The latest from Austronesian historical linguistics

by Laura Arnold (University of Edinburgh)

LogoiCAL14The 14th International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics was held on 17–20 July 2018, at the campus of the Université d’Antananarivo in the capital of Madagascar, the westernmost outpost of the Austronesian world. With four keynote speakers and 176 participants, the conference brought together Austronesian researchers from all over the world to share their latest research on this huge and diverse language family. The four days of talks were followed by an excursion to the UNESCO world heritage site of the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga, situated on a soaring hill above stunning landscapes and rice paddies, 24 km to the northeast of the city. Photographs of the conference by David Gil can be found here.

As ever, there were many talks that dealt with historical, comparative, and philological issues in Austronesian linguistics. The question of the the origin and movement of the pre-Austronesians and the subsequent expansion of Austronesian languages throughout insular Southeast Asia was the subject of lively debate throughout the conference. In his keynote speech, Waruno Mahdi—a proponent of the proto-Austric hypothesis, which links Austro-Tai to Austroasiatic—used genetic, archaeological, and linguistic data to argue that speakers of proto-Austronesian comprised two distinct population groups. One was a subtropical group (the ‘Deutero-Malays’), descended from the rice-cultivating Austro-Tai group; and the other was an equatorial group (the ‘Proto-Malays’), who migrated from the south towards the Proto-Austronesian homeland of Taiwan when the Sunda shelf was flooded, around 7000–4000 years BP. Laurent Sagart, on the other hand, who proposes that Austronesian is a sister of Sino-Tibetan, later argued that the pre-Austronesians originated from the Yellow Valley in north China, approximately 9000–7500 years BP. This conclusion is based on agricultural archaeological evidence regarding the spread of millet domestication; the spread of the ritual ablation of upper lateral incisors; and mtDNA and Y chromosome data showing a link between Sino-Tibetan- and Austronesian-speaking populations. Regarding the dispersal of the Malayo-Polynesians, Marian Klamer emphasised that the traditional farming dispersal model of Austronesian expansion throughout Island Southeast Asia is too simplistic, and cannot account for the linguistic and archaeological diversity found throughout the area – especially for the so-called Western Malayo-Polynesian and Central Malayo-Polynesian languages, which comprise over 600 languages across the majority of Island Southeast Asia. She reminded us that the Malayo-Polynesian expansion most likely did not occur in one fell swoop across the archipelago, but that there may have been hundreds or possibly thousands of migrations across the area; and that we need detailed, bottom-up micro-comparisons in order to work out the history of the linguistic dispersal of Malayo-Polynesian languages. This sentiment in particular appeared to strike a chord with the conference participants, and was something I heard echoed many times over coffee, lunch, and the cocktail party that closed the conference.

 

Photo
Credit: David Gil

Another topic of interest was the linguistic inferences that can be made about the history of Malagasy from 17th-century sources. One of the keynote speakers, Narivelo Rajaonarimanana, outlined his work on the Sorabe manuscripts and texts held in the National Library of Paris, which he has been transcribing and translating. He discussed the use of Qur’anic verses in these manuscripts in healing prayers, and as talismans for protection. He also sketched out some aspects of the grammar of the volañ’onjatsy dialect, spoken by a group living around the Matataña River, which is represented in these texts. Earlier in the conference, Alexander Adelaar (see also here) presented several speculations regarding the phonology of early Malagasy, using evidence from 17th-century Sorabe texts, and a 1603 textbook and wordlist of Malagasy compiled by Frederik de Houtman. First, he concluded that *y and *w in proto-Southeast Barito (the Bornean ancestor of Malagasy) were still vocoids at the point when Sorabe, a derivative of the Arabic script, was first adapted to transcribe Malagasy. Second, he established that the contraction of like vowels in originally disyllabic roots (e.g. *fu(h)u ‘heart’ > fu, *raa ‘blood’ > ra) had not yet taken place. Third, he discussed problems with the traditional identification of the Sorabe texts with the Taimoro dialect, providing linguistic evidence to show that the oldest Sorabe texts have features in common with the Tanosy dialect. Sorabe was originally practiced in a wider area, and its identification with the Taimoro dialect and region alone is too narrow and only reflects the current state of affairs. Finally, the orthography used in the wordlist, as well as comparison with cognate forms in other languages, suggests Malagasy still had a palatal nasal ñ at the time Houtman was compiling this wordlist.

