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Journal Article

Systems of nominal classification in East Papuan languages


Terrill,  Angela
Language and Cognition Group, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Pioneers of Island Melanesia, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Terrill, A. (2002). Systems of nominal classification in East Papuan languages. Oceanic Linguistics, 41(1), 63-88.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0013-189B-5
The existence of nominal classification systems has long been thought of as one of the defining features of the Papuan languages of island New Guinea. However, while almost all of these languages do have nominal classification systems, they are, in fact, extremely divergent from each other. This paper examines these systems in the East Papuan languages in order to examine the question of the relationship between these Papuan outliers. Nominal classification systems are often archaic, preserving older features lost elsewhere in a language. Also, evidence shows that they are not easily borrowed into languages (although they can be). For these reasons, it is useful to consider nominal classification systems as a tool for exploring ancient historical relationships between languages. This paper finds little evidence of relationship between the nominal classification systems of the East Papuan languages as a whole. It argues that the mere existence of nominal classification systems cannot be used as evidence that the East Papuan languages form a genetic family. The simplest hypothesis is that either the systems were inherited so long ago as to obscure the genetic evidence, or else the appearance of nominal classification systems in these languages arose through borrowing of grammatical systems rather than of morphological forms.