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  • Pronouns and Gender:Exploring Nominal Classification Systems in Northern New Guinea
  • Mark Donohue

This article is intended not as an overview of the range of nominal classification systems that can be found in the northern part of West Papua, but as a discussion of a typologically rare development of classification that is found in some languages of this quarter of New Guinea. This discursion is set in a brief discussion of some of the more typical systems that are found in geographically, and genetically, divergent languages of the region. The focus of the article is the presentation of data that shows the classification of the personal pronouns into different gender classes, and examines possible motivations for this unusual phenomenon.

1. Nominal Classification.

The term "nominal classification" is used here to designate any grammatical system within a language that functions to divide the natural world into two or more parts. In New Guinea languages that employ overt nominal classification, the most common division is a two-way distinction between masculine (male, animate, long, strong, warlike, hot, bright, mobile) and feminine (female, inanimate, short, squat, weak, cold, dark, static) categories (for a discussion of these systems in New Guinea, see Foley 1986:80-81). I shall present data from four languages of northern West Papua that employ this distinction, two with fairly typical (from a European perspective) consequences, and two that show a typologically unusual extension of the classification system from the third person into the first and second persons (henceforth referred to as local persons) as well and, crucially, employing this distinction to separate these persons into different gender classes.

2. Classification Within the Third Person Only.

The simplest forms of nominal classification, and those with the least abstractions and culturally-specific decisions, are those that encode the difference between male and female sex in the language, typically at some point in the pronominal system. The obvious starting point for this is the third person, where gender differences are most likely, [End Page 339] cross-linguistically, to be found. Possible complications of this basic system (which is found in English) can involve the extension of the differences to nonsingular members (though see Plank and Schellinger [1997] for examples of gender in nonsingular members of a paradigm, but not in the singular), or to extend the classification to inanimate objects that lack discernible sex. An example of an uncomplicated system can be found in Saweru, and a more complicated one is seen in Skou.

2.1 Saweru.

Saweru is one of two languages in the Yawa family, and is spoken by an aging population on the island of the same name just southeast of Serui, off the island of Yapen in Cenderawasih Bay (Anceaux 1961; Ayeri and Donohue 1999).

Saweru displays a gender distinction in the third-person singular forms of its pronouns, just as in English. Unlike English, the gender distinction is present in all the pronominal agreement paradigm sets, excepting only the dative suffixes. The forms of the different pronouns are given in table 1; those showing gender differences are marked in bold.1

The use of the correct member of the third-person singular paradigm is required whenever an argument is referred to that is animate, and has thus a perceptible sex difference (mosquitoes, for instance, do not display a difference between masculine and feminine agreement). A basic example of the use of the different genders is given in the two sentences below. The first shows the use of the third-person singular feminine agreement clitic when the subject of the verb is a discernibly female entity, and the second shows that when the subject is discernibly male, the masculine nominative marker must be used.

(1) Martha  mo=nunu.            (2) Alfons  fo=nunu.
Martha  3SG.F=sit                Alfons  3SG.M-sit
'Martha is sitting."                'Alfons is sitting.'

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Table 1.

Saweru Pronominal Forms

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The use of the "wrong" agreement marker is ungrammatical: *Martha fonunu, *Alfons monunu. Similar real-world factors affect the use of the genitive clitics, and the (more rarely encountered) free pronouns.

The Saweru nominal classification system can be seen to be one based purely...