A Rainbow of Shared Diversity: Culture and Language in the South Pacific

A Rainbow of Shared Diversity: Culture and Language in the South Pacific

When we think of life in the South Pacific we often imagine relaxing in the shade of a coconut palm listening to the soothing sound of Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s ‘over the rainbow’ (the official song of this blog post and mandatory listening!). But the South Pacific is in fact culturally diverse, and linguistically too, with around 600 languages in the Oceanic family spread across Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia.

The original migration of the Oceanic speaking people started around 1600 BC from the north east of New Guinea and they went on to colonise the uninhabited islands of the Pacific Ocean, with New Zealand being the last country to be inhabited by Polynesian seafarers as late as 1285 CE. The vast distances have created huge cultural differences amongst contemporary Oceanic peoples, yet they all speak languages that stem from Proto-Oceanic – the ancestral language of all of Oceania. For example, the Polynesians are famed for their ability to cross vast swathes of Ocean by using star charts made out of sticks, whereas the Melanesians were not great seafarers. However all Oceanic peoples share similar horticultural practices of cultivating yam and taro root crops, which form the basis of an Oceanic diet.

The enormous cultural diversity amongst the Oceanic speaking people has led to widespread variation in the languages spoken in the South Pacific. In particular we can see the cultural influence on the various languages in how they encode possessive relationships in the language. In the most basic way, an Oceanic language makes a difference in the way it treats alienable and inalienable possessions. We’re not talking UFOs here! Inalienable possessions are those that have an inherent connection with the person to whom they belong – such as body parts or members of the family. Alienable possessions are items that can easily be transferred from one owner to another, such as food, baskets, or other household items.

In Port Sandwich, a language spoken in Vanuatu, possessions that are considered inalienable often have a suffix that encodes the possessor (my, your, his/her) directly attached to the possessed noun

(1)    naru-ngg
‘my son’

Whereas when speaking about sandwiches (and all other alienable possessions) in Port Sandwich, encoding is indirect. The possessor suffix is not able to attach directly to the possessed noun, but instead must attach to a separate marker of possession:

(2)    sanwis        isa-ngg
sandwich        POSS.MARKER-my
‘my sandwich’

Sandwiches aside, in many Oceanic languages this indirect construction that is used for alienable possessions has expanded to include various different semantic types of possession. Languages have separate possessive markers, often called classifiers. Many languages have a three-way split, such as in the language Wuvulu (spoken in the Western Islands off the north coast of Papua New Guinea), for possessions that are eaten, drunk or everything else:

3a. ana-u  niu                      b. numa-mu       upu                         c. ape-muponata
FOOD-my       fish.                DRINK-your  coconut                  GENERAL-your dog
‘my fish (to eat)’                     ‘your coconut (to drink)’             ‘your dog (as a pet)’

Some languages make even more semantic distinctions between alienable items. These classifiers often encode culturally important semantic distinctions. Vera’a, spoken in northern Vanuatu, has eight different possessive classifiers: food, drinks, canoes, houses, beds and mats, prized possessions, long-term possessions, and one for everything else. The Micronesian languages have the largest inventory of classifiers in Oceanic. The Chuuk language has developed thirty-five distinct classifiers, yes, thirty-five! Several of which are used to categorise different types of edible possessions. For example, there is a classifier for cooked food, one for raw food, one for leftover food, and even one that is used with food taken on a journey – great for classifying take-away food!

The yéméti classifier in the Chuuk language for food for a journey is great for take-away pizza, whereas the nikita classifier could be used the day after when you want to eat the leftover pizza – if there is any!

In other languages, speakers are able to create new classifiers when they need to on an ad-hoc basis. This mechanism is particularly prevalent in the languages of Micronesia and New Caledonia. Nêlêmwa, spoken in New Caledonia, can create new classifiers by repeating the possessed noun and adding a suffix to show the possessor, for example mwa ‘house’ (4a) can have the possessor suffix attached (4b), but if a speaker adds an adjective then the possessed noun must be repeated and the directly possessed noun functions as a classifier (4c). In this way a speaker of Nêlêmwa can create new classifiers whenever the need arises.

4a. mwa                        b. mwa-n                    c. mwa-n mwa     doo
house                           house-his                     house-his         house   earth
house                           ‘his house’                    ‘his earth-house’

Though cultural diversity plays a role in the formation of classifiers that are unique to particular languages in the Pacific, there is a commonality among classifiers, and languages that are located far apart often have classifiers that encode similar semantics, which means that though culturally diverse, some important cultural aspects are shared across the Oceanic peoples. For example, many of the Micronesian languages have developed classifiers for beds, mats and pillows. But the language of Vera’a spoken in Northern Vanuatu (over 2500 kilometers away) has also developed a classifier for sleep-related possessions. Similarly, classifiers for domesticated animals have developed in the languages of Micronesia, in Mussau and Seimat (both spoken on the offshore islands of Papua New Guinea), and in Nêlêmwa and Iaai, spoken in New Caledonia. The words used for these classifiers can’t be traced back to a single historical root, which means that these are sporadic innovations in these languages and point to the shared cultural life of the Oceanic peoples.

Just as speakers of different languages can name varying numbers of colours in a rainbow, with Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s mother tongue Hawaiian distinguishing six colours in contrast to English’s seven, speakers of Oceanic languages differ in the number of ways of categorising their possessions.

