LINGUIST List 15.1585

Tue May 18 2004

Review: Typology/Syntax: Crowley (2003)

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  1. Claire Bowern, Serial Verbs in Oceanic: a descriptive typology

Message 1: Serial Verbs in Oceanic: a descriptive typology

Date: Mon, 17 May 2004 19:48:03 -0400 (EDT)
From: Claire Bowern <>
Subject: Serial Verbs in Oceanic: a descriptive typology

Crowley, Terry T. (2003) Serial Verbs in Oceanic: a descriptive
typology, Oxford University Press.

Announced at

Claire Bowern, Department of Linguistics, Harvard University

''Serial Verbs in Oceanic'' has several different purposes. On the one
hand, it gives a detailed synchronic description of serial verb
constructions in Paamese (an Oceanic language of Vanuatu); on the
other hand, C. also includes a more general typological survey of
serial verbs in Oceanic languages. Moreover C. gives historical
information about syntactic change involving serial verbs. There is a
chapter on serial verbs and Melanesian Pidgin, and a summary of the
relationship between C.'s analysis of Oceanic serial verb
constructions and those found in other parts of the world. It is the
breadth of coverage of topics in this book that is one of its biggest
strengths, and what makes it so useful, particularly for those who are
not primarily specialists in Oceanic or Austronesian languages.

The book has seven chapters. The first, introductory chapter gives
C.'s definition of serial verbs (somewhat narrower than some might be
familiar with), and provides tests for identifying serial
constructions. Criteria for the identification of serial verb
constructions include: the verbs in question must belong to a single
clause; both verbs must be full lexical verbs (that is, able to
function as independent verbs in their own right); and there must be
no marking of conjunction between the two verbs. The end of chapter 1
gives a summary of the grammaticalisation patterns found with serial

Chapter 2 is a general description of the types of serial verb
constructions found in Oceanic languages. The chapter contains some
general information about Oceanic languages, including typological
profile and subgrouping. Agreement strategies and tense/aspect/mood
marking are exemplified with data from Paamese. Preposition marking is
also covered. Previous descriptions of serial verbs in Oceanic are
summarised. C. notes that serial verbs are usually categorised
according to the degree of argument sharing between the two verbs
(whether they share subjects, whether the object of the first verb is
coreferential with the subject of the second verb, or whether the
clause contains multiple objects, known in the literature as ambient
constructions). The second parameter usually considered is the degree
of juncture between the two verbs (whether, for example, they must be

Chapter 3 is a detailed study of the form and function of Paamese
serial verbs. The patterns described for Paamese serial constructions
are meant to be taken as a basis for comparing the serial verbs of
other Oceanic languages and Melanesian Pidgin (described in following
chapters). Paamese has core-layer serialisation and nuclear-layer
serialisation, as well as multiple serialisation; each of these types
will be described in turn.

In core-layer serialisation, the two verbs both show agreement
marking. An example (from p 55) is given below:

Inau nuas vuas he:mat
1sg 1sg:dist.fut-hit pig 3sg:dist.fut-die
'I will hit the pig to death.'

Conjunctions cannot appear between the first verb and the second; thus
the Paamese equivalent of 'I killed the pig _and_ it died' is
ungrammatical. C. provides several texts, including adverb scope, and
mood and polarity marking, to show that the construction is

Paamese shows both same-subject and switch-subject serials, and a
third type in which the subject of the second verb contains both the
subject and the object of the first verb (here I have replaced C's
velar nasal with orthographic <ng> since this review can use on ASCII

Visovong ni-sa:ni-k lehe-ha: en sukul
Tomorrow 1sg:dist.fut-send-2sg SP school.
'Tomorrow I will send you to school (with me).'

Finally, Paamese also shows ambient core-layer serialization (where
the second verb shows default agreement).

In nuclear-layer serialisation, the two verbs share a single agreement
prefix. Negation is also only marked on the first verb. Nuclear
serialized verbs can also be nominalised, unlike core serialized
verbs. C. provides evidence that despite some similarities with
verbal compounds, nuclear layer serializations comprise two distinct
verbal constituents.

The fourth and fifth chapters of the book are historical. Chapter 4 is
organised by subgroup, and includes sections of the Admiralties
languages, Western Oceanic, central and Eastern Oceanic and the St
Mathias languages. The final portion of the chapter concerns the
grammatical reconstruction of serial verbs for proto Oceanic. While
chapter 4 is about the evolution and development of serial verbs in
various Oceanic languages, chapter 5 concerns the various things that
have happened historically in the grammaticalisation of serial verbs
into different constructions. Serial verbs have not been structurally
stable in the subgroups of Oceanic. In particular, C. contrasts the
use of serial verbs in Paamese and in Erromangan and other languages
of Southern Vanuatu.

Chapter 6 will be of particular interest to those who study language
contact and calquing. Here C. discusses serial verbs in Bislama, Tok
Pisin and Solomons Pijin. Bislama shows evidence for both nuclear and
core serialisation. Bislama, like Paamese (and other Oceanic
languages) also shows ambient serialisation. Bislama, unlike Solomons
Pijin, has completely grammaticalised the verb *se* 'say' as a
complementiser. Interestingly, in Solomons Pijin some motion verbs
are used in nuclear serial constructions, but these pattern with core
serialisation in Bislama and Tok Pisin. C. argues that many of the
function of serial verbs in the contact languages have parallels in
substrate vernaculars, and even if the transfer between languages is
not direct, this could have provided an impetus.

The final chapter places Oceanic serial verbs in the wider context of
research on serial verbs. C. mentions a few implications for typology,
some cognitive issues, and the place of serial verbs in linguistic

Serial Verbs in Oceanic is a very rewarding book to read. C's style is
clear and concise. As the subtitle of the book states, the work is a
'descriptive typology' - one is left with a good sense of the type and
diversity of serial verbs constructions found in Oceanic. The book
will be of interest to those working on serial verbs (and complex
predicate more generally), as well as the behaviour of serial
constructions under contact conditions and the structures that
serialized verbs can change into.


Claire Bowern has just finished her dissertation on complex predicates
in the Northern Australian language Bardi.
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