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2 Palauan Nouns


In the preceding chapter we described the sound system of Palauan in terms of its significant sounds (phonemes) and their variants (allophones). In our analysis, we grouped these phonemes into various classes—e.g., stop consonants, nasal consonants, high vowels, mid vowels, etc.—whose members share common features of pronunciation and show similarities in distribution, which refers to the way in which sounds combine with each other in the formation of words. For example, the class of nasal conso­nants m and ng is distinguished from the other types of Palauan consonants by having a nasal articulation, in which the outward air flow escapes through the nose, but not the mouth; further­more, the nasals m and ng share the distributional feature of appearing as syllabic consonants ([ṃ] and [ŋ] or [ṇ]—cf. 1.3.5) before other consonants in word-initial position. To take another example, the liquid consonants l and r are distinguished phoneti­cally from the other groups of consonants because they alone are produced with a partial closure in the mouth; moreover, l and r have the unique distributional feature of appearing as “double” consonants ll and rr, which no other consonants can do.

We have seen, then, that in order to describe the sound system of Palauan, we grouped the sounds into classes and specified the distributional characteristics of these classes. In describing the grammatical system of Palauan, our approach will be very similar, though in this case the “building blocks” of our analysis will be words rather than sounds. Thus, in order to get a clear picture of the grammatical system of Palauan, we will classify the words of the language into various groups called parts of speech and de­scribe the distributional characteristics common to the members of each group. Just as there are restrictions in all languages on the 35way sounds can combine with each other—for example, a word beginning with sr would be unthinkable in Palauan, as it would be in English—so are there restrictions on the way words can com­bine with each other. For example, the order of words in a simple expression like chad ȩr a omȩnged ‘fisherman’ is rigidly fixed, and any other combination of these words—e.g. *omȩnged ȩr a chad, *chad omȩnged ȩr a,1 etc.—is impossible and meaningless.


Nouns constitute one of the most important parts of speech in Palauan. As a very rough preliminary definition, let us say that nouns name or make reference to many different types of things or living beings. Nouns are like identification labels which point to the various persons and things which we deal with in daily life and talk about in everyday conversation. We can divide nouns into several subgroups, depending on what the noun refers to.

The easiest nouns to identify are those whose referents can be perceived by one or more of our five senses. Nouns of this type, which identify things we can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell, are called concrete nouns. It is convenient to divide the concrete nouns of Palauan into two categories—human and nonhuman. Why this division is basic will be explained below. As you might expect, human nouns make reference to human beings; some examples of human nouns are given in the list below:

Human nouns
(1) chad ‘person’ sensei ‘teacher’
  sȩchȩlei ‘friend’ ngalȩk ‘child’
  buch ‘spouse’ buik ‘boy’
  chȩdil ‘mother’ Droteo ‘Droteo’
  dȩmal ‘his father’ Toki ‘Toki’

By contrast, non-human nouns refer to anything which is not human, such as animals and living or non-living things. In the list below, the words in the left column are non-human nouns desig­nating animals, while those in the right columns are non-human nouns referring to living or non-living things.

Non-human nouns
  Animals Living or non-living things
(2) bilis ‘dog’ kȩrrȩkar ‘tree’ blai ‘house’
  ngikȩl ‘fish’ bung ‘flower’ babier ‘paper, letter’ 36
  malk ‘chicken’ daob ‘ocean’ mlik ‘my car’
  babii ‘pig’ omoachȩl ‘river’ kall ‘food’

Given the above distinctions, how would you classify the follow­ing words: mlai ‘canoe’, btuch ‘star’, tbak ‘my spit’, kȩrȩbou ‘cow’, tuu ‘banana’, rȩdil ‘woman’, iis ‘nose’, sers ‘garden’, tolȩchoi ‘baby’, ngduul ‘clam’, and subȩlek ‘my homework’?

As opposed to concrete nouns, abstract nouns have referents which cannot be perceived by any of the five senses. This is because abstract nouns refer to many different kinds of concepts, ideas, or emotions which can “exist” only in our minds but not in the everyday world where we can see them, touch them, etc. The abstract nouns listed below, then, refer to things over which we can have only conceptual (i.e., mental), but not perceptual control:

Abstract nouns
(3) reng ‘heart, spirit’ blȩkeu ‘bravery’
  dakt ‘fear’ klȩchad ‘human life’
  soal ‘his desire’ klȩmȩra ‘truth’
  kirek ‘my obligation’ klȩngit ‘sin’
  sȩbȩchem ‘your ability’ klausȩchȩlei ‘friendship’

The distinction between concrete vs. abstract nouns is not always as clear-cut as we have implied above. It is often very difficult to decide how to classify a particular noun in terms of this distinction. How would you deal, for example, with the following nouns: tȩkoi ‘word, language’, char ‘price’, chais ‘news’, ker ‘question’, and ngakl ‘name’?


