Alor-Pantar languages: Origins and theoretical impact

Project Overview


Alor-Pantar languages: Origins and theoretical impact

Project members:

Prof Greville G. Corbett
Dr Matthew Baerman
Prof Dunstan Brown
Dr Sebastian Fedden

Period of award

October 2009 - September 2012


Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through European Science Foundation-EuroBabel

The Alor-Pantar languages are a group of about 20 endangered non-Austronesian (“Papuan”) languages spoken on the islands Alor and Pantar in the eastern Indonesian province of Nusa Tenggara Timur. The Alor-Pantar languages are of special interest because, unlike other small language groups of eastern Indonesia, they have no established relatives but have been tentatively assigned to the Trans New Guinea family by some scholars.

This project concentrated on two typologically interesting phenomena in the Alor-Pantar languages. First, the system of pronominal prefixes on verbs and nouns, which is striking for (i) the unusual marking of objects/patients instead of subjects/agents, (ii) their high sensitivity to multiple semantic and pragmatic factors, which make them diagnostic of the interactions between multiple linguistic levels, and (iii) their co-occurrence, with distinct functional allocation, on different word classes. These phenomena can shed light on the semantic underpinnings of grammatical features.

The second focus was on the variety of ‘functional’ verbs, that is, verb lexemes which cross multiple syntactic and morphological categories, and call for an analytical framework that maintains the categorical distinctions necessary for a coherent theory of language, while at the same time admitting the fluidity of the attested facts.

The project formed part of a larger EuroBabel project, in which we collaborated with colleagues in Leiden, the Netherlands, who worked on extended documentation, numerical systems, and spatial reference (Alor-Pantar site at Leiden University) in the Alor-Pantar languages and colleagues in Fairbanks, who worked on the language prehistory and toponyms (Alor-Pantar site at the University of Alasaka, Fairbanks).