill for restoring honor to his family. The sword had been with them for four hundred years. Of course, Bill said. The war was over.

There have been many such stories of U.S. Marines returning samurai swords captured on islands in the Pacific, ever since the WWII generation or their children began contemplating their own legacies. But the Japanese name cited above is utterly improbable, and the only place it appears in Google searches is a clip in this book (on page 292 and in the index). The family name is more likely Hashitani (橋谷 ‘bridge-valley’), and the given name Pakaore is impossible in Japanese. If you search for it online, you’ll find links to a few people in India and to images and recipes for pakora. Any name starting with P in Japanese is likely to be of foreign origin, like Pekin, Perusha, Porando, Porutogaru, or even Ponto-cho (< Portuguese ponte ‘bridge’). If St. Martin’s reprints this book, I urge the author to confirm and correct the name of the samurai descendant who took home his family’s sword.

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Navajo Code Talkers in Action

From Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, by Chester Nez (Dutton Caliber, 2011), Kindle Loc. ~1870:

Our messages relayed calls for ammunition, food, and medical equipment back to the supply ships waiting offshore. Messages transmitted the locations of enemy troops to U.S. artillerymen. Messages told of something unexpected that had happened in battle. Messages reported on our own troop movements. Messages forwarded casualty numbers, the Navajo code keeping the Japanese from learning of American losses in each foray. Throughout the days of battle to come, we sent those numbers back to our commanders on the ships each night.

After being in operation for just forty-eight hours, our secret language was becoming indispensable.

The hilly terrain on Guadalcanal posed real problems for the men operating mortars and artillery. Muzzle-loaded mortars were low-velocity, short-range weapons with a high trajectory, particularly well suited to uneven terrain. A mortar could drop into an enemy trench that artillery fire flew right over. Shells fired by field artillery reached a higher velocity and followed a flatter trajectory. Howitzers were similar to mortars in function, but larger.

The men firing all of these weapons dealt with a serious issue. Artillery, howitzers, and mortars targeted an enemy who was frequently nose to nose with the American soldiers at the front. Marksmen had to clear the hills and the heads of our own troops, causing them no injury, while drawing an accurate bead on the enemy. This became especially ticklish when we were “walking fire in.” That meant that our weapons were shooting behind the enemy and drawing them closer to the American troops at the front line. As they drew closer, we continued to fire behind them, moving both our fire and the Japanese troops closer and closer to our own troops. There was no room for error in a maneuver like that. The old Shackle communications system took so long to encode and decode, and it was so frequently inaccurate, that using it for the transmission of on-the-fly target coordinates was a perilous proposition. Frequently, in the midst of battle, instead of using the Shackle code, the Marines had transmitted in English. They knew the transmissions were probably being monitored by the Japanese, so they salted the messages liberally with profanity, hoping to confuse the enemy.

We code talkers changed all that.

Roy and I traveled close to the mortars. And the mortars, due to their short range, placed us well within the enemy’s line of fire. Not as close as the riflemen, who were always out front leading the attack, but still close.

Sweat streamed down my back. I transmitted coordinates detailing the locations of Japanese and American troops. I knew men’s lives depended upon the accuracy of each word. I wiped my brow with a sleeve, but never stopped talking. Out of the corner of one eye, I saw a flash of fire. Sand and shrapnel kicked up into the heavy gray sky. I kept talking.

Just then, a spotter, sent out to locate a pocket of Japanese soldiers and artillery, returned. Someone handed a slip of paper to me, bearing the exact Japanese location. The same paper also reported the location of forward U.S. troops.

I squinted, rubbed my eyes, read the paper again. Any error could cause the death of my fellow fighting men. I’d sent hundreds of messages. Messages swam in my brain, jamming and tumbling over one another. I shook my head to clear it.

I translated the data into Navajo code and spoke into the microphone that fit neatly into my fist like a baseball. I glanced in the direction my transmission would travel. Roy and I crouched so close to the American artillery and mortars that I could almost have shouted the information.

I spoke clearly, carefully. I pictured the code talker who received my message translating it back into English for the gunnery men. I imagined those men planning a trajectory, one that would fire over the heads of the Americans and hit the Japanese.

If a soldier was shot right beside us, we had been warned not to stop and help. Our transmissions could not be interrupted.

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Antarctic Dangers, 1840

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle pp. 69-70:

January 20. At two o’clock this morning the sun and moon appeared above the horizon at the same time, but in opposite directions. The moon was full. The effect of the sun shedding his deep golden rays on the distant icy mountains and the surrounding icebergs was beautiful beyond description. We witnessed a sea-fight between a whale and one of his many enemies, a killer. The sea was quite smooth. A short distance from the ship was seen a large whale, lashing the smooth sea into a perfect foam, and trying to disengage himself from his enemy. As they drew near the ship the struggle became more violent. The killer, which was about twenty feet long, held the whale by the lower jaw. The huge monster seemed to be in great agony, and spouted blood. Suddenly the whale threw himself out of the water, at full length, the killer hanging to his jaw; but all his flounderings and turning flukes were useless, as the killer still maintained his hold and was getting the advantage. He soon worried the whale to death. After the battle, the ship appeared to be floating in a sea of blood. During the last few days we saw many beautiful snow-white petrels either up in the freezing air or on the ice-floes.

January 22. Weather foggy. This morning we found bottom with eight hundred fathoms of line. The arming was covered with slate-colored mud. In the afternoon we took a second cast of the lead and found bottom at three hundred and twenty fathoms. The bottom same as before — slate-colored mud. The Peacock, while boxing off the ship from some ice under her bows, made a stern board which brought her in contact with an iceberg with such force as to crush her stern and larboard quarter boats, and carry away her bulwarks to the gangways. While getting out the ice anchor to heave the ship off, she gave a rebound which carried away her rudder and all the stanchions to the gangway. This second shock caused the ship to cant to starboard, when both jibs were given to her just in time to carry her clear of the iceberg. She had not moved more than a dozen lengths before a huge mass of ice fell from the iceberg in her wake. If this had happened twenty minutes before, it would have crushed the ship to atoms. As soon as we gained the open sea, Captain Hudson very wisely put the ship’s head for Sydney, where she arrived in a shattered and sinking condition. For several days the weather had been foggy.

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Runaway Sailors, 1839

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle pp. 54-56:

On many of the islands of the Pacific there were runaway convicts from Hobart Town and Sydney, the Botany Bay of Great Britain. There were also many runaway sailors and many who had not run away, but who had been driven off by bad usage. The next morning after our arrival, an American whaler, hailing from New Bedford, came into port with a red shirt fluttering to the breeze from her fore-rigging.

When a man-of-war’s man sees that signal he well knows that there is difficulty between Jack before the mast and the officers of that ship. Our commodore was soon on board the whaler and listening to Jack’s yarn. He was told that they were two years out; that they were full of oil, had plenty of provisions, and were homeward bound; that they had been put on short allowance; were short-handed, five of the crew having died, and three being sick in their bunks from ill-treatment; and that they were so tyrannically abused that they had taken charge of the ship, confining the officers below in the cabin, and had steered for the nearest port. Our commodore, who acted as arbitrator, soon settled matters, and the whaler sailed for the United States a week afterward, with several of our invalids on board of her.

A whaler’s crew are not paid by the month, but have a lay; that is to say, the captain has one barrel out of every thirty, and Jack before the mast one out of about every five hundred. At the end of a voyage, through much abuse and tyrannical treatment by the officers of the ship, Jack before the mast is often fairly driven from the ship. This is called desertion. Then his lay falls to the owners, if the captain does not contrive some way or other to secure it.

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