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  • South Efate Phonological History
  • John Lynch

The South Efate language in central Vanuatu forms a transition between the phonologically more conservative languages to the north and the more "aberrant" languages to the south. Based on more data than were available to Clark (1985), a more detailed phonological history of South Efate is presented here. Particular attention is paid to a low-vowel dissimilation rule and to rules deleting final vowels and final consonants, which Lynch (to appear a) suggests are shared with the Southern Vanuatu languages and thus constitute evidence for subgrouping South Efate with Southern Vanuatu. I also add to the growing literature on instances of low-vowel dissimilation in Oceanic languages (Blust 1996a, b) without, however, bringing us any nearer to an integrated explanation of this phenomenon.

1. Introduction.

Three languages are native to Efate in Central Vanuatu. Ifira-Mele is a Polynesian Outlier spoken by about 3,500 people on Ifira Island in Vila harbor and in Mele (Imere) village just outside Vanuatu's capital Port Vila. Nakanamanga is a dialect chain, whose component dialects are spoken by almost ten thousand people in the villages of northern Efate, on the western and northern offshore islands of Lelepa, Moso, Nguna, , and Emau, in the village of Sesake on Emae, and on the western half of Tongoa in the area of Woraviu.

This paper deals with the third of these languages, South Efate, which has about 6,000 speakers. This language is spoken in mutually intelligible varieties in the villages of Pango, Erakor, and Eratap along the southern coast of Efate. To the southeast and east, the villages of (a) Eton and Pangpang, and (b) Epau speak divergent varieties that Clark (pers. comm.) suggests are transitional between South Efate and Nakanamanga in a dialect-chain situation, but possibly more similar overall to South Efate than to Nakanamanga.1 My main source of data is from Erakor (Thieberger 1997, 1998, 2000); data on Eton (including Pangpang) and Epau are limited to those given in Clark (1985). South Efate is of particular interest, because it seems to form a transition between the phonologically more conservative central Vanuatu languages (notably Nakanamanga) and the more "aberrant" [End Page 320] languages of Southern Vanuatu, particularly in relation to apparently shared patterns of dissimilation of Proto-Oceanic (POC) *a and loss of medial and final vowels in certain environments. At the same time, the ordering of its low-vowel deletion rule with respect to a rule deleting final vowels differs from that found in a number of other Oceanic subgroups (Blust 1996a, b).

In this paper, I examine the development of POC consonants, vowels, and morpheme structure in South Efate. I will also from time to time use Proto-Eastern Oceanic (PEOC) or Proto-North-Central Vanuatu (PNCV) reconstructions—especially in those cases where a POC protophoneme has few reflexes.2 In his survey of the Efate dialects, Clark (1985) pays attention to the development of certain phonemes, but mainly from a Proto-Efate stage. In addition, as a result of recent work by Thieberger, there is now more data than were available to Clark—at least for the Erakor dialect.

2. Relevant Features of South Efate.

South Efate has the following consonant phonemes (written phonemically rather than in the standard orthography):

(1) kp p t k
f s
ŋm m n ŋ

kp and ŋm are labiovelars "coarticulated with initial velar closure followed by labial closure" (Thieberger 1997:5), while nr is a prenasalized trill. Vowel phonemes are i e a o u. Vowel length seems to be distinctive and is written by doubling the vowel.

Like most Central Vanuatu languages, South Efate shows root-initial consonant alternation in some verbs. Unlike most of these languages, however, only one consonant participates in these alternations: verbs that are underlyingly f-initial in the irrealis change this to p in the realis.3 The following examples from Thieberger (1997) show alternation between freŋ and preŋ 'do, make': [End Page 321]

(2) Naŋmer nafkal  ru         na    ruk            freŋ   nafkal.
people    fight     3PL.REALIS  want  3PL.REALIS   do     fight
'Soldiers want to fight...