Bound Nominal Elements in Aiwoo (Reefs): A Reappraisal of the "Multiple Noun Class Systems"

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The little-described Reefs-Santa Cruz (RSC) languages are usually assumed to be of mixed Papuan-Austronesian origin, though attempts at linking them systematically either to known Papuan or Austronesian languages have yielded meager results. One of the main arguments in the literature for the presence of "Papuan structures" in the RSC languages has been the claim that the languages have complex systems of noun classes, described in any detail only for the largest RSC language, Reefs or Aiwoo. This paper examines the claim that Aiwoo has one or more noun class systems, based on fieldwork material. It draws two main conclusions: First, the phenomena in question cannot be felicitously analyzed as noun classes in the usual sense of the term, and bear no obvious resemblance to the Papuan-style gender systems to which they have been compared. Rather, they are bound nominal elements of which some have a mainly nominalizing function, whereas others show characteristic properties of classifiers or class terms. Second, there is little or no evidence that the presence of these elements in the language indicates a non-Austronesian origin or influence. On the contrary, the classifier or class-term system, in fact, has obvious parallels in a number of Oceanic languages of Vanuatu. While this does not entail any conclusions about the genetic status of Aiwoo, or of RSC in general, it is clear that the so-called noun classes do not constitute evidence of a Papuan link.

1. INTRODUCTION. The Aiwoo language of the Reef Islands has a large number of bound morphemes of a basically nominal nature that perform a number of different though partly overlapping functions in the language. These morphemes have previously been described as "noun class markers" (Wunn 1981a, 1987, 1991, 1992), and are argued to constitute a "Papuan feature" of the language.

In this paper, the evidence that Aiwoo has noun classes will be reassessed on the basis of new material collected through fieldwork. The paper has two main parts. The first describes in detail the function and distribution of what I call "bound nominal elements," which correspond to a large extent to the forms labeled "class markers" in Wunn (1981a). The second part of the paper then examines, on the basis of this description, the claim that these elements constitute one or more "noun class systems," and that these systems are evidence of a non-Austronesian origin of the language. It argues that while Aiwoo has what may be described as a system of nominal classifiers, it does not have anything resembling a noun class system in a strict sense. Furthermore, although some of the bound nominal elements show a certain functional similarity to systems of nominalizing affixes found in some Papuan languages (section 7), others show clear links to structures found in Oceanic languages of Vanuatu; thus the evidence for a Papuan rather than Austronesian origin of the bound nominal elements is extremely slim.

2. THE Al WOO LANGUAGE (1)

2.1 LANGUAGE SITUATION, SPEAKERS, AND DATA. The "Reefs" or Aiwoo language is spoken in the Reef Islands of Temotu Province, Solomon Islands, as well as in some villages on Santa Cruz to the south of the Reefs, and in some recently established communities in the national capital Honiara. Together with the languages of Santa Cruz, it is taken to form the "Reefs-Santa Cruz" (RSC) group, given status as a subphylum-level family of the East Papuan Phylum in Wunn (1982). It should be noted, however, that the existence of an East Papuan Phylum, and particularly the inclusion of the RSC languages in this group, is controversial (Ross 2001; Dunn, Reesink, and Terrill 2002). Aiwoo is the largest of the RSC languages with probably some 8,000 speakers, and locals suggest that it is in fact in the process of replacing Nagu, the smallest of the Santa Cruz languages, through extensive intermarriage.

The present paper is based on approximately five months of fieldwork with Aiwoo speakers in Honiara and the Reef Islands, distributed over three visits in 2004-05. …