Now that we have identified the major classes of Palauan nouns and seen the range of meanings which they can cover, let us see how we can identify nouns in terms of their distribution—that is, in terms of how they combine with other words in the formation of sentences. We shall first discuss nouns in their function as sentence subject and sentence object.

Observe the following sentences:

(4) a. A ngalȩk a mȩnga a ngikȩl.
    ‘The child is eating fish.’
  b. A Droteo a chillȩbȩdii a bilis.
    ‘Droteo hit the dog.’

What both of these examples have in common is that they describe 37the occurrence of an action: in 4a, the action of eating, represented by the word mȩnga ‘eat’, is taking place at the present time (i.e., at the time someone is saying the sentence), and in 4b, the action of hitting, designated by the word chillȩbȩdii ‘hit’, occurred at some time in the past. In both 4a and 4b, the action words mȩnga and chllȩbȩdii serve to relate two nouns—the one doing the action and the one affected by the action. In 4b, for instance, the noun Droteo tells us who performed the action of hitting, while the noun bilis ‘dog’ identifies what received the effect of this action. See if you are able to interpret 4a in a parallel way.

Nouns like ngalȩk ‘child’ and Droteo of 4ab, which refer to the person who performs, carries out, or causes the action of the sentence, function as sentence subjects and are called subject nouns. On the other hand, nouns like ngikȩl ‘fish’ and bilis ‘dog’ of 4ab, which tell us what is affected by the action of the sentence, function as sentence objects and are termed object nouns. Our definitions of these terms now need to be expanded.

In denning subject noun, we implied falsely that the subject of an action sentence must always be human. Although in fact most subjects in action sentences usually are human, occasionally we can find a non-human subject. In 5a below, for example, the subject noun is an animal, and in 5b, it is something non-living (an act of nature):

(5) a. A malk a killii a bȩras.
    ‘The chicken ate up the rice.’
  b. A dȩrumk a ulȩkȩrngii a ngalȩk.
    ‘The thunder woke up the child.’

What words designate the actions in 5ab above, and what nouns identify the objects?

Furthermore, in defining object noun, we did not make it clear that any type of noun can function as sentence object. In 5b above, for instance, the object noun ngalȩk ‘child’ refers to a human being, and in the following example, the object noun designates an abstract concept:

(6) A John a rirȩllii a klȩngit.
  ‘John committed a sin.’

The examples in 46 above allow us to describe some of the distributional features of Palauan nouns. To summarize what we have discovered so far, we can say that in action sentences, nouns can appear either before the action word (in which case we speak of subject nouns), or after the action word (in which case we speak 38of object nouns). In other words, Palauan action sentences show the basic pattern subject noun + action word + object noun; in such sentences, the position of the noun (preceding or following the action word) tells us whether we interpret it as sentence sub­ject or sentence object. You may have noticed that so far we have chosen to omit discussion of the word a, which appears before every noun and action word in 46 above. An explanation of this word will be provided in 2.6 below.

Unlike the examples of 46 above, there are many Palauan action sentences which have only a subject noun, but no object noun. Observe the following examples:

(7) a. A Droteo a mililil.
    ‘Droteo was playing.’
  b. A ngȩlȩkek a rȩmurt.
    ‘My child is running.’

Clearly, the words mililil ‘was playing’ and rȩmurt ‘is running’ refer to actions. But these actions are of quite a different nature from the actions of eating, hitting, etc. seen in the examples of 46. While eating, hitting etc., are types of actions which naturally have an effect on something else (i.e., we eat something, we hit someone, etc.), playing and running are not actions which we direct at someone or something else, but actions in which the doer involves only himself. For this reason, the sentences of 7 contain no object nouns.

One more type of Palauan sentence has only a subject noun, but no object noun. Rather than designating an action (as in 47 above), this type of sentence describes the subject noun in some way. Most commonly, this description involves a state or condi­tion which the subject noun is in, as the following examples illustrate:

(8) a. A bȩchik a smechȩr.
    ‘My wife is sick.’
  b. A ralm a mȩkȩlȩkolt.
    ‘The water is cold.’
  c. A John a mȩtongakl.
    ‘John is tall.’
  d. A mubi a ungil.
    ‘The movie is good.’

In 8ab, the states involved are temporary (that is, they will even­tually change), while in 8cd the states are relatively permanent (that is, unchanging).39

Another sentence type involving description of the subject noun is one which identifies the subject noun in terms of some profession, nationality, or other feature. Observe the sentences below:

(9) a. A Droteo a sensei.
    ‘Droteo is a teacher.’
  b. A sȩchȩlik a chad ȩr a Siabal.
    ‘My friend is Japanese.
  c. A Francisco a rubak.
    ‘Francisco is an old man.’