My travel to the conference was funded in part by the Philological Society. In my presentation, I looked at a split in the tone system of a dialect of Ambel, a South Halmahera-West New Guinea language spoken in West Papua, Indonesia. This split was conditioned by vowel height, such that toneless syllables with non-high vowel nuclei *e, *a, and *o developed High tone, whereas toneless syllables with high vowel nuclei *i or *u remained toneless. There are two interesting points about this split. First, tone splits conditioned by vowel quality are very rare. Second, in all other cases of tone splits or tonogenesis conditioned by vowel quality that have been described in the literature so far, high vowels are associated with High tone. The conditioning of High tone by non-high vowels, as we find in Ambel, has not previously been attested. I went on to present a possible phonetic motivation for the split. This motivation makes reference to the complementary phenomena of intrinsic F0 and intrinsic pitch. All things being equal, higher vowels (e.g. /i/, /u/) are generally produced with a higher F0 than lower vowels (e.g. /a/). However, intrinsic pitch compensates for this, in that, when the F0 is identical, hearers perceive lower vowels as being higher in pitch than higher vowels. One important exception to intrinsic F0 is at the lower end of a speaker’s pitch range (e.g. in a tonal language, Low-toned syllables), where differences in F0 are reduced or completely neutralised. Toneless vowels in Ambel are realised with low pitch. I therefore suggested that, when proto-Ambel first developed tone, and toneless syllables came to be realised with low pitch, the intrinsic F0 of these toneless vowels was neutralised; however, the intrinsic pitch that formerly compensated for intrinsic F0 differences was maintained. This meant that speakers of Ambel came to perceive the toneless non-high vowels (*e, *a, and *o) as higher in pitch than the toneless high vowels (*i and *u). Eventually, this perceptual difference resulted in the merger of toneless syllables with non-high vowels with other High-toned syllables. Slides from this presentation can be found here.

Other talks that may be of interest to members and followers of the Philological Society are as follows (in order of presentation):

