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Review of  Serial Verbs in Oceanic

Reviewer: Claire Bowern
Book Title: Serial Verbs in Oceanic
Book Author: Terry T. Crowley
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Anthropological Linguistics
Language Family(ies): Oceanic
Issue Number: 15.1585

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Date: Mon, 17 May 2004 11:55:42 -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.

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 since this review can use on ASCII characters):

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

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