Yet another sentence type characterized by description of the subject noun specifies the location of the subject noun, as in the examples below:

(10) a. A rȩngalȩk a ngar ȩr a sers.
    ‘The children are in the garden.’
  b. A oluchȩs a ngar ȩr a chȩlsel a skidas.
    ‘The pencil is inside the drawer.’

In the examples of 10, the word ngar ‘be (located)’ introduces the word sequences ȩr a sers ‘in the garden’ and ȩr a chȩlsel a skidas ‘inside the drawer’, which tell us where the subject nouns are located. Word sequences of this kind, which are called locational phrases, are described in detail in 14.2.

In studying the distribution of Palauan nouns, we have so far focused our attention on the occurrence of nouns as sentence subject and sentence object. Let us briefly examine one more “environment” or position in which nouns are observed to occur. In example 10a above, we looked at the word sequence ȩr a sers ‘in the garden’, which designates a place or a location. This se­quence of words consists of ȩr, corresponding to English ‘in’, and the noun sers ‘garden’ (which is preceded by the word a). Because the word ȩr in 10a relates the subject noun rȩngalȩk ‘children’ to the noun sers ‘garden’ by telling where the children are located, we call ȩr a relational word (see chap. 14). The relational word ȩr, which can designate many types of relationships such as ‘in, at, on, to, from, out of, because of’, etc., is always followed by a noun. Some of these uses of ȩr are illustrated in the sentences below:

(11) a. A John a mo ȩr a stoang.
    ‘John is going to the store.’
  b. A beab a tilobȩd ȩr a blsibs.
    ‘The mouse came out of the hole.’
  c. A Toki a smechȩr ȩr a tȩretȩr.
    ‘Toki is sick with a cold.’ 40

We can see, then, that another distributional feature of Palauan nouns is that they appear following the relational word ȩr.


In the sentences of 311 above, it is possible to replace the subject nouns with shorter words which refer to the same person or thing. For example, with 4a, repeated here as 12, compare sentence 13:

(12) A ngalȩk a mȩnga a ngikȩl.
  ‘The child is eating fish.’
(13) Ng mȩnga a ngikȩl.
  ‘He/she is eating fish.’

In 13, the word ng has substituted for ngalȩk ‘child’ of 12 as the sentence subject; such substitute words are called pronouns. A sentence with a pronoun subject like 13 can only be spoken if it is clear to whom the pronoun refers. In other words, 13 would make little sense as the very first sentence in a conversation, but it is perfectly acceptable in the following dialog:

(14) A: A ngalȩk ng mȩnga a ngarang?
    ‘What is the child eating?’
  B: Ng mȩnga a ngikȩl.
    ‘He/she is eating fish.’

In the above dialog, 13 can appear as B’s response to A’s question because it is clear that the pronoun ng refers to ngalȩk ‘child’, which was introduced into the conversation by A.

Now compare 10a, repeated here as 15, with sentence 16:

(15) A rȩngalȩk a ngar ȩr a sers.
  ‘The children are in the garden.’
(16) Tȩ ngar ȩr a sers.
  ‘They are in the garden.’

As you can see, the pronoun which substitutes for rȩngalȩk ‘chil­dren’ is ‘they’, but not ng ‘he, she’. Which pronoun is chosen depends on whether the replaced word is singular (ngalȩk ‘child’) or plural (rȩngalȩk ‘children’). Whereas Palauan singular nouns refer to one single person, plural nouns refer to two or more per­sons. In 2.5 below, we will discuss the formation of Palauan plural words in greater detail.

The pronouns ng ‘he, she’ and ‘they’ introduced in 13 and 16 above refer to someone other than the speaker of the sentence or the person spoken to. That is, they refer to some third party 41whom the speaker is interested in talking about. Because pronouns like ng ‘he, she’ and ‘they’ make reference to some third party, it is not surprising that they are called third person pronouns. Now, as you might imagine, it is also possible to have pronoun subjects which refer to the speaker (or first person) of a sentence and the person spoken to (or second person). These two possibilities are seen in the following sentences:

(17) Ak mo ȩr a stoang.
  ‘I’m going to the store.’
(18) Kȩ mȩruul a ngarang?
  ‘What are you making?’

Here we observe the first person singular pronoun ak ‘I’ and the second person singular pronoun ‘you’.