Optimal Categorisation: How do we categorise the world around us?

Optimal Categorisation: How do we categorise the world around us?

People love to categorise! We do this on a daily basis, consciously and subconsciously. When we are confronted with something new we try and figure out what it is by comparing it to something we already know. Say, for instance, I saw something flying through the air – I may think to myself that the object is a bird, or I may say it is a plane based on my previous experiences of birds and planes. Of course the object may turn out to be something completely new, perhaps even superman!

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it’s Superman!

Our love of classification runs deep in scientific enquiry. Botanists and zoologists classify plants and animals into different taxonomies. Even the humble linguist loves to classify – is this new word a noun or a verb? What about the new word zoodle that was recently added to the Merrriam Webster dctionary? Is it a thing? Or an action? Can I zoodle something or is it something I can pick up and touch? Well apparently zoodle is a noun which means ‘a long, thin strip of zucchini that resembles a string or narrow ribbon of pasta’. To be honest, I love eating zoodles, though until now I never knew what they were called!

The way people classify entities around them has become encoded in the different languages we speak in many different ways. The most obvious example that springs to mind is when we learn a new language, like French or German, we are confronted with a grammatical gender system. French has two genders – Masculine and Feminine. But German has three – Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Other languages can have many more gender distinctions. Fula, a language spoken in west and central Africa, has twenty different gender categories!

So what exactly are grammatical gender systems and how are they realised in different languages? Gender systems categorise nouns into different groups and tend to appear not on the noun itself, but on other elements in the phrase. In German, nouns are split into three different gender categories – masculine, feminine and neuter. The gender of a noun is shown by using different articles (the word ‘the’ or ‘a’) and sometimes by changing the ending of an adjective, but never on the noun itself. Thus the word for ‘the’ in German is either der, die or das depending on whether the noun in the phrase is masculine, feminine or neuter.

(1)        der       Mann
              the       man

(2)        die        Frau
              the       woman

(3)        das       Haus
              the       house

This is called ‘agreement’ as the adjectives and articles must agree with the gender of the noun. In a language with gender, each noun typically can only occur in one gender category.

Not every language has a grammatical gender system, but they are highly pervasive, with around 40% of all languages having such a system. English is quite a poor example when it comes to gender. There is no real gender agreement in English, with the exception of pronouns. We have to say: Bill walked into the grocers. He bought some apples. Where the pronoun he must agree with the gender of the noun that was previously mentioned. English uses he, she and it as the only markers of gender agreement.

Languages behave differently in how they allocate nouns to the different genders, which can be very baffling for language learners! Why in French is chair feminine, la chaise, but in German it is masculine, der Stuhl? How a language allocates nouns to its gender categories can seem somewhat arbitrary – with the exception of the words for women and men, which fall into the feminine and masculine genders being the only semantically obvious choices.

But wait! If you thought the English gender system was dull, think again! A couple of months ago my piano was being restored and when it was being moved back into the lounge the piano movers kept saying: “pull her a little bit more” and “turn her this way”. The movers used the female pronouns to describe the piano. In English, countries, pianos, ships and sometimes even cars use the feminine pronouns.

Grammatical gender isn’t the only way languages classify nouns. Some languages use words called classifiers to categorise nouns. Classifiers are similar to English measure terms, which categorise the noun in terms of its quantity, such as ‘sheet of paper’ vs. ‘pack of paper’ or ‘slice of bread vs. ‘loaf of bread’. Classifiers are found in languages all over the world and are able to categorise nouns depending on the shape, size, quantity or use of the referent, e.g. ‘animal kangaroo’ (alive) vs. ‘meat kangaroo’ (not alive). Classifier systems are very different to gender systems as nouns in a language with classifiers can appear with different classifiers depending on what property of the noun you wish to highlight. There are many different types of classifier systems, but to keep things short I am just going talk about possessive classifiers, which are mainly found in the Oceanic languages, spoken in the South Pacific.

When an item is in your possession we use possessive pronouns in English to say who the item belongs to. For instance if I say ‘my coconut’ – the possessive pronoun is my. In many Oceanic languages a noun can occur with different forms for the word my depending on how the owner intends to use it. For instance the Paamese language, spoken in Vanuatu, has four possessive classifiers and I could use the ‘drinkable’ if I was talking about my coconut that I was going to drink. I would use the ‘edible’ classifier if I was going to eat my coconut. I would use the classifier for ‘land’ if I was talking about the coconut growing in my garden. Finally, I could use the ‘manipulative’ classifier if I was going to use my coconut for some other purpose – perhaps to sit on!

(4)        ani                   mak
              coconut           my.drinkable
              ‘my coconut (that I will drink)’

(5)        ani                   ak
              coconut           my.edible
              ‘my coconut (that I will eat)’

Why do languages have different ways of categorising nouns? How do these systems develop and change over time? Are gender systems easier to learn than classifier systems? Are gender and classifiers completely different systems? Or is there more similarity to them than meets the eye? These are some of the big questions in linguistics and psychology. We are excited to start a new research project at the Surrey Morphology Group, called optimal categorisation: the origin and nature of gender from a psycholinguistic perspective, that seeks to answer these fundamental questions. Over the next three years we will talk more about these fascinating categorisation systems, explain our experimental research methods, introduce the languages and speakers under investigation, and share our findings via this blog. Just look out for the ‘Optimal Categorisation’ headings!