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  • The History of Proto-Oceanic *ma-
  • Bethwyn Evans and Malcolm Ross1

We examine the history of the Proto-Oceanic (POC) stative verb derivative *ma-, whose distribution in POC reconstructions raises certain problems, as POC lexical reconstructions with *ma- can be placed in four groups: (a) valency-decreasing *ma-; (b) fossilized reflexes of *ma- on stative verbs; (c) stative (adjectival) verbs that can be reconstructed in POC both with and without *ma-, with no obvious difference in meaning between the forms with and without the prefix; and (d) fossilized reflexes of *ma- on experiential verbs. Examination of the uses of non-Oceanic cognates of POC *ma- suggests that *ma- already had three distinct functions in Proto-Malayo-Polynesian, one ancestral to (a) above, the second ancestral to (b) and (c), and a third (minor) use ancestral to (d). In function (a), *ma- remained somewhat productive in POC. In the other two functions, it had ceased to be productive. We pay attention especially to (b) and (c) in order to better understand the origin of the untidy distribution of *ma- on stative (adjectival) verbs.

1. Introduction.

Two prefixes, *ma- and *ta-, have been reconstructed as stative verb derivatives in Proto-Oceanic (POC), with *ta- also indicating the notion of spontaneity (Pawley 1972:38-39, 45). Both prefixes derived intransitive verbs with an undergoer subject from transitives that had an actor subject and an undergoer object. The prefix *ma-, however, evidently had other functions, too, as we can reconstruct POC stative intransitives with *ma- that had no transitive counterpart. These fall into two classes: (i) intransitives that appear to have had two forms, one with and one without *ma-, with no reconstructable difference in meaning; and (ii) intransitives that seem always to have occurred with *ma-. Our objective in this paper is to give an account of the distribution of POC *ma- and to explain the origins of this distribution.

We will attempt the reconstruction of the POC system from two perspectives. In section 2 we examine the uses of *ma- in those languages for which we have good descriptions and in which it remains at least somewhat productive, and then in section 3 we look at POC reconstructions of etyma containing *ma-. After summarizing the distribution of POC *ma- and looking at some non-Oceanic cognates in section 4, we seek in section 5 to account for its origins. [End Page 269]

We assume, following Pawley (1973:126-140) and Ross (1998a:21-23), that POC had two major classes of intransitive verbs: those with an actor subject and those with an undergoer subject. Intransitives with an actor subject were probably always dynamic. All intransitives with an undergoer subject could be used statively, but, depending on their aspect marking, at least some (and perhaps potentially all) could also be used dynamically. Such a system is described for Fijian by Arms (1974, 1990), Foley (1976), and Dixon (1988). We will be concerned here mostly with intransitives with an undergoer subject, as it was these that were formed with *ma-. We will argue that at least some of these verbs could be used both dynamically and statively.2

A number of the POC reconstructions referred to in this paper are reconstructions of POC adjectival verbs (Ross 1998b). These were undergoer-subject verbs that could also be used without additional morphology as modifiers (attributes) in noun phrases. It is not clear whether all POC undergoer-subject intransitives could be used as adjectival verbs or only a subset of them, but this does not affect the theme of this paper.

2. Reflexes of *ma- in Oceanic Languages.

The Proto-Oceanic prefix *ma- is reflected in modern Oceanic languages in two ways: (a) as a (semi-) productive valency-decreasing prefix; and (b) as a fossilized prefix occurring as the initial segment of undergoer-subject verbs.

Function (a) is illustrated by sentences (1) and (2) from Tamambo (Vanuatu). In sentence (1), the verb bila 'shatter' is used transitively with a patient participant, glas 'glass', expressed as its object. This participant is expressed as the subject of the intransitive form of...


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