When we look at how the third person subject pronouns of Palauan are used, we can see why the distinction between human and non-human is so important. The pronouns ng and are the only pronouns available in Palauan to make reference to some third party. While the majority of speakers can use only to refer to two or more human beings (as in 16 above), ng has a much wider range of use, since it can refer not only to anything singular (whether human beings, animals, or living or non-living things) but also to plural things, as long as they are not human. For this reason, ng can be translated as ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘it’ when singular and as ‘they’ when non-human plural, as in 13 above and examples like the following:

(19) A:    A bilis ng ngar ȩr ker?
      ‘Where {is the dog / are the dogs}?’
  B:   Ng mȩchiuaiu ȩr a eungel a tebȩl.2
      ‘{It is / They are} sleeping under the table.’
(20) A:   A bȩlochȩl ng silebȩk ȩr ker?
      ‘Where did the {pigeon / pigeons} fly out from?’
  B:   Ng silebȩk ȩr a kȩrrȩkar.
      ‘{It / They} flew out of the tree.’
(21) A:   A oluchȩs ng ngar ȩr ker?
      ‘Where {is the pencil / are the pencils}?’
  B:   Ng ngar ȩr a chȩlsel a skidas.
      {It is / They are} inside the drawer.’ 42

When reference is being made to something plural, we see that is confined to human beings, while ng can substitute for animals (as in 19 and 20) or things (as in 21). In other words, we can des­cribe how the pronouns and ng refer to plurals in terms of the basic distinction human noun vs. non-human noun: substitutes for the former and ng for the latter.3

Before leaving our discussion of pronouns (which we will take up in greater detail in chap. 4), we need to make the point that in terms of distribution, pronouns are really a subtype of nouns, since they can occur in all of the environments in which nouns are observed to occur. So far we have seen that pronouns, like nouns, can function as sentence subjects. Now, let us confirm that pro­nouns, like nouns, can also function as sentence objects and can appear after the relational word ȩr. Observe the following pairs of sentences:

(22) a. A John a mȩluchȩs ȩr a babier.
    ‘John is writing the letter.’
  b. A John a mȩluchȩs ȩr ngii.
    ‘John is writing it.’
(23) a. A beab a tilobȩd ȩr a blsibs.
    ‘The mouse came out of the hole.’
  b. A beab a tilobȩd ȩr ngii.
    ‘The mouse came out of it.’

In 22a, the sentence object is the noun babier ‘letter’ (for the function of ȩr before a babier, see 2.7 below), which is replaced in 22b by the pronoun ngii ‘it’. And in 23a, the noun blsibs ‘hole’ appears after the relational word ȩr ‘out of’; it likewise is replaced by ngii ‘it’ in 23b.


As we have seen before, in order to form a plural noun in Palauan, we simply attach rȩ- to the beginning of the noun. (If the noun begins with a vowel, then rȩ- will be shortened to r-.) Because rȩ- precedes the noun to which it is attached, it is called a prefix; the hyphen in our notation rȩ- indicates that something must follow the prefix to form a whole word. We have also noted that rȩ- can only be added to human nouns: in other words, it is only in the category of human nouns that Palauan speakers make a distinc­tion between singular (referring to just one person) and plural (referring to two or more persons). This fact is another justi­fication for making the basic distinction human vs. non-human 43in Palauan, since this distinction explains the distribution of the prefix rȩ-. Thus, we can have singular-plural pairs like sȩchȩlik ‘my friend’—rȩsȩchȩlik ‘my friends’, chad ‘person’—rȩchad ‘peo­ple’, and kangkodang ‘tourist’—rȩkangkodang ‘tourists’, but never pairs like bilis ‘dog’—*rȩbilis ‘dogs’ or babier ‘letter’—*rȩbabier ‘letters’. Here are some sentences containing plural human nouns:

(24) a. Ak milstȩrir a rȩsȩchȩlim ȩr a party.
    ‘I saw your friends at the party.’
  b. A rȩchad ȩr a Merikel a mȩkekȩmangȩt.
    ‘Americans are tall.’
  c. Ng delmȩrab ȩr a rȩsensei.
    ‘It’s the teachers’ room.’
  d. Tȩ di rȩngalȩk ȩr a skuul.
    ‘They’re just students.’

The plural prefix rȩ- can also attach to number words (see 24.4) when they refer to human beings. In such cases, however, the presence of rȩ- is optional—that is, rȩ- may or may not be attached, with no apparent difference in meaning. To indicate the optionality of rȩ- before number words, we enclose rȩ- in pa­rentheses, as in the examples below:

(25) a.    A (rȩ)tȩlolȩm ȩl chad a mle ȩr a party.
      ‘Six people came to the party.’
  b.   A (rȩ)tȩruich ȩl ngalȩk a mlad.
      ‘Ten children died.’
  c.   A (rȩ)dart ȩl chad a mle sengkio.
      ‘One hundred persons voted.’
  d.   Ak milstȩrir a (rȩ)tȩde ȩl sensei.
      ‘I saw three teachers.’
  e.   Tȩ milkodȩtȩrir a (rȩ)lluich mȩ a teua ȩl chad.
      ‘They killed twenty-tour people.’