  • Owen Edwards explored the possible phonetic quality of proto-Austronesian *j. Three pieces of evidence lead him to the conclusion that the best reconstruction may be the affricate *dz. First, *dz is preserved as /dz/ in three primary branches of Austronesian, including Malayo-Polynesian; second, most of the reflexes in the present-day languages can be accounted for by making reference to natural and well-attested sound changes; and third, reconstructing *dz leads to a balanced and typologically-expected phonological inventory in proto-Austronesian.
  • Francesca Moro presented empirical data demonstrating that the morphological simplification of Alorese that has occurred since the most recent common ancestor with Lamaholot can be explained by the large number of L2 speakers of the language, which has historically been used as the lingua franca of the area.
  • Albert Davletshin looked at the diachrony of case marking in Nukeria, a Polynesian outlier – specifically, an agentive marker a, which is preposed only to singular personal and demonstrative pronouns, the question word ai ‘who?’, and personal names. He showed that the development and distribution of a can be explained by an interaction between semantics and phonology. On the semantic level, he discussed the phenomenon of differential agent marking, found elsewhere in Polynesian languages, in which highly-individuated NPs (such as pronouns, personal names, and definite NPs) are marked, whereas lower-individuated NPs are not. The distribution of a can be further explained by making reference to a phonological constraint in Nukeria which prevents the bimoraic singular pronouns and any bimoraic personal names from being realised without additional marking.
  • In a paper by Ritsuko Kikusawa(see also here), John Lowry, Paul Geraghty, Apolonia Tamata, Fumita Sano, Susuma Okamoto, and Hirofumi Teramura, results from a pilot project in Fiji combining linguistic and GIS data were discussed. In this project, the data are used to map different ‘communalects’, depending on how similar forms for a particular meaning are to Standard Fijian. This methodology can also be used to calculate the similarity of forms to a reconstructed ancestor form, and has the potential to be used in testing hypotheses with regards to historical population movements, for example where the ports of entry for a particular island may have been.
  • A paper by Juliette Huber and Antoinette Schapper looked at Austronesian borrowings into the non-Austronesian Eastern Timor languages. On the basis of sound changes in both the Austronesian and non-Austronesian languages, several layers of borrowing can be identified, indicating a complex and long-term history of contact. In addition, Austronesian borrowings from unidentified sources in the Eastern Timor languages suggests that there has been contact with a now-extinct Austronesian substrate in East Timor; and shared vocabulary throughout the languages of the area points to contact between the proto-languages of the Austronesian and non-Austronesian languages spoken today, although the source of these words is difficult to determine.
  • Kirsten Culhane and Owen Edwards presented data from the Meto dialect cluster, in which there are very diverse patterns of intervocalic consonant insertions. A diachronic perspective is necessary to understand this diversity – most of the consonants used in insertion can be easily explained by making reference to well-attested sound changes in each of the dialects. However, a structural analysis is insufficient to account for the synchronic state. Instead, a social perspective which makes reference to the distinct identity of each of the dialect communities is necessary to explain the observed differences.
  • Corinna Handschuh provided an overview of common and proprial articles in Austronesian. Various languages throughout the family have a system in which different articles are used to mark common and proper nouns: most notably in Oceanic, but also elsewhere, such as in Tagalog. The distinction has also been reconstructed to proto-Austronesian. This system is highly unusual, in that it has not so far been attested in any other language family. She thus focussed on the stability of such a typologically unusual system over such a great time depth, flagging up the similarities with nominal classification systems such as gender, which are typically stable over time.
  • Emily Gasser discussed a ‘crazy rule’ of /β/, /r/, and /k/ mutation, which is attested in the majority of the languages of the South Halmahera-West New Guinea (SHWNG) subbranch. While her presentation focussed on the synchrony of this mutation, in the question and answer session she proposed that it may be helpful in the subgrouping of SHWNG – specifically, that the mutation provides evidence for grouping the SHWNG languages spoken around Cenderawasih Bay into a single primary branch.
  • Tobias Weber discussed the typological profile of the languages of Sumatra and the Barrier Islands, investigating mostly structures mentioned in the WALS. He assumed that certain features of these languages—the larger-than-average vowel inventories, the denasalisation of consonants in Enggano and Mentawai, numeral classifiers, and clausal head-marking (indexing of arguments on the predicate)—may be explained by influence from a now-extinct pre-Austronesian substrate.
  • Peter Slomanson looked at the development of negation in the contact languages Sri Lankan Malay and Sri Lankan Portuguese. He showed that these two varieties are in some ways structurally closer to each other than they are to their co-territorial model languages, Tamil and Sinhala, yet the contact languages still differ from each other in their respective negation systems. The parallels that there are, for example in the ordering of functional markers, suggest that contact between what would become Sri Lankan Malay and Sri Lankan Portuguese may have begun in Java, before continuing in Sri Lanka.
  • Penelope Howe presented preliminary data from matched guise tests, showing that an emergent lexical tone contrast in the Central dialects of Malagasy additionally indexes social meaning. Her results suggest that the use of tone in these dialects is associated with more positive attributes (e.g. friendliness, honesty). However, when tone is absent, the speakers of these dialects are associated with more negative attributes (e.g. reticence, indifference).

For further information about any of these presentations, readers are encouraged to contact the relevant author(s).


The Philological Society offers numerous bursaries, travel and fieldwork grants to its members; for more information, please visit the PhilSoc website.

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