Causative Makeovers in New Guinea Oceanic Languages, 1

In contrast to Austronesian languages almost everywhere else, the Oceanic languages on the north coast of the Papua New Guinea mainland show an unusual disinclination to make use of the morphological causative inherited from Proto-Oceanic and Proto-Austronesian. Innovative causatives derived from causative serial constructions appear to have supplanted to varying degrees the inherited prefix *pa(ka)-. Part 1 (here) summarizes the dethroning of the inherited prefix. Part 2 outlines the replacement pattern of serial causatives. Part 3 suggests reasons for preferring the serial causatives.

The morphological causative supplanted

Both in Oceanic languages and in Austronesian languages more generally, the causative prefix is ubiquitous. In virtually any grammatical description of a Philippine language one can find mention of a pa- causative affix. Pa- causatives also occur in all the aboriginal (Austronesian) languages of Formosa, and even in distant Malagasy. The causative prefix is also well attested in Oceanic languages. In fact, it is one of the prefixes most characteristic of Oceanic languages. In Pawley’s (1972) grammatical comparison of Eastern Oceanic languages, it is the first verbal prefix listed and also the best attested—all but one of the 31 languages compared show an appropriate reflex. The same is true of Codrington’s (1885:183–184) table of verbal prefixes in 32 Melanesian languages. (The two lists overlap by about 50 percent. Only Ambrym lacks the prefix in Codrington’s list; only Tasiko lacks it in Pawley’s.) A sample of Austronesian causative constructions follows.


RUKAI, Formosa
‘a-‘acay kuani taraalu‘ sa babuy
cause-die that hunter ART boar
‘that hunter killed a boar’

ILOKANO, the Philippines
im-pa-kan na diay baboy
GOAL-cause-eat 3S that pig
‘he fed the pig’

MALAGASY, Madagascar
n-amp-anasa ny lamba aho
PAST-cause-wash the clothes 1S
‘I had the clothes washed’

ROVIANA, the Solomon Islands
va-mate-a sa si keke boko pa inevana
cause-die-3S 3S PRT a pig for feast
‘he killed a pig for the feast’

eratou vaka-mate-a na vuaka
3P cause-die-3S ART pig
‘they killed the pig’

HAWAIIAN, the Hawaiian Islands
ho‘o-make lākou i ka pua‘a
cause-die 3P OBJ the pig
‘they killed the pig’

The widespread occurrence of the prefix in most Eastern Oceanic languages is matched by a widespread multiplicity of function. Pawley (1972:45) notes three common functions of the prefix in the languages supporting his reconstruction of *paka- for Eastern Oceanic: causative (‘causing/allowing …’); multiplicative (‘repeatedly/extensively …’); and similative (‘resembling/characteristic of …’; as in Fa‘asamoa). The prefix is so productive in Polynesian and Fijian languages that Churchward’s (1959) Tongan dictionary, for instance, has 112 pages of words beginning with faka-, the Tongan form of the prefix.

In the Papua New Guinea languages with reflexes of the serial causative, on the other hand, the prefix has markedly diminished in function and in some cases disappeared altogether.

The Manam reflex of *paka- is aka-/a‘a-. It only serves to derive transitives from a limited number of statives and psychological verbs (Lichtenberk 1983:217).

The reflex of the morphological causative in Gedaged and its congeners is variously pa-, pe-, pi-, or pu-. Mager (1952:233) defines it as “a petrified prefix” and says:

It is not always clear when this prefix (and its variants) is a prefix and when it is a reduplication or a part of the root. Some times we can discern that it is a causative prefix, at times it expresses intensification, or it gives the word an opposite meaning.

In Gitua, the reflexes of causative *pa(ka)- and reciprocal *paRi have fallen together as pa-. (Lincoln 1977:24). Pa- can indicate reciprocal or multiple action, but its causative function has been almost entirely displaced by serial causative constructions. Thus, pa-mate (lit. ‘to cause to die’) only means ‘to extinguish (fire)’. The serial causative is required to render the literal sense of ‘to kill’.

The causative prefix appears completely lost elsewhere in Morobe Province. I have been able to find no evidence of it in the Huon Gulf languages.

