Biak : description of an Austronesian language of Papua


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ESRC Project RES Principal investigator: Mary Dalrymple Co-investigator: Suriel Mofu This collaborative project involved the University of Oxford and two universities in Papua, Universitas Cenderawasih and Universitas Negeri Papua, in the creation of an on-line database of digital audio texts and their linguistically annotated transcriptions and translations for the Austronesian language Biak, a language with about 50,, speakers in Papua. The annotated transcriptions are produced using Toolbox , a freely-available data management and analysis tool for language documentation, which supports the creation of resources in various forms: transcribed texts with free translations into Indonesian and English of most use to the Biak-speaking community and for pedagogical use in Papua and linguistically annotated transcriptions in two forms: a standard human-readable form like the paper-based corpora familiar to linguists, and a translation of this form to XML via the utility tools for Toolbox , suitable for computer analysis and database search.

These resources provide a snapshot of audio and textual data on the language, and are useful for language preservation efforts, for ongoing efforts to produce teaching materials in the indigenous languages of Papua, and as a basis for the creation of dictionaries and glossaries in the language. Since they are linguistically annotated, they are also useful for linguists conducting research on Biak and related Austronesian languages. The project ran from October to September The data can also be downloaded from the UK Data Service. This is particularly clear when we take into account the fact that Ujir uses suffixes on the verb, while Ambel uses prefixes, that the look-alike forms do not mark the same gender animate in Ujir versus inanimate in Ambel , and that the other agreement forms that they occur in a paradigm with cannot be seen as having any shared inheritance.

In the North Halmahera languages, for instance, the non-human gender form in the plural goes back to the shared ancestor, Proto-North Halmahera Donohue b. By contrast, in the Timor-Alor-Pantar languages, neuter gender appears in only a few languages and then in very different forms: on demonstratives in Bunaq 25 ; on verbal prefixes in Abui 26 , and on some numeral and quantifying verb forms in Eastern Timor languages exemplified on the basis of Makalero in This map presents 48 languages, 30 Austronesian and 18 Papuan languages with neuter gender agreement in at least one domain.

Within Wallacea the term is found not only in Austronesian languages but also in four distinct Papuan families. The distribution of muku reflexes continues sporadically throughout Timor being found in three languages of central Timor, Tokodede, Kemak and Mambae and then continues through Sawu and Sumba before finishing in Flores and the languages of the Solor archipelago. Chance similarity is typical of sporadic lookalikes in far flung languages. In the case of muku such an explanation is extremely unlikely given that we are dealing here with dozens of instances of a word in a single region.

Shared inheritance, whereby languages have inherited the word from a shared ancestor, can also be dismissed as we know for certain that not all the languages involved are related.

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Biak, description of an Austronesian language of Papua

That leaves borrowing, either between languages or from some external source. This is confirmed by the early appearance of the term in Austronesian subgroups in the region. Map 15 — Reflexes of muku in Austronesian and Papuan languages. This map presents 36 languages, 31 Austronesian and 5 Papuan languages with synchronic metathesis.

The greatest concentration of metathesising languages lies in the islands just east of Timor. From here, the feature continues north and west, occurring sporadically in the languages of Tanimbar see Selaru data in example 26 and Babar as well as western and central Timor see Helong data in example 29 and Alor. Metathesis outliers are also found scattered through Austronesian languages in the islands to the east of New Guinea, and in several languages of Formosa and the Philippines. Due to its areally limited appearance within Wallacea, metathesis is certainly the weakest feature of Linguistic Wallacea in this characterisation.

Nonetheless, it can legitimately be regarded as a circum-Timor areal feature due to the density of its occurrences and the fact that it crosses the Papuan-Austronesian divide. In no other region of Austronesia and Melanesia do we find anything like the concentration of metathesising languages as in southeast Wallacea, nor do we find any other region in which Papuan and Austronesian languages both show the feature.

In fact, the closest common ancestor that Mambae shares with other metathesising languages is Central-Malayo-Polynesian if we accept the existence of this node.

Van den Heuvel 2006

This means that we would need to reconstruct metathesis as a productive process back to PCMP, including the very many languages of Maluku and from Flores to Sumbawa that show no trace of this process having been in effect. Similarly, here inheritance cannot be used to explain the scattered appearance of metathesis, as the languages display distinct patterns.

