Early Research on New Guinea-area Preposed Genitives

In my dissertation on word-order change in the Austronesian languages of New Guinea, I reviewed some of the earliest published typological research in the area. Here is a glimpse of what obsessed some of the earliest European researchers.

Over most of the territory occupied by Austronesian (AN) languages, genitive (or “possessor”) nominals (= GEN) follow head (or “possessed”) nominals (= N) in noun–noun genitive constructions. However, the reverse order (GEN + N) prevails in the neighborhood of New Guinea and nearby islands of Indonesia (from Sulawesi and Flores east). The distinctive “preposition of the genitive” in the AN languages of the latter area engendered much discussion by European scientists during the earliest era of their work in the area, when hardly any other syntactic information was available.

Various explanations were offered. Kanski and Kasprusch (1931) reviewed some of these explanations and concluded that the preposed genitive most likely resulted from the influence of Papuan languages, which also have preposed genitives and which share a very similar geographical range. This still seems the most likely explanation, although it remains a mystery why the preposed genitive has a wider distribution than any of the other grammatical features attributed to Papuan influence.

Even leaving Papuan influence aside, however, the narrower and contiguous geographical distribution of the preposed genitive, when compared with the unrestricted distribution of the postposed genitive, suggests that the former is innovative and originated somewhere in “extreme eastern Indonesia” (Blust 1974:12). (Genitives may have been optionally preposed in Proto-Austronesian, as they are in many Philippine languages. This would have made it easier for preposed genitives to become the dominant pattern in New Guinea-area Austronesian languages.)

The boundary between languages with preposed genitives and those with postposed genitives forms a wide arc running to the west, north, and east of the island of New Guinea. The southwest-to-northwest portion of this arc is frequently referred to as the “Brandes line” (after Brandes 1884), and the northwest-to-southeast portion has been called the “line of Friederici” (after Friederici 1913). (See, for example, Kanski and Kasprusch 1931, Cowan 1952).

The Brandes line was first assumed to be a genetic boundary (a linguistic analog of the Wallace Line perhaps). However, there was some disagreement about which genetic units it separated. Brandes (1884) himself thought it set off two groups of Indonesian languages. Jonker (1914) argued that two such Indonesian subgroups could not be distinguished. Schmidt (1926) thought the Brandes line marked the border between Indonesian and Melanesian languages.

(Brandes and Jonker were more familiar with the languages of Indonesia and were impressed with how similar in other respects the languages with preposed genitives were to Indonesian languages in general. Schmidt was more familiar with Melanesian languages and was impressed with how similar the genitive-preposing languages were to Melanesian languages in general. See Kanski and Kasprusch 1931:884.)

Kanski and Kasprusch (1931) offered a compromise. They identified four groups of languages:

    1. Indonesian, west of the Brandes line
    2. Papuan-influenced Indonesian, east of the Brandes line
    3. Papuan-influenced Melanesian, west of Friederici’s line
    4. Melanesian, east of Friederici’s line

Like Kanski and Kasprusch (and Jonker), most scholars today would not consider genitive word order to be a valid criterion for subgrouping. Another feature of genitive constructions was put forth as a better basis for distinguishing Indonesian from Melanesian languages. In western Austronesian (“Indonesian”) languages, genitive pronouns can be suffixed (or encliticized) to all nouns. In eastern Austronesian (“Melanesian”) languages, genitive pronouns can be suffixed directly to nouns only in case the possessed entity is an inalienable relationship to the possessor. In practice, this means that most body-part and kin terms are directly suffixed. Most other nouns are not. Instead, head nouns (denoting possessed entities) in constructions expressing an alienable relationship are preceded by genitive pronouns.

Schmidt (1926:424) and Kanski and Kasprusch (1931:889) regarded the influence of Papuan languages as responsible for the origin of the grammatical distinction between alienable and inalienable possession in eastern Austronesian languages as a whole. Under Papuan influence, they argued, the AN languages in transition from Indonesia to Melanesia began to lose their original postposed genitives and to acquire preposed ones. Nouns denoting alienables formed the vanguard of this change. Nouns denoting inalienables, such as body parts and kin terms (which involve animate—usually human—possessors, one could add), were slower to lose the original genitive pronouns because reference to an inalienable almost always requires reference to a possessor as well. The inalienables retained their postposed pronouns long enough for the latter to become an integral part of the noun itself. The general change was thus arrested, with inalienables forming a relic category.

One major weakness of this hypothesis is that it ignores the distinction between pronominal and nominal genitives. In eastern AN languages generally, it may be more common for independent genitive pronouns to precede head nominals in cases of alienable possession. (There is considerable variation.) In all but the more narrowly defined “Papuan-influenced” languages, however, genitive nominals follow head nominals (N + GEN), whether or not alienable possession is involved. This hypothesis, then, leads one to the false expectation that genitive nominals precede head nominals in all languages in which the alienable–inalienable distinction exists.

The alienable–inalienable distinction is reconstructible for Proto-Oceanic (Pawley 1973:153–169), the ancestor of most of the languages of eastern Austronesia. However, it is not unique to that group. It also occurs in many languages of eastern Indonesia that are not daughters of Proto-Oceanic (Collins 1980:39 ff., Stresemann 1927:6). So even the presence or absence of the alienable–inalienable distinction does not adequately indicate genetic affiliation.

