Causative Makeovers in New Guinea Oceanic Languages, 2

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 summarizes the dethroning of the inherited prefix. Part 2 (here) outlines the replacement pattern of serial causatives. Part 3 suggests reasons for preferring the serial causatives.

Serial causative reflexes in New Guinea

Over 40 years ago, Milke (1965:346–347) pointed out correspondences between certain classificatory prefixes in Gedaged and certain ones in Papuan Tip languages. Such prefixes broadly classify the manner in which a result is achieved: by beating, by grabbing, by kicking, by piercing, and so forth. He proposed that the classificatory prefixes were a morphological innovation providing evidence for a New Guinea Oceanic subgroup. He was apparently unaware of the presence of identical constructions in Manam. However, Milke was hard put to find classificatory prefixes in Huon Gulf languages. If he had been looking for main verbs rather than prefixes, he would have had better luck.

There are no classificatory prefixes in Huon Gulf languages, but there are main verbs that play roles similar to those of the prefixes. And there are result verbs or resultative particles in Huon Gulf languages whose semantics resemble those of the verbs occurring with classificatory prefixes in the verb-final languages elsewhere on the northeast coast of New Guinea. Some of the morphemes involved are cognate as well.

Proto-Oceanic (POC) *taRaq ‘to hew, chop, cut into’ is virtually ubiquitous as an initial verb in serial and compound causative constructions.

Reflexes of POC *punu ‘to strike, kill, extinguish’ are universal as resultatives in the Huon Gulf languages. However, in Kairiru the reflex of *punu appears as a manner transitive. In Gedaged, it appears as either a manner or a result verb. Reflexes of *punu turn up in result position in causative compounds in Papuan Tip languages.

Capell (1943:177) reconstructs a form *tomu ‘to cut or break off’ widely reflected in Papuan Tip languages. Its reflexes appear in result position in Misima (= Panayati), Nimowa, and Sudest; and in classificatory prefix position in Suau and Iduna. In Numbami, a Huon Gulf language, tomu is a resultative meaning ‘broken off’.

POC *kabit (PAN *kampit) ‘to hold, take, snatch, carry, gather’ is widely reflected in initial position in phrasal causative and incorporated object constructions in Huon Gulf languages. Its reflexes occur in the same position in compound causative, classificatory prefix, and incorporated-object constructions in Gedaged, in Madang Province, and in Papuan Tip languages.

Reflexes of POC *mate ‘to die’ show up in Kairiru, Manam, Gedaged, and Gitua as result verbs.

Perhaps one of the most productive manner-transitive verbs is reconstructible as *rapu meaning ‘to strike, hit, beat’. It shows up as a transitive verb in Huon Gulf serial causatives and incorporated-object constructions; as the only classificatory prefix without an independent verb counterpart in Manam; and as an almost meaningless, general causative prefix in almost every Papuan Tip language. Many of the Papuan Tip languages also show a less phonologically reduced, independent verb of a similar shape with the meaning ‘to hit’.

The innovative causative constructions—no matter whether the object noun occurs before or after the verb—thus resemble each other in the semantics of the components involved, in the order in which verbal and incorporated-object components occur (VO), and, in many cases, in the shapes of the individual morphemes as well. Moreover, the two groups of innovative causatives are in complementary distribution in Papua New Guinea and both differ from the causative pattern commonly found in Oceanic languages elsewhere. These circumstances seem to invite the reconstruction of a single ancestral pattern that will account for both the VO (verb before object) and OV (object before verb) constructions.

Distributional evidence within the Austronesian language family suggests that the VO, serializing languages around the Huon Gulf are more conservative of ancestral word order than the OV languages elsewhere around the New Guinea mainland. The syntactic pattern ancestral to both the serial and compound causative constructions should thus be compatible with VO basic word order. The Huon Gulf languages already provide evidence for an SVOV pattern in which the first verb indicates a causing action and the second a result. SVOV syntax is compatible with VO basic word order and such a reconstruction will also account for the compounding pattern if we assume that the compounding languages shifted their basic word order from VO to OV after serial causative constructions were well established. (Perhaps Central Papuan languages like Motu have no classificatory prefixes because they shifted before the serial causative was well established.)

Two major changes are thus sufficient to account for the causative compounds in OV languages along the north coast of the Papua New Guinea mainland. First, SVOV serial causative constructions developed. This stage is attested in the VO languages around the Huon Gulf. The languages to the northwest and southeast then underwent a further change: they shifted from VO to OV basic word order. The SVOV causative thus became an SOVV causative. In some of the Morobe languages, which apparently never made the full shift to OV basic word order, the SVOV serial causative produced an SVOR phrasal causative when the final verbs in the construction lost their verbal status and became resultative particles. In most of the OV languages, the SOVV serial causative produced SOVV compound causative and classificatory prefix constructions. The OV languages show progressive deverbalization of the nonfinal verb in the construction. These developments are outlined below.

Reflexes of serial causatives in New Guinea Oceanic languages

* S Vt O Vi (Switch Subject) ‘they hit pig die’
* S Vt O Vt (Same Subject) ‘they hit pig kill/cause-die’

The VO languages

S V O V (Switch Subject) GITUA
ti-rap nggaya mate
3P-hit pig 3S-die

S V O Result (< Same Subject) NUMBAMI
ti-lapa bola uni
3P-hit pig dead (< ‘killed’)

The OV languages

S O V V (Switch Subject) KAIRIRU
bur rro-un-i a-myat
pig 3P-hit-3S 3S-die

S O V-V (< Same Subject) GEDAGED
boz du-punu-fun-i
pig 3P-shoot-kill-3S

S O classifier-V (< Switch Subject) MANAM
boro di-rau-mate-i
pig 3P-hit-die-3S

S O classifier-V (< Same Subject) IDUNA
bawe hi-lu-ve-‘alika-na
pig 3P-*hit-cause-die-3S


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

Milke, Wilhelm. 1965. Comparative notes on the Austronesian languages of New Guinea. Lingua 14:330–348.



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

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

  1. piet

    Just what I always wanted a taxonomy of these serial verb constructions. Well done and thank you.

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

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

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