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Comparative Austronesian Syntax


Sandra Chung (UCSC) and Maria Polinsky (UCSD)


UC Humanities Research Institute
Institute for Humanities Research, UC Santa Cruz
Center for Research in Language, UC San Diego
Dean of Social Sciences, UC San Diego


Edith Aldridge, Peter Cole, Gabriela Hermon, Ed Keenan, Paul Kroeger, Diane Massam, Ileana Paul, Matt Pearson, Eric Potsdam, Norvin Richards, Joseph Sabbagh, Peter Sells, Lisa Travis


October 6-8, 2006


The workshop will be held on the UC San Diego campus in the Applied Physics and Mathematics building, room 4301. Note: we encourage out of town guests to stay at the Radisson La Jolla as it is very close to UCSD and has a special university rate. Contact Mark Kuper at the Radisson to make reservations and mention you are part of the "Austronesian Syntax" group. His email address is mkuper<at>radissonlj.com.

If you are driving to UCSD and parking on campus you will have to pay on Friday. We suggest you park in a metered spot in either the Gilman parking structure, the Pangea parking structure or the Faculty Club lot. The cost is $1.00/hr. For Saturday and Sunday, since parking is free, you can park closer to the workshop location. The Faculty Club lot is very close, as is lot 207.

For a map of the campus with parking areas, go to this site and zoom in or out as necessary:



The goal of this seminar is to launch an in-depth investigation into comparative generative Austronesian syntax by bringing together a number of specialists in Austronesian languages.

Schedule of Talks

UC San Diego
Applied Physics and Mathematics Bldg. Rm 4301
October 6-8, 2006
2.00-2.10 Introductory Remarks (Maria Polinsky & Sandra Chung)
2.10-2.55 Peter Cole, Gabriella Hermon, and Yanti (University of Delaware/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology) 'Voice in Malay/Indonesian'
2.55-3.10 Comments by Norvin Richards
3.10-3.25 Comments by Paul Kroeger
3.25-3.45 Discussion
3.45-4.00 BREAK
4.00-4.45 Joseph Sabbagh (McGill University) 'The Syntax of Existential Sentences in Tagalog'
4.45-5.00 Comments by Peter Sells
5.00-5.15 Comments by Maria Polinsky
5.15-5.35 Discussion
9.00-9.45 Edith Aldridge (Northwestern University) 'The Heterogeneity of VOS and Extraction in Austronesian Languages'
9.45-10.00 Comments by Paul Kroeger
10.00-10.15 Comments by Peter Sells
10.15-10.35 Discussion
10.35-10.50 BREAK
10.50-11.35 Diane Massam (University of Toronto) 'Deriving Inverse Order'
11.35-11.50 Comments by Lisa Travis
11.50-12.05 Comments by Maria Polinsky
12.05-12.25 Discussion
12.25-2.00 LUNCH
2.00-2.45 Eric Potsdam (University of Florida) 'Austronesian Verb-Initial Languages and Wh-Question Strategies'
2.45-3.00 Comments by Gabriella Hermon
3.00-3.15 Comments by Norvin Richards
3.15-3.35 Discussion
3.35-4.35 Round Table: What Austronesian Linguistics Can Do for Syntactic Theory, and Visa Versa
4.35-6.00 RECEPTION (Eucalyptus Pointe)
10.00-10.45 Ileana Paul (University of Western Ontario) 'Bare Nouns in Malagasy and Other Austronesian Languages'
10.45-11.00 Comments by Edward L. Keenan
11.00-11.15 Comments by Sandra Chung
11.15-11.35 Discussion
11.35-1.15 LUNCH
1.15-2.00 Matt Pearson (Reed College) 'Topic and Focus Markers as Clause Linkers in Malagasy'
2.00-2.15 Comments by Edward L. Keenan
2.15-2.30 Comments by Lisa Travis
2.30-2.50 Discussion
2.50-3.05 BREAK
3.05-4.05 Round Table: What Questions, Theoretical and Empirical, to Investigate Next?
4.05-4.15 Concluding Remarks (Sandra Chung & Maria Polinsky)

What can Austronesian languages do for linguistics?

The choice of the Austronesian language family as the focus of this seminar is not accidental. The Austronesian language family consists of some 1,200 genetically related languages dispersed over an area encompassing Madagascar, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and islands of the Pacific. Though often called the largest language family in the world, it has been relatively little studied. Sophisticated research on the grammar of these languages did not really begin until the 1930’s and 1940’s (fueled, in part, by military interest in the Pacific region). Although there was a surge of interest in Austronesian in the 1970’s and—even more dramatically—in the 1990’s, the number of theoretical linguists working on Austronesian languages remains quite small. Nonetheless, these languages have a substantial contribution to make to linguistic theory, given the number of typologically unusual properties they exhibit (including the less common and poorly understood verb-first word order, ergativity, wh-agreement). If these languages were as well-understood as, say, the Romance languages, linguistic theory might conceivably look very different from the way it looks today.

We think the moment has arrived for the birth of comparative generative Austronesian syntax. Because of the sheer number of Austronesian languages, such a field could provide an excellent testing ground for in-depth linguistic research—one larger and typologically more diverse than Romance or Germanic. But for the effort to get off the ground, it is critical to get Austronesian linguists, most of whom specialize in a particular language, to begin talking and thinking in comparative terms about intriguing features of Austronesian languages that may be subject to variation within the family and require more attention.


Many Austronesian languages exhibit the rather rare verb-subject-object (VSO) or verb-object-subject (VOS) word orders, which pose an apparent challenge to theories of word order that posit a universal underlying SVO order. Some Austronesian languages have both VOS and VSO, thus raising the question of which order is more basic. It is not clear what determines the variation between VSO and VOS across Austronesian languages as well as within a single language.

•  Austronesian languages also display an unusual ordering within the verb phrase (the “mittelfeld”): objects apparently shift rightward and adverbs show the mirror order of more well-studied languages.

•  Many Austronesian languages, especially the ones spoken in the western groups of the family, have complex verbal voicing systems. Voice morphology indicates the grammatical function of the syntactically and pragmatically privileged constituent which has been variously analyzed as a structural subject, an absolutive argument (in an ergative system), or a topic. The grammatical status of the ‘subject’ and the treatment of the voicing system remain controversial and call for more investigation, especially from the comparative perspective.

•  Many Austronesian languages impose unusually stringent constraints on the status of the sentence constituent that can be questioned, focused (“emphasized”), or topicalized (presented as background information); in a number of languages the only constituent eligible for these processes is the ‘subject’ mentioned above. The nature of this restriction is not well understood and poses significant challenges to existing theories of sentence structure. It is also mysterious why the restriction is so resilient within the family.


Congratulations to Dr. Marta Kutas on being awarded the 2015 Distinguished Career Contributions Award. Dr. Kutas will give her award lecture on Saturday, March 28, 2015 in San Francisco.

CRL is excited to present the latest CRL Newsletter, featuring technical report:
Language Skills and Speed of Auditory Processing in Young Children
J.A. Avenzino, M. Gonzalez Robledo, & G.O. Deák