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Abstract

The New Guinea region is the most linguistically diverse region in the world, with some 1000 languages in an area smaller than 900,000 km2. There are about three dozen language families and close to the same number of language isolates, although two very different language families, each with about 300 languages, dominate: the coastal Austronesian languages, and the montane Trans New Guinea family. The other, smaller families are largely restricted to the northern lowlands. Typologically, the languages exhibit enormous variation and many unusual properties. Vowel systems in which central vowels predominate and consonantal systems lacking fricatives and, rarer still, nasals are attested. Morphological types range from isolating to polysynthetic, and most languages are head marking. Verbs normally carry more complex inflection than do nouns. Of nominal categories, gender is often exuberantly elaborated, but surprisingly case is not, the weak development being an areal feature, in contrast to Australian languages on the one hand and those of Eurasia on the other. Syntactically, languages fall into left-headed and right-headed types, represented by Austronesian and Trans New Guinea, respectively. Clause chaining and associated morphological structures such as switch reference are a salient feature of right-headed and particularly Trans New Guinea languages. Discourse structures are often highly elliptical, with the verbal morphology providing signals for the recovery of elided information and the cohesion of the text. Highly ritualized texts, such as songs, are characterized by strict formal rules of parallelism and trope usage. Other than Austronesian, no language family has congeners outside the region, and within it, large-scale processes of convergence have shaped languages over many millennia, giving rise to areal traits.

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/content/journals/10.1146/annurev.anthro.29.1.357
2000-10-01
2024-06-19
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  • Article Type: Review Article
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