We have the option of omitting the plural prefix rȩ- from the examples of 25 because rȩ- does not seem to add anything to the meaning: in each case, the presence of the number word (tȩlolȩm ‘six (people)’, tȩruich ‘ten’, etc.) makes it clear that two or more human beings are being talked about.

The plural prefix rȩ- can also attach to certain other words—e.g., ua ‘like, as’ and bek ‘each, every’—when these words are associated with a human noun. Observe the following examples:

(26) a.    Tirke ȩl teru ȩl chad tȩ rua tȩchang?
      ‘Who are those two people (i.e., what are their names)?’ 44
  b.   Ak milstȩrir a rua Toki ȩr a stoang.
      ‘I saw Toki and her friends at the store.’
  c.   A rȩbek ȩl ngalȩk a kirir ȩl mo ȩr a skuul.
      ‘Every child must attend school.’
  d.   Ak milstȩrir a rȩbek ȩl chad a present.
      ‘I gave each person a present.’

In 26a, the word ua appears before tȩchang ‘who?’, which is a question word referring to human beings, while in 26b, ua precedes the name of a person (Toki). In 26c-d, bek ‘each, every’ is linked to the following human noun by the word ȩl.

The plural prefix rȩ- also can attach to certain words which name states or conditions (or, less frequently, actions) to form (or derive) a noun referring to the group of people characterized by the particular state or condition. For example, from meteet ‘rich’, we can form rȩmeteet ‘those whose are rich, rich people’, or from mȩsaik ‘lazy’, we can form rȩmȩsaik ‘those who are lazy, lazy people.’ Derived plural nouns of this type are illustrated in the sentences below. Note that their distribution is the same as that of any other noun.

(27) a.    A irȩchar, e a rȩmeteet a ulȩngȩseu ȩr a rȩmechȩbuul.
      ‘In earlier times, the rich helped the poor.’
  b.   A rȩdȩngȩrengȩr a mo ȩr a bȩluu ȩr a ngau, e a rȩmȩkȩdu a mo ȩr a babȩluadȩs.
      ‘Those who are poorly-behaved will go to hell, while those who are well-behaved will go to heaven.’
  c.   A rȩmȩsaik a blȩchoel ȩl diak a kȩlir.
      ‘Those who are lazy (and don’t work) often don’t have food.’
  d.   A rȩmȩkekȩdeb a mo ȩr a uchei, e a rȩmȩkekȩmangȩt a mo ȩr a uriul.
      ‘(Let’s have) the short ones go to the front and the tall ones go to the back.’
  e.   A rȩmȩruul a kall a chȩdal a rȩdil, e a rȩmȩngoit a udoud a chȩdal a sȩchal.
      ‘Those who prepare the food are the relatives of the woman, and those who contribute the money are the relatives of the man.’4

As we will see in chaps. 5 and 7, the words to which rȩ- attaches in 27a-d are called state verbs, while those to which rȩ- attaches in 27e are called action verbs.


In the sentences of 427 above, we have seen many instances of the 45Palauan word a. Although we can describe the distribution of this word fairly accurately, we will have trouble saying exactly what it means. It seems that the major function of a is simply to “intro­duce” certain Palauan parts of speech when they occur in a sen­tence: for example, sentences 427 show that every Palauan noun (unless it is a pronoun) must be directly preceded by a, regardless of whether the noun functions as sentence subject or object, or follows the relational word ȩr. Furthermore, a always introduces the verb of the sentence, which directly follows the subject noun and names an action (as in 47) or a state or condition (as in 8). Though we will define the term ‘verb’ with much greater care in chap. 5, we will nevertheless begin to use it now, since we will need to make reference to verbs in many of our discussions. A few of the action verbs and state verbs which have appeared in the sentences above are listed here:

(28) Action verbs State verbs
  mȩnga ‘eat’ smechȩr ‘sick’
  killii ‘ate it up’ mȩkȩlȩkolt ‘cold’
  mȩruul ‘make, do’ ungil ‘good’
  mililil ‘was playing’ ngar ‘be (located)’
  rȩmurt ‘is running’    
  tilobȩd ‘came out of’    

As sentences like 13, 16, 17, 22b, and 23b show, Palauan pronouns are never introduced by the word a, whether they func­tion as sentence subject (as in 29ab below) or object (as in 29cd), or follow the relational word ȩr (as in 29e):

(29) a. Ak mȩluchȩs a babier.
    ‘I’m writing a letter.’
  b. Tȩ mo ȩr a skuul.
    ‘They’re going to school.’
  c. A John a mȩruul ȩr ngii.
    ‘John is making it.’
  d. A Toki a ulȩmes ȩr ngak.
    ‘Toki saw me.’
  e. A beab a tilobȩd ȩr ngii.
    ‘The mouse came out of it.’