The Papuan Tip languages show a proliferation of causative prefixes. Reflexes of causative *pa(ka)- are well attested but are not always easy to tell—either semantically or phonologically—from the reflexes of reciprocal *paRi- (Capell 1943:113, 237–242). Other causative prefixes have arisen due to the near-total semantic bleaching of some of the classificatory prefixes (see the compilation in Ezard 1992:238-248). The prefixes, which—as transitive action verbs—used to describe the manner in which the result was achieved, now indicate little more than that the result was achieved. Capell used the vague gloss ‘assumption of state’ for such prefixes. The new causative prefixes now perform functions often identical to the functions of the inherited causative prefix. The same is true of many manner-transitive verbs in the languages that retain Verb-Object word order. A comparison of some morphologically causative verbs in Hawaiian (Pukui and Elbert 1986) with analogous new causative constructions in Papua New Guinea Oceanic languages will illustrate the way in which transitive action verbs have taken on the functions of the morphological causative inherited from Proto-Oceanic. The usual Hawaiian reflex of *paka is ho‘o-.

HAWAIIAN ho‘o-hana (‘make-work’) ‘to employ, cause to work’
WEDAU rau-karäi (*‘hit-work’) ‘to set (s.o.) to work’

HAWAIIAN ho‘o-helele‘i (‘make-falling’) ‘to scatter, sow’
WEDAU ravi-awawari (‘*hit-falling’) ‘to sow broadcast’

HAWAIIAN ho‘o-hua (‘make-fruit’) ‘to bear fruit’
NUMBAMI -ambi ano (‘hold-fruit’) ‘to bear fruit’

HAWAIIAN ho‘o-huli (‘make-turn over’) ‘to turn, change, convert’
IWAL -amb nalili (‘hold-turned around’) ‘to turn (s.t.) around’

HAWAIIAN ho‘o-loli (‘make-turn/change’) ‘to change, amend’
NUMBAMI -ambi lele (‘hold-turned’) ‘to translate’

HAWAIIAN ho‘o-luli (‘make-shake’) ‘to rock (so); to sway’
WEDAU ravi-dagudagu (‘*hit-restless’) ‘to shake, disturb’

HAWAIIAN ho‘o-make (‘make-die’) ‘to kill, let die’
MANAM rau-mate (‘hit-die’) ‘to kill’

HAWAIIAN ho‘o-piha (‘make-full’) ‘to fill’
TUBETUBE ro-karapowani (‘*hit-full’) ‘to fill’

HAWAIIAN ho‘o-pi‘i (‘make-ascend’) ‘to cause to rise’
GEDAGED bi-sa (‘hold-ascend’) ‘to lift up, raise’

HAWAIIAN ho‘o-puka (‘make-perforation’) ‘to make a hole or opening’
NUMBAMI -so bozoka (‘stab-pierced through’) ‘to make a hole or opening’


Capell, Arthur. 1943. The linguistic position of South-Eastern Papua. Sydney, Australasian Medical Publishing.

Churchward, C. Maxwell. 1959. Tongan dictionary. London, Oxford University Press.

Codrington, Robert. 1885/1974. The Melanesian languages. Oxford, Clarendon Press. Reprint. Amsterdam, Philo Press.

Ezard, Bryan. 1992. Tawala derivational prefixes: A semantic perspective. In: M. D. Ross, ed., Papers in Austronesian linguistics no. 2. Canberra, Pacific Linguistics.

Lichtenberk, Frantisek. 1983. A grammar of Manam. Oceanic Linguistics Special Publication No. 18. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.

Lincoln, Peter C. 1977. Gitua–English vocabulary. Photocopy.

Mager, John F. 1952. Gedaged–English dictionary. Columbus, Ohio, The American Lutheran Church Board of Foreign Missions.

Pawley, Andrew K. 1972. On the internal relationships of Eastern Oceanic languages. In: R. C. Green and M. Kelly, eds., Studies in Oceanic culture history, vol. 3, pp. 1–142. Honolulu, Department of Anthropology, Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Samuel H. Elbert. 1986. Hawaiian dictionary: Hawaiian–English, English–Hawaiian, rev. and enl. ed. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.



Filed under Fiji, language, Pacific, Papua New Guinea, Polynesia

2 responses to “Causative Makeovers in New Guinea Oceanic Languages, 1

  1. Pingback: Causative Makeovers in New Guinea Oceanic Languages, 2 « Far Outliers

  2. Pingback: Causative Makeovers in New Guinea Oceanic Languages, 3 « Far Outliers

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