Bound Nominal Elements in Äiwoo (Reefs): A Reappraisal of the "Multiple Noun Class Systems"

The little-described Reefs-Santa Cruz (RSC) languages are usually assumed to be of mixed Papuan-Austronesian origin, though attempts at linking them systematically either to known Papuan or Austronesian languages have yielded meager results. One of the main arguments in the literature for the presence of "Papuan structures" in the RSC languages has been the claim that the languages have complex systems of noun classes, described in any detail only for the largest RSC language, Reefs or Äiwoo. This paper examines the claim that Äiwoo has one or more noun class systems, based on fieldwork material. It draws two main conclusions: First, the phenomena in question cannot be felicitously analyzed as noun classes in the usual sense of the term, and bear no obvious resemblance to the Papuan-style gender systems to which they have been compared. Rather, they are bound nominal elements of which some have a mainly nominalizing function, whereas others show characteristic properties of classifiers or class terms. Second, there is little or no evidence that the presence of these elements in the language indicates a non-Austronesian origin or infuence. On the contrary, the classifier or class-term system, in fact, has obvious parallels in a number of Oceanic languages of Vanuatu. While this does not entail any conclusions about the genetic status of Äiwoo, or of RSC in general, it is clear that the so-called noun classes do not constitute evidence of a Papuan link.