Examples 29ab require us to qualify the general statement made above that the verb of a sentence is always introduced by a, since a does not precede the verb when the sentence subject is a pronoun.

There is another group of Palauan words which are not 46usually introduced by a. This group includes words like tia ‘this thing, this place/here’, se ‘that thing, that place/there’, ngika ‘this person’, ngike ‘that person’, etc., which are called demonstratives (see 24.3) because they point out persons or things or specify where someone or something is located. Some typical examples including demonstratives are now given:

(30) a. Tia a oluchȩs.
    ‘This is a pencil.’
  b. A Toki a milil ȩr sei.
    ‘Toki is playing there.’
  c. Ngka5 ȩl chad a sensei.
    ‘This person is a teacher.’
  d. Ngke5 ȩl chad ng mȩkȩrang?
    ‘What’s that person doing?’

Though the above explanation of the distribution of a is incomplete and very oversimplified, it should serve as a necessary introduction to a word which will turn up in almost every Palauan sentence we examine. Until we read some of the other chapters in this book, we will not have enough knowledge of Palauan gram­mar to understand why the above treatment of a is inadequate. We will see later, for example, that a does not actually introduce single nouns or verbs, but rather certain groups of associated words called noun phrases and verb phrases (see 3.6 and 5.2). We will also see that there are a few further Palauan words which, like pronouns and demonstratives, are never introduced by a, and that there are other conditions under which a does not appear when it would otherwise be expected.


In this section, we will examine an important contrast which is found only among nouns functioning as sentence objects. In order to get a clear grasp of this contrast, we will at first deal only with sentences whose object nouns are non-human. Observe the fol­lowing pairs of examples:

(31) a. A nȩglȩkek a mȩdakt a dȩrumk.
    ‘My child is afraid of thunder.’
  b. A ngȩlȩkek a mȩdakt ȩr a dȩrumk.
    ‘My child is afraid of the thunder.’
(32) a. Ng soak ȩl mȩnga a ngikȩl.
    ‘I like to eat fish.’ 47
  b. Ng soak ȩl mȩnga ȩr a ngikȩl.
    ‘I want/would like to eat the fish.’
(33) a. Ak ousbech a biskang ȩl mo ȩr a chei.
    ‘I use a spear to go fishing with.’
  b. Ak ousbech ȩr a biskang ȩl mo ȩr a chei.
    ‘I’m using the spear to go fishing with.’

You will notice that the only difference in form between the a- and b-sentences of each pair is that the latter contain the word ȩr (italicized) before the object nouns dȩrumk ‘thunder’, ngikȩl ‘fish’, and biskang ‘spear’ (which are of course preceded by a). As the English translations indicate, the meanings of the a- and b-sentences of each pair are very different from each other. Since the only difference in form (or formal difference) between the members of each pair is the presence of ȩr in the b- sentences, we can conclude that ȩr contributes to the meaning difference in a very important way.

How can we characterize the meaning difference observed in the sentence pairs above? In each of the a- sentences, the speaker is making a general statement about something: in other words, he is saying that in general, or on many different occasions, such and such is the case. In the b-sentences, on the other hand, the speaker is making a specific statement about some particular single oc­casion.

In 31a, for example,

(31a) A ngȩlȩkek a mȩdakt a dȩrumk.
  ‘My child is afraid of thunder.’

the speaker asserts that his child has a fear of thunder which is observed on many different occasions, whenever there is thunder, while in 31b

(31b) A ngȩlȩkek a mȩdakt ȩr a dȩrumk.
  ‘My child is afraid of the thunder.’

the speaker is saying that his child is afraid of the particular rum­blings of thunder which can be heard at the present moment. Thus, a dȩrumk of 31a refers to thunder in general, whereas ȩr a dȩrumk of 31b refers to a specific instance of thunder. Because of this distinction, a speaker can use 31b only when it is actually thundering, while 31a could be uttered at any time whatsoever. Example 31b might appear, for instance, in a conversation like the following, where it is B’s response to A’s question: 48

(34) A: Ngara mȩ a ngȩlȩkem a lmangȩl?
    ‘Why is your child crying?’
  B: Ng mȩdakt ȩr a dȩrumk.
    ‘He’s afraid of the thunder.’

The function of ȩr in a sentence like 31b, therefore, is to indicate that the object noun is specific; if ȩr is absent, as in 31a, the sequence a plus following noun is interpreted in a general (i.e., non-specific) sense. We shall call a word sequence like ȩr a dȩrumk ‘the thunder’ of 31b a specific object, while labelling a dȩrumk ‘thunder’ of 31a a non-specific object. We can now explain the pairs of sentences in 32 and 33 in greater detail.

