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  • The East Papuan Languages:A Preliminary Typological Appraisal
  • Michael Dunn, Ger Reesink, and Angela Terrill

This paper examines the Papuan languages of Island Melanesia, with a view to considering their typological similarities and differences. The East Papuan languages are thought to be the descendants of the languages spoken by the original inhabitants of Island Melanesia, who arrived in the area up to 50,000 years ago. The Oceanic Austronesian languages are thought to have come into the area with the Lapita peoples 3,500 years ago. With this historical backdrop in view, our paper seeks to investigate the linguistic relationships between the scattered Papuan languages of Island Melanesia. To do this, we survey various structural features, including syntactic patterns such as constituent order in clauses and noun phrases and other features of clause structure, paradigmatic structures of pronouns, and the structure of verbal morphology. In particular, we seek to discern similarities between the languages that might call for closer investigation, with a view to establishing genetic relatedness between some or all of the languages. In addition, in examining structural relationships between languages, we aim to discover whether it is possible to distinguish between original Papuan elements and diffused Austronesian elements of these languages. As this is a vast task, our paper aims merely to lay the groundwork for investigation into these and related questions.

1. Introduction.1

The first human occupation of New Guinea is generally assumed to date back to around 50,000 years ago. The earliest dates recorded for Island Melanesia (see map 1) range from 29,000 to more than 35,000 years ago [End Page 28] (see for example Spriggs [1997] for a summary of the various archaeological findings). Much later, around 3,500 years ago, Austronesian speakers arrived in the Bismarck Archipelago from where they rapidly colonized the Pacific islands further to the east and south (Ross 1988; Kirch 1997).

Now we find a great number of Austronesian languages of the Oceanic subgroup throughout Island Melanesia and, scattered among them, 25 languages that as a group are referred to as the East Papuan languages. Although the time-depth from the earliest settlers to the present is forbidding, it seems reasonable to assume that the present Papuan languages are remote descendants of the languages spoken before the Austronesians came on the scene. One of the first bold hypotheses to link all Papuan languages together is found in Greenberg (1971). Wurm (1975, 1982b), only slightly less daring, proposed that at least all East Papuan languages could be brought together in a single phylum that is divided over three main groupings that are further differentiated into a number of stocks and lower-level families, as in figure 1.

Although there are lexical correspondences that allow lower-level groupings for some of the proposed families, the higher-level relationships are motivated by some agreements in the pronominal systems and typological and structural similarities. Foley (1986), among others, deferred the possible genetic linking of all Papuan languages until more evidence would come available for proposed smaller groupings, such as the South Bougainville family, which he considered probably related to the North Bougainville family.

More recently, Ross (2000) concludes that the pronominal evidence does not support Wurm's "East Papuan" phylum, nor some of the larger groups that Wurm proposed. He finds support for some of the smaller groupings of some families, such as West New Britain (possibly including YélîDnye), East New Britain, two families on Bougainville (North and South), and a Central Solomons family. His classification is plotted against Wurm's in figure 1.

The fact that just about all of the East Papuan languages, except Sulka on New Britain and Yélî Dnye on Rossel, make a gender distinction somewhere in the pronominal systems may point to some shared feature from before the time of contact with Austronesian speakers. As Ross (2000) warns, this does not immediately prove a single ancestor, because gender can be diffused by contact, as seen, for example, in some Austronesian languages in West New Britain (Chowning 1996:57). Other influences between non-Austronesian and Austronesian languages in this area have been reported by various scholars, for example, Thurston (1982), Tryon (1994...


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