Compare the following. This area, whilst contained within the western extremity of the Melanesian Linguistic Area, must be viewed as a distinctive area in its own right in which proximal Austronesian and Papuan languages share a set of distinctive properties in common to the exclusion of neighbouring regions to the west and east.

Structural Characteristics

At the peripheries are Flores and Sumba in the south and Halmahera and Cenderawasih Bay in the north. The extent of Linguistic Wallacea thus closely corresponds to the modern dispersal of Papuan outliers around western New Guinea and speaks to them as the origin of the area. This point shall be discussed further in what follows. Map 17 — Linguistic features viewed together within Wallacea. Neuter gender is similarly marked because gender is not a typical feature of either Papuan or Austronesian languages.

Finally, in the case of muku, the sheer concentration of lookalikes in such a circumscribed area speaks against chance similarity. Still, it could be speculated that the Wallacean features were copied from a long dead Papuan language into an ancestral Austronesian language from which all modern Austronesian languages in Wallacea descend. However, this scenario still would not explain what we observe among the Austronesian languages. Firstly, given that the postulated CEMP and CMP subgroups of the Austronesian tree are disputed, it is tenuous to say that all the Austronesian languages in the region belong to a single subgroup.

Secondly, the differential appearance of Wallacean features makes a purely genetic explanation for them highly problematic.

More on Papuan Languages

Moreover, the diverse forms that the features take make it impossible to reconstruct the features back to a single proto-language of the Austronesian tree. Borrowing fits the pattern of erratic diffusion that Wallacean features have in the Austronesian languages of the area. That the features often, as we have seen, appear to have some antiquity within small, low-level subgroupings of Austronesian languages, points to early adoption into the Austronesian languages from a Papuan substrate s present over the Wallacean area. Some Wallacean features reconstruct to the proto-languages of some Papuan groups in the region.

This early presence means that the features cannot have been transferred from Papuan to Papuan group by Austronesian languages, as the breakup of the Papuan families most likely predates the Austronesian arrival. So how did features become shared across Papuan groups at the peripheries of Wallacea, when they are broken up by intervening Austronesian groups?

Austronesian Speaking Countries & Territories

The problem with this is it does not accord with the conventional understanding of the prehistory of the region which, according to Bellwood , , and traditionally adopted by others was home only to sparse populations of simple hunter-gatherers prior to their being overwhelmed by expanding groups of farming Austronesians. The Wallacean linguistic area extends over a large archipelago of islands and thus can only have come into existence in the presence of a pre-Austronesian maritime culture connecting disparate speaker groups. That means that if Wallacea did exist as a pre-Austronesian maritime culture, we should also find it reflected in the archaeological record.

And indeed, whilst the traditional large-scale models of Island Southeast Asia have not been sensitive to it, archaeological work within Wallacea has increasingly eschewed the pre-Austronesian stereotype; the Papuan late Pleistocene is no longer viewed as necessarily a time of stasis in which economically simple hunter-gatherers were sparsely spread in contrast to the Austronesian Holocene as the time of rapid agriculturalization and technological change.


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  • The language, its speakers and their environment;

Instead archaeology is progressively bearing out the conclusions we have drawn from the histories embedded in the languages of Wallacea. Long-distance connections in the pre-Austronesian period are also strongly indicated by shared rock art designs across Wallacea. Obsidian transfers beginning from BP into Timor from elsewhere in Island Southeast Asia further witness the existence of inter-island trading networks before the Austronesian arrival in the region Ambrose et al. In Timor there are signs of domesticated taro Colocasia esculenta cultivation from BP Oliveira In linguistic terms as in biogeography, Wallacea lies at the crossroads of the Austronesian and Melanesian worlds, with its languages showing progressively more Melanesian features the closer to New Guinea they are spoken.

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  • Papuan languages.
  • Biak language.

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Biak : description of an Austronesian language of Papua Biak : description of an Austronesian language of Papua
Biak : description of an Austronesian language of Papua Biak : description of an Austronesian language of Papua
Biak : description of an Austronesian language of Papua Biak : description of an Austronesian language of Papua
Biak : description of an Austronesian language of Papua Biak : description of an Austronesian language of Papua
Biak : description of an Austronesian language of Papua Biak : description of an Austronesian language of Papua
Biak : description of an Austronesian language of Papua Biak : description of an Austronesian language of Papua
Biak : description of an Austronesian language of Papua Biak : description of an Austronesian language of Papua

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