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Inferring the past through linguistic traces

Within the field of historical linguistics, Austronesian is often held up as a language family where both traditional and new methods of analysis are successful in yielding detailed reconstructions of language – and so speaker – histories. Across Austronesian comparison of contemporary languages reveals linguistic traces that can be robustly interpreted as reflecting particular processes of linguistic continuity, change and contact. Many Austronesian languages clearly display the recurrent non-identical sound correspondences that are interpreted as evidence of shared linguistic ancestry, and/or the linguistic patterns, especially morphosyntactic ones, that are best accounted for as outcomes of contact-induced change.

However, Austronesian is also a language family where historical linguistic research has challenged accepted associations between linguistic traces of the past and reconstructed language histories. This can be seen, for example, in the discussion of “aberrant” Oceanic languages, which do not conform to the expected linguistic outcomes of continuity with diversification over time, and in the development of subgrouping models that can explain different distributions of shared innovations.

With this as a starting point, the talk has two aims. First, it takes stock of the range of comparative patterns found across Austronesian languages – both “exemplary” and “aberrant” – and the associations that have been made between these patterns and certain kinds of linguistic transformation across time. As well as drawing on case studies of Austronesian language histories in the literature, the talk explores two groups of “aberrant” Oceanic languages, namely the Mono-Uruavan and New Georgia languages of Bougainville and the western Solomon Islands. While both these groups of languages show linguistic traces that robustly support continuity and diversification within Oceanic, other aspects of their linguistic structures are less clearly interpreted as reflecting specific kinds of language histories.

Thus, the second aim of this talk is to explore the resilience of historical inferences given certain linguistic signals. Given the contingency of language – and indeed human – histories, we expect linguistic trajectories to be fragile and unpredictable. That is, to be shaped both by events and background contexts that may be undetectable and by complex interactions of influences from both within and outside of the linguistic system. The reliability of a reconstructed language history depends then on the extent to which there are robust process explanations of language continuity, change and contact which specify the resilience of linguistic signals. And so, the range of comparative linguistic patterns within Austronesian can become a testing ground for historical inferences based on linguistic signals and so the reliability of reconstructed language histories.


Bethwyn Evans mainly focuses on historical and comparative linguistics and how language can be a window on the linguistic and non-linguistic past. She is particularly interested in the ways in which historical linguistics, in conjunction with archaeology and population genetics, can tell us about the past of particular ethnolinguistic groups, as well as about the general processes and mechanisms of linguistic and social change.

Her current research builds on a project that she began as part of the Max Planck Research Group on Comparative Population Linguistics (led by Brigitte Pakendorf) at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and explores the history of linguistic diversification and contact among Austronesian- and Papuan-speaking groups of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. A major part of this project is the documentation and description of several languages of southern Bougainville, including Nasioi, Torau and Nagovisi.

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