About a dozen years ago, I had a chance to review for Oceanic Linguistics an interesting M.A. thesis by John Bowden (now a professor at ANU) that was published under the title, Behind the preposition: Grammaticalisation of locatives in Oceanic languages (Pacific Linguistics, 1992). The thesis was inspired by a 1989 work by Bernd Heine’s on adpositions (prepositions and postpositions) in African languages. Here are few things that struck me.
Heine examined sources for African locatives in five categories, ON, UNDER, IN, FRONT, BACK, to which Bowden added SEA, LAND, and OUT for Oceanic languages. In both Africa and Oceania, body-part nouns provide the most common sources for locatives in the categories ON, IN, FRONT, and BACK, whereas landmark nouns (‘earth’, ‘soil’, ‘shadow’) predominate for UNDER. As might be expected, landmark nouns also predominate for SEA and LAND locatives in Oceania. The exceptional cases are instructive. For instance, in both Africa and Oceania, ‘head’ is the most common source (‘sky’ is next) for ON, while ‘face’ is the most common source for FRONT. But among some quadruped-herding populations in Africa, FRONT derives from ‘head’, while ON derives from ‘back’. Similarly, the directionals SEA(SIDE) and LAND(SIDE) nearly everywhere in Oceania derive from ‘sea, shore’ and ‘land, earth’, respectively. But among the atoll-dwelling Pukapukans and Rarotongans, the opposition comparable to SEA vs. LAND is rendered more like outside (< ‘back’, a body-part term) vs. inside (< IN, a locative reconstructible for Proto-Polynesian). I should add here that this is not only true of atolls. In two coastal languages of New Guinea, Jabêm (listed in Bowden’s sample) and Numbami, the body-part term ‘backside’ also means the outside, seaside, or windward side of an offshore island (Ja. dêmôê, Nu. dume), while ‘inside’ means the lee side facing the mainland (Ja. lêlôm, Nu. awa). Numbami also has three different words for ‘inside’: lalo, awa (< ‘mouth, hole’), and ketu (< ‘egg’). The last shows a semantic extension unattested in Bowden’s sample. The most common sources for IN are (in order): ‘tooth’, ‘belly’, ‘heart’, ‘liver’, ‘bowels’. Among the few verbal sources for Oceanic locatives are ‘precede’ (> FRONT), ‘follow’ (> BACK), and ‘exceed’ (> ON (TOP) or FRONT), none of them very surprising. Bowden alludes to a more interesting development in a footnote: locatives that come full cycle and yield euphemistic terms for body parts (‘down below’, ‘inside’, ‘backside’, etc.).