Austronesian Counting

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Erromanga – Preservation or Innovation?

Filed under: Uncategorized — richardparker01 @ 2:57 am

I wandered off-topic recently to look at the Erromangan language. (Erromanga is an island about midway between the big islands of Vanuatu and the big island of New Caledonia).

Erromanga once had a least three languages (Sye, Ura, and Utaha) but suffered very heavy depredations in the 19th century by ‘black-birders’ – recruiters for plantation labour in New Caledonia, and Queensland, Australia. There was a virtual population crash, from an estimated 6000 pre-contact, to only 400 in the 1930s, and about 1300 in 1989. Ura had (in 1989) less than half-a-dozen speakers, all elderly, and Utaha disappeared altogether, about a century ago.

In doing so, I re-read:
The Efate-Erromango problem in Vanuatu subgrouping, John Lynch,
Oceanic Linguistics 43.2 (Dec 2004): p311(28)
Available via JSTOR.

Lynch is a classical comparativist (the expert on Southern Vanuatu) and has 28 pages of grammatics and phonology, to support his theories of grouping/sub-grouping, but precious little about the lexicons of Erromanga, except this, under the heading of ‘innovations’: –

“(e) POC *sa[??]apuluq, PNCV *sa[??]avulu ‘ten” is replaced by PEE *rua-lima (‘two-five’): e.g., Lewo lua-lima, South Efate ralim. (The same innovation, however, is found to the immediate north of this subgroup, in Paamese h??lualim.) (9)”
and –
“(b) Erromangan languages share innovation …, the replacement of *sa[??]apuluq ‘ten’ by a form composed of ‘two’ and ‘five’: cf. Sye narwolem, Ura lurem ~ durem.”
ie, the technically more advanced (multiple) word phrase has been ‘replaced’ by a less-developed construction. This could only make sense to a specialist ruled completely and solely by the limited specialist techniques and jargon of his discipline.

Lynch nearly rescues himself from this, but not quite, by saying, in a sub-note:
It occurred to me that the replacement of a monomorphemic word for “ten” with a transparent bimorphemic one may have been part of a more general simplification of numeral systems, since many SOC languages have quinary systems. However. it turns out that many widely distributed languages that do have compound numerals, based on “five” for ‘six’ through ‘nine’ nevertheless retain *sa[??]apuluq ‘ten’.

Much more likely, though, is that many languages borrowed a new word, sa-puluq, meaning 1 x (bunch of) 10, before they got around to changing their old constructuons for 6-9

He kept his nose so close to the phonology and grammatics that he apparently ignores some quite amazing (to me, at least) lexical innovations:

Shoulder, which has a perfectly good POc ‘ancestral’ term,*(qa) para, is ‘innovated’ in Ura as ‘nobun-lenge’ = head-arm/hand’
Neck … POc *Ruqa, *liqoR … (Ura) bo-ri-na Lit. ‘X’+ na=breast
Hair … POc *raun ni qulu … (Ura) novlingen-nobu- (Sie) novlinompu … literally feathers/hair-head This is also the literal meaning of the POc construction, but the *POc word has two lines of ‘descendants’ – one used *raun, alone, and the other used *qulu, alone.
Mouth … POc *papaq. *qawa … (Ura) nobun nggivi– = lit. head-tooth
To sleep: … POc *tiRuR … (Ura) ahlei-ba = lit. to lie down-ba
Thatch/roof … POc *qatop … (Ura) nobun sungai = lit. head-house
To sew: … POc *saquit … (Ura) ehli (Sye) … etri
To stab, pierce … POc *soka … (Ura) ehli … (Sye) satri
Bite … POc *karat … (Ura) ahli … (Sye) elintvi
(This is not wildly exciting, even to an amateur linguist, as sew and stab are very obviously related in POc).

It makes one wonder if these fellows suddenly forgot their ‘inherited’ vocabulary on an isolated island (hasn’t happened elsewhere), or if someone took certain very basic words (body parts, mainly) and deliberately changed them, (ie a genuine invention) or if the people didn’t have those ‘ancestral proto-Oceanic’ words in the first place.