Since the object noun following mȩnga ‘eat’ of 32a

(32a) Ng soak ȩl mȩnga a ngikȩl.
  ‘I like to eat fish.’

is not preceded by ȩr, it is non-specific, and the whole sentence is therefore interpreted as a general statement expressing the speaker’s liking for fish. By contrast, since the object noun of 32b

(32b) Ng soak ȩl mȩnga ȩr a ngikȩl.
  ‘I want/would like to eat the fish.’

is specific, this sentence would be uttered on a single occasion when some particular fish is involved. For example, 32b might occur in the following conversation, where it appears as B’s answer to A’s question:

(35) A: Ngara a soam ȩl mȩnga ȩr ngii?
    ‘What would you like to eat?
    Ng ngar ȩr ngii a babii mȩ a ngikȩl mȩ a chȩmang.
    ‘There’s pork, fish, and crab.’
  B: Ng soak ȩl mȩnga ȩr a ngikȩl.
    ‘I’d like to eat the fish.’

In B’s response, ȩr a ngikȩl ‘the fish’ makes specific reference to the fish which A has prepared on a particular occasion and which A is offering to B as part of a choice of foods. In example 33a,

(33a) Ak ousbech a biskang ȩl mo ȩr a chei.
  ‘I use a spear to go fishing with.’

the object noun biskang ‘spear’ is not preceded by ȩr and is there­fore non-specific. As expected, the sequence a biskang does not designate some specific spear but simply refers to the idea of 49‘spear’ in general. For this reason, 33a is a general statement expressing a habit: the speaker says that he uses a spear whenever he goes fishing. On the other hand, the sequence ȩr a biskang of 33b

(33b) Ak ousbech ȩr a biskang ȩl mo ȩr a chei.
  ‘I’m using the spear to go fishing with.

refers to a particular spear which the speaker is using on some given occasion.

In 2.5 above, we saw that the prefix rȩ- serves to identify or mark plurality with human nouns only. Since rȩ- is restricted to occurrence with human nouns, how is the difference between singular and plural indicated for non-human nouns? It is difficult to give a good answer to this question because the linguistic facts are very complicated. First of all, it is impossible to distinguish between singular and plural for non-human sentence subjects; therefore, the following examples have two possible meanings, as indicated (cf. 19A, 20A, and 21A):

(36) a.    A bilis a mȩchiuaiu ȩr sei.
      ‘The {dog is / dogs are} sleeping there.’
  b.   A oluchȩs a ngar ȩr a bebul a tebȩl.6
      ‘The {pencil is / pencils are} on the table.’

With non-human sentence objects, the presence or absence of the “specifying” word ȩr results in a partial distinction between singular and plural. Observe the examples below:

(37) a.    Ak ousbech ȩr a bilas ȩr a klukuk.
      ‘I need the boat tomorrow.’
  b.   Ak ousbech a bilas ȩr a klukuk.
      ‘I need {a boat / the boats} tomorrow.’
(38) a.   Ak ousbech ȩr a mlim ȩl mo ȩr a ochȩraol.
      ‘I need your car to go to the money-raising party.’
  b.   Ak ousbech a mlim ȩl mo ȩr a ochȩraol.
      ‘I need your cars to go to the money-raising party.’

When ȩr precedes the non-human object noun, as in 37a and 38a above, it invariably refers to a specific singular object. If ȩr is omitted, however, as in 37b and 38b, the sequence a plus following noun can sometimes be interpreted in more than one way: for example, a bilas of 37b can refer to a non-specific singular object 50(‘a boat’) or to a specific plural object (‘the boats’). As we can see, then, the presence or absence of ȩr does not result in an absolutely clear-cut distinction between singular and plural, since some object nouns which are not preceded by ȩr (e.g. a bilas of 37b) can also be interpreted as singular.

As we have seen above, non-human object nouns may or may not be preceded by the specifying word ȩr, with a significant difference in meaning. With human object nouns, however, the use of ȩr seems to be required (or obligatory): that is, human object nouns, whether singular or plural, must be interpreted as specific. Note the following examples:

(39) a.    Ak ulȩmes ȩr a Toki ȩr a party.
      ‘I saw Toki at the party.’
  b.   Lak mongȩlebȩd ȩr a ngalȩk!
      ‘Don’t hit the child!’
  c.   Ak ulȩmes ȩr a rȩsȩchȩlim ȩr a party.
      ‘I saw your friends at the party.’
  d.   A Droteo a milȩngȩlebȩd ȩr a rȩngalȩk.
      ‘Droteo was hitting the children.’

All names of people, such as Toki of 39a, refer uniquely to partic­ular persons and are therefore automatically specific.

