Austronesian Voice Systems: An Eastern Indonesian Perspective

The highly complex Austronesian voice system (referred to within Austronesian studies as a focus system) has long interested researchers taking both theoretical and typological approaches to voice phenomena. Particularly striking are the large number of voice options and the unusual discourse distribution of these options, with patient oriented ones predominating, which has led to considerable discussion of the possibility of an ergative analysis (Payne 1982, Cooreman, Fox and Givón 1984, Wouk 1986, Cumming and Wouk 1987, Givón 1994, Payne 1994, Brainard 1994, Wouk 1996, Givón 1997, Brainard 1997, Wouk 1999). Equally significant is the non-demoting or ‘symmetrical’ nature of the voice alternations (where both Actor-focus and Undergoer-focus clauses are transitive), which has implications for the degree of grammatical termhood displayed by nominals in various semantic roles, and leads to a split in ‘subject properties’ and some uncertainty as to how to define subject in these languages, a fact first noted in Schachter (1976), but which has continued to attract the interest of researchers (Schachter 1984, Shibatani 1988, Guilfoyle et al. 1992, Kroeger 1993, Schachter 1996, Chung 1998, Dukes 1998, Cole and Hermon 2005a, 2005b). While some issues regarding Austronesian focus systems have been at least partly resolved by researchers working from both formal and discourse perspectives, many questions still remain. In particular, it is often unclear how the discussions from a discourse/typological perspective can be usefully related to those from a syntactic perspective. Additionally, relatively little thought has gone into the processes by which the focus system has changed over time, and what the implications of those changes might be for either formal or functional analyses of synchronic systems. A full understanding of the workings of the focus system, and of paths of change within it, will also be of great benefit to a general understanding of voice. However, one factor vitiating against a full understanding of the focus system is the limited range of Austronesian languages that have been investigated. Considerable descriptive materials exist for the languages of Taiwan, the Philippines, Guam and western Indonesia, which tend to have relatively complex voice systems, but much less work has been done on languages of eastern Indonesia, with their morphologically relatively simple systems.

While studies to date have made considerable contributions to our understanding of the focus system and related voice phenomena, that understanding is to some extent biased by the range of voice systems considered. Thus, there is still a pressing need for primary descriptive data for a systematic investigation of the Austronesian focus system. Additionally, recent significant surveys of Austronesian focus systems such as Austin, Blake, and Florey (2001), Wouk and Ross (2002) and Arka and Ross (2005) cover a highly diverse group of languages from Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other Austronesian-speaking areas. This very diversity, while highly welcome in other respects, militates against analysis, as the languages represented are too widespread for the fine-grained comparison required in observing correlative patterns that may exist among the relevant grammatical features and phenomena.

The proposed project, by focusing on languages from eastern Indonesia, joins recent converging typological and generative studies on Austronesian languages in correcting the imbalance in past research in the input data to our theorizing. Specifically, the fieldwork component of this research will gather data on underdescribed, hence underrepresented, eastern Indonesian languages—the area between Bali and Timor designated by the geographic term Nusa Tenggara, aka the Lesser Sunda Islands. This region is of interest because, while it forms a geographically well-defined contiguous archipelago, a line runs through the middle of it, dividing between two major sub-groups, Western Malayo-Polynesian and Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian. The languages of these two subgroups show respectively conservative and innovative faces of the Austronesian focus system. It is thus an area linguistically worth studying as slightly different but related focus systems coexist. The theoretical component of the study aims to examine the correlations among, and determine the degree of independence between, a number of factors such as clausal transitivity, argument liking, and discourse ergativity in the light of the gradual attrition pattern of the focus system observed across the languages of eastern Indonesia.

In this project we propose to undertake a systematic comparative study of a group of languages from the Lesser Sunda Islands. This builds on an earlier two-year project (1999-2000) on the languages of eastern Indonesia carried out by the co-PI, I Wayan Arka, and in which the present PI participated as a consultant. This project, entitled “On the Theoretical and Typological Aspects of Termhood in Eastern Indonesian Languages” and funded by the Directorate General of Higher Education of Indonesian, surveyed ten languages of both Austronesian and non-Austronesian stocks—seven Austronesian languages (Bima, Manggarai, Lio, Sikka, Lamaholot, Dawan, Tetun Fehan) and three Trans-New Guinean languages (Mauta, Kolana, Buna’). This project yielded useful initial materials and preliminary analyses of these underdescribed languages with the following extremely interesting observations: (1) the Austronesian languages of this geographic area show a clear pattern of the gradual loss of the morphology of the focus system when compared with Balinese, Sasak, and others spoken on the islands to the west (see also Wouk 2002); (2) they display language types ranging from a system rich in verbal morphology to the isolating type; and (3) some of the changes characterizing new typologies appear to be innovations made in response to the loss of the Austronesian focus morphology. The gradual attrition pattern of the Austronesian focus morphology and the varied consequences of this loss seen across the languages of the region provide us with a unique window that, we believe, affords a fresh vista on the nature of the Austronesian focus system and other voice constructions. The research proposed here, therefore, develops the observations above and brings them into further typological and theoretical focus by delving into a group of both well-studied and underdescribed Austronesian languages of eastern Indonesia.

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Last modified: January 5, 2007