The overall number word/systems differences between Erromanga and Vanuatu languages further north was also completely missed by Lynch in his paper, although he did propose that ‘2 hands’ was an innovation’ for ‘1 x name for 10’ (leading on, perhaps, to 2×10=20, which it does in this case (Ura – lurem gelu=20, Sye – narwolem duru=20). That suggests that Ura and Sye both adopted the idea of decimal 10s before they adopted the words.

Erromangan languages (I have numeral data for Ura, Sie, and extinct Utaha) don’t even achieve the ‘consensus’ PAn names for 1-4:

1 – *PAn – *esa, *ias …. Ura – sai – OK
2 – *PAn – *dusa ….. Ura – ge-lu – OK

3 – *PAn – *telu ……. Ura – ge-he-li – is very strange, because it (should have) descended directly from its established ‘ancestor word’, *telu. Instead it appears to be a ‘linguistic innovation’ based on a 3rd person possessive, ‘ga’ and directly on a Trial *-(t,s)ali proposed for PSV – proto-Southern Vanuatu.
A similar construction is found in older relict languages in Tanna and New Caledonia … kesel, kahar, esech, seen, hejen, etc.

4 – *PAn – *Sepat …. Ura – le-me-lu (2-2) (Sie nd-vat).
Lemelu (2-2) must be dubbed a ‘linguistic innovation’, using classical Comparative Methodology. But it’s clearly not inventive and exactly the same construction I’ve found in number systems that haven’t gone much beyond naming numbers up to 5 in other parts of the world. (Example: aula aula=2-2=4, in Binahara, a Trans-New-Guinea language – it even has a very similar root-word).
Naming numbers from 6-9 is very obviously a later invention or borrowing added to the first 3 to 5 number words, so the appearance, suddenly of ‘vat’ in Ura – sini-vat – 8 is no surprise. It almost proves that the phrases for 6-9 were real inventions in Austronesian languages, at a later date than the first 5 number names were established.

5 – *PAn – *lima …. Ura – su-o-rem (1 hand). This is also a common construction where people mark the ‘first hand’ and then go on to mark ‘hand/hands two’ or ‘hand-hand’ for 10. (Binahara – gena-aulapu = 1-5, gena-aulapu-aulapu = 1-5-5 = 10).

6 – *PAn *enem … Ura – mi-sai (+1)
7 …*PAn *pitu …Ura – sim-he-lu
8 …*PAn *walu… Ura – sim-he-li
9 …*PAn *Siwa… Ura – sini-vat
10 * PAn * sa-piluq … Ura – lu-rem (2-hand)

Lynch’s comparative methods of sub-grouping languages enabled him to propose a settlement hypothesis for Vanuatu, as shown (right).

SOc (Southern Oceanic) groups all the languages of Vanuatu.
– that split into Northern Vanuatu and:
NSO (Nuclear Southern Oceanic – all languages south of Northern Vanuatu)
– that (NSO) split into Central Vanuatu and:
– SMel (Southern Melanesian) – all languages south of Epi and Efate islands.
– SMel split into
Southern Vanuatu (*PSV) and New Caledonian

That translates into a family tree that implies that people (who now speak North Vanuatu languages) first settled North Vanuatu, and stayed there, while another lot going south, split in the middle of Vanuatu, with one lot staying put, and another lot going south, and so on.

It implies that the speakers of languages further south would be the ones that settled their territories most recently.

But, to a non-comparativist (like me) it’s ‘obvious’, from the merest of glances at number systems, that the languages in the south are the oldest, and preserve their older constructions. This thinking reverses the implications of the genetic language tree produced by comparativists.

It would mean that the first major split from Southern Oceanic (SOc) would give one branch leading to the surviving New Caledonian group, with the rest continuing to evolve.
– The next split would be between ‘the rest’ and surviving Southern Melanesian.
– The very latest split would be between ‘the rest’ and surviving North Vanuatu.


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