The traditional recognition of differences between “Indonesian” and “Melanesian” languages is now generally phrased in terms of “Oceanic” and “non-Oceanic” languages. The former term denotes what is generally recognized as a genetic unit (primarily on the basis of phonological criteria). The negative term “non-Oceanic” lumps together all other AN languages without implying that they form a single genetic unit. The boundary between the two groups of languages distinguished by the new phraseology has also shifted somewhat farther to the east since the time of Brandes, Schmidt, and Friederici. The new boundary, which in an earlier era would have been called “Grace’s line” (after Grace 1955:338, 1971:31), is assumed to have a firmer genetic basis than the two earlier boundaries. Grace’s line, separating Oceanic from non-Oceanic languages, runs north-northeast to south-southwest, intersecting 140° E longitude between New Guinea and Micronesia. The scope of this thesis is restricted to the AN languages west of Friederici’s line and east of Grace’s line. These languages can be characterized as “Papuan-influenced Oceanic.” However, before restricting discussion to these languages, it will be helpful to review the various boundaries and the nature of the groups of languages they set apart.

The Brandes line marks the western boundary of a group of languages with innovative genitive word order. This group of typologically similar, but genetically not so closely related, languages is bounded on the east by Friederici’s line. Somewhere east of the Brandes line is the western boundary of a group of languages showing an innovative grammatical distinction between alienable and inalienable genitives. Most of these languages are members of the Oceanic subgroup, a genetic unit, but the westernmost languages are not. East of this boundary lies Grace’s line, the western boundary of the Oceanic subgroup. The eastern boundary of the Oceanic subgroup, and of all AN languages showing the alienable–inalienable distinction, is the eastern border of Austronesian as a whole (east of Easter Island). (I am assuming that the distinction between a and o genitives in Polynesian can be considered somewhat akin, semantically but not structurally, to the alienable–inalienable distinction in the rest of Oceanic.)


Blust, Robert A. 1974. Proto-Austronesian syntax: The first step. Oceanic Linguistics 13:1–15.

Brandes, Jan Lourens Andries. 1884. Bijdrage tot de vergelijkende Klankleer der westersche Afdeeling van de Maleisch-Polynesische Taalfamilie. Utrecht, P.W. van der Weijer. 184 pp.

Collins, James. 1980. The historical relationships of the languages of Central Maluku, Indonesia. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago.

Cowan, H. K. J. 1951–1952. Genitief-constructie en Melanesische talen. Indonesië 5:307–313.

Friederici, Georg. 1912. Wissenschaftliche Ergebnisse einer amtlichen Forschungsreise nach dem Bismarck-Archipel im Jahre 1908, vol. 2, Beiträge zur Völker und Sprachenkunde von Deutsch-Neuguinea. Mitteilungen aus den Deutschen Schutzgebieten, Ergänzungsheft 5. Berlin, Mittler und Sohn.

Friederici, Georg. 1913. Wissenschaftliche Ergebnisse einer amtlichen Forschungsreise nach dem Bismarck-Archipel im Jahre 1908, vol. 3, Untersuchungen über eine melanesische Wanderstrasse. Mitteilungen aus den Deutschen Schutzgebieten, Ergänzungsheft 7. Berlin, Mittler und Sohn.

Grace, George W. 1955. Subgrouping Malayo-Polynesian: A report of tentative findings. American Anthropologist 57:337–339.

Grace, George W. 1971. Notes on the phonological history of the Austronesian languages of the Sarmi coast. Oceanic Linguistics 10:11–37.

Jonker, J. C. G. 1914. Kan men bij de talen van den Indischen Archipel eene westelijke en eene oostlijke afdeeling onderscheiden? Mededeelingen der Koninklijk Akademie van Wetenschappen, afdeeling Letterkunde, 4e Reeks, deel 12, pp. 314–417.

Kanski, P., and P. Kasprusch. 1931. Die indonesisch melanesischen Übergangssprachen auf den Kleinen Molukken. Anthropos 26:883–890.

Klaffl, Johanne, and Friederich Vormann. 1905. Die Sprachen des Berlinhafen-Bezirks in Deutsch-Neuguinea. Mitteilungen des Seminars für Orientalische Sprachen 8:1–138. (With additions by Wilhelm Schmidt.)

Pawley, Andrew K. 1973. Some problems in Proto-Oceanic grammar. Oceanic Linguistics 12:103–188.

Schmidt, Wilhelm. 1900, 1902. Die sprachlichen Verhältnisse von Deutsch Neuguinea. Zeitschrift für afrikanische und oceanische Sprachen 5(1900):354–384; 6(1902):1–99.

Schmidt, Wilhelm. 1926. Die Sprachfamilien und Sprachenkreise der Erde. Heidelberg, C. Winter. 595 pp.

Stresemann, Erwin. 1927. Die lauterscheinungen in den ambonischen Sprachen. Zeitschrift für Eingeborenensprachen, Beiheft 10. Berlin, Reimer. 224 pp.


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