Everything we have said above about the occurrence of ȩr before an object noun will be valid only when the verb of the sentence is of a particular type—namely, imperfective. The differ­ence in meaning between imperfective and perfective verb forms is not very easy to explain and will be postponed until chap. 12. For our present purposes, it will be sufficient to know how to distinguish imperfective and perfective verb forms in terms of an obvious formal difference. Perfective verb forms always have a special pronoun ending which identifies the object, whereas imperfective verb forms do not. Compare the imperfective and perfective forms for a few Palauan verbs:

(40) Imperfective   Perfective  
  mȩngȩlebȩd ‘hit’ cholȩbȩdak ‘hits me’
  mȩnga ‘eat’ kolii ‘eats it’
  mȩruul ‘make, do’ rullii ‘makes it’
  omes ‘see’ mȩsa ‘sees him/her/it’

In the list above, the italicized portions of the perfective verbs refer to the object: -ak ‘me’, -ii (or, rarely -a) ‘him/her/it’, etc. In this chapter, perfective verbs have occurred in sentences such as 4b, 5ab, 6, 24a, and 25de. 51

When third person object nouns follow perfective verb forms, they can never be preceded by the specifying word ȩr. In other words, while 41a and 42a below are correct, 41b and 42b are not:

(41) a.    A Toki a chillȩbȩdii a ngalȩk. ‘Toki hit the child.’
  b.   *A Toki a chillȩbȩdii ȩr a ngalȩk.  
(42) a.   A dȩrumk a ulȩkȩrngii a bilis. ‘The thunder woke up the dog.’
  b.   *A dȩrumk a ulȩkȩrngii ȩr a bilis.  

Why should it be that the specifying word ȩr never occurs before an object noun if the preceding verb is perfective? An answer can be given if we carefully analyze the structure of perfective verb forms: as we will see in 4.9, all perfective verb forms include pronoun endings which refer to specific objects. The endings -ii and -ngii in 41 and 42 are objects of this kind. Because per­fective verb forms always imply a specific object, there is no further need to indicate specificity with a word like ȩr. In other words, use of ȩr after perfective verb forms would be redundant (i.e., add nothing to the meaning) and therefore unnecessary.

As you can see, the specifying word ȩr discussed in this section is responsible for some very important meaning distinctions among nouns which are used as sentence objects. The function of ȩr observed here—to identify sentence objects as specific—should be carefully distinguished from that of the relational word ȩr, which is best considered as a different word. This latter word expresses various types of relationships (primarily spatial and temporal) and corresponds to English ‘to, at, in, out of, because, etc.’


    A: A bilis tȩ mȩkȩrang?     ‘What are the dogs doing?’
  B: Tȩ kaiuȩtoir ȩr a sers.   ‘They’re chasing each other in the garden.’
    a. Ak milstȩrir a rȩsȩchȩlim.     ‘I saw your friends.’
  b. Ak miles a bȩtok ȩl ius.   ‘I saw lots of crocodiles.’
  c. Ak miles a bȩtok ȩl bilas.   ‘I saw lots of boats.’

The use of tȩrir vs. no ending when referring to something plural is exactly parallel to the above-mentioned use of the subject pronouns and ng.

1. Recall that the asterisk mark * is used in this text to identify any words, expressions, or sentences which cannot or do not appear in the Palauan language.

2. When referring to certain common household animals such as dogs, pigs, etc., some Palauan speakers can use the plural pronoun tȩ, which, as mentioned above, normally implies a human plural sub­ject. Thus, these speakers accept a dialog like the following, in which refers to two or more dogs:

3. In another group of pronouns, too, we can see the importance of the distinction between human and non-human. As we will see in 4.9, there is a set of object pronouns which appear as endings on action words (verbs). The various pronouns in this set have many 497different forms, of which several are illustrated in bold type in the words chillȩbȩdak ‘hit me’, chillȩbȩdau ‘hit you’, mȩdȩngȩlii ‘knows him/her/it’, and milstȩrir ‘saw them’. Among this set of object pro­nouns, the ending tȩrir is used only if the object referred to is human plural; for non-human plural (i.e., animals and living or non-living things), no ending is added to the verb. Observe, therefore, the fol­lowing sentences, in which we have forms of omes ‘see’:

4. This sentence describes the distribution of duties for a Palauan money-raising party (ochȩraol).

5. As these forms show, the words ngika ‘this person’ and ngike ‘that person’ are often shortened by omitting the vowel i.

6. Actually, these sentences can be interpreted in yet other ways, since the distinction between specific vs. non-specific is also not found among subject nouns. The translations given for 36a–b involve specific noun subjects, but we can also interpret these sentences as having non-specific noun subjects. Thus, 36a, for example, can also mean ‘A dog is sleeping there.’ or ‘Some dogs are sleeping there.’

Next Chapter

3 Noun Possession

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