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Review of  Deixis and Demonstratives in Oceanic Languages

Reviewer: Keira Gebbie Ballantyne
Book Title: Deixis and Demonstratives in Oceanic Languages
Book Author: Gunter Senft
Publisher: Pacific Linguistics
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Language Family(ies): Oceanic
Issue Number: 16.1811

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Date: Wed, 8 Jun 2005 10:25:31 -0400
From: Keira Ballantyne < [email protected] >
Subject: Deixis and Demonstratives in Oceanic Languages

EDITOR: Senft, Gunter
TITLE: Deixis and Demonstratives in Oceanic Languages
PUBLISHER: Pacific Linguistics
YEAR: 2004

Keira Gebbie Ballantyne, Department of Linguistics, University of Hawai'i
at Manoa


This edited volume contains an introduction, short descriptions of the
deictic systems of seven Oceanic languages, plus Malcolm Ross's final
chapter which partially reconstructs aspects of the Proto Oceanic deictic
system and considers some common diachronic changes to that system. The
book is likely to be of interest not only to scholars of Oceanic and
Austronesian languages, but to typologists interested in the scope of
deictic systems across languages.


Senft's introductory chapter serves to outline the notion of deixis. He
briefly catalogs concepts important to the study of deictic systems and the
linguistic resources pertinent to deixis, and summarizes the various papers
in the anthology.

Malcolm Ross's first contribution to this volume, "Aspects of deixis in
Takia", begins with a brief introduction to pertinent features of the
structure of this papuanised member of the Bel subgroup, spoken on the
island of Karkar and by small populations elsewhere in the Madang province
of Papua New Guinea. The paper goes on to describe a three-way contrast
preserved across six series of demonstrative, locative and manner forms.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Ross's description is the semantic
contrast which pervades this system. Takia contrasts speaker proximal,
distal, and a third series, the "a-series", which Ross argues was
historically a hearer proximal but has lost its deictic function in the
modern language and is used as a "pragmatic-definite" marker. The set of
circumstances under which a-series forms may refer include when the
referent is discourse old, when it is visible, and when the referent is new
but identifiable by means of modification. Apparently referents which are
part of general or encyclopedic knowledge may not take a-series
demonstratives; I note in passing that this appears to be an exception to
theories of accessibility in which referents identifiable by means of the
NP alone are generally less accessible than those which are already in
long-term memory (e.g. Gundel Hedberg & Zacharski 1993).

The discussion of directional and positional verbs includes an interesting
set of observations on the effects of papuanisation on chains of such
items. In canonical Oceanic languages, when a transitive verb of motion is
followed by a second verb, the object of the first is coreferential with
the subject of the second. Unlike typical Oceanic systems, Takia also
contains patterns in which the subjects are shared. The paper also notes
that Takia lacks simple indigenous compass-point terms, using Tok Pisin
borrowings for "north" and "south", and circumlocutions ("from where the
sun rises/sets") for "east" and "west".

Anna Margetts' contribution focuses on the semantic and syntactic features
of the deictic system of Saliba, a Papuan Tip language spoken on Saliba and
adjacent islands as well as on the nearby mainland in the Milne Bay
province of Papua New Guinea. Saliba preserves a tripartite speaker-based
contrast across four form classes. Margetts notes an asymmetry between the
speaker proximal and hearer proximal forms, finding that a greater area is
covered by the former, and that under certain circumstances the speaker
proximal form can intrude into the addressee's personal space (a
particularly nice example shows a speaker proximal form accompanied by a
touching gesture used to refer to part of the addressee's body).

The Saliba deictic paradigm is comprised of four formal classes. The free
emphatic forms may be pronouns or adnominals, and are often accompanied by
the clitics. Formally they are bimorphemic, being composed of the speaker
proximal clitic form plus a deictic base -- Margetts argues that the
speaker proximal form contributes to their emphatic nature. The clause
final demonstrative class members instantiate the monomorphemic base form,
can only be pronominal and occur for the most part in non-verbal clauses.
The set of place adverbs (base + i) express stative location or the goal of

The fourth form class has two distinct functions. In the first, this set of
forms are determiner enclitics, and this paradigmatic class encompasses not
only the tripartite deictic contrast but also a dedicated givenness marker
which is not deictic in nature. Margetts further notes that the distal
enclitic is extending its semantic domain and appears to be coming to mark
specificity. The second function borne by this form class is that of the
demonstrative particles, which are distinguished from the determiner
clitics by bearing stress and by appearing in non-verbal constructions.

Senft's contribution describes selected aspects of the deictic system of
Kilivila, a Papuan Tip language spoken in the Trobriand Islands in the
Milne Bay province of Papua New Guinea. Kilivila is remarkable for its
sizable set of noun classifiers (Senft's term of choice is "classificatory
particles"). Kilivila demonstratives distinguish proximal, medial and
distal terms, which may be divided into two classes. The first of these
classes requires some sort of ostensive gesture for felicitous use. The
second set is built around classificatory particles and has a particularly
transparently iconic morphology with the medial containing an extra
morpheme and the distal containing both that extra morpheme and an
elongated vowel (rendered orthographically as a triplet).

Senft uses the "tabletop space" model developed by Pederson & Wilkins
(1996) as an elicitation tool for investigating the way in which the
tripartite system is applied to objects at various spatial distances. Given
the resources of their deictic system, speakers make use of reference to
proximity of interlocutors, demonstratives, and adverbials such as "in the
middle" to distinguish between multiple items spread out upon a table.

This piece also briefly touches on the use of deictics in the vertical
dimension, anaphoric uses of deictic demonstratives, locatives derived from
body-part terms and ways of indicating direction in Kilivila.

The first of the two Polynesian languages considered in this volume is
Næss' account of Pileni, a Polynesian outlier spoken within the Reef Island
group in the Solomon Islands as well in some small communities on Santa
Cruz. Deixis in Pileni is speaker-based with a tripartite system of speaker
proximal, hearer proximal and distal. Pileni is remarkable for its seven
postverbal directional particles, three of which relate to the
speaker-based deictic dimensions, three of which describe vertical motion
and a final particle which has the general meaning "away". Deictic
demonstratives in this language are found on nouns, on verbs, and within
relative clauses, and Næss suggests that the latter forms may be moving
toward becoming grammaticalized as relative pronouns. A highlight of this
paper is the exploration of the discourse functions of deictic
demonstratives, with Næss showing that the contrast between the hearer
proximal and the distal maps on to anaphoric distance. The speaker proximal
is reportedly reserved for spatial deixis in Pileni discourse.

Næss argues that there are certain facts which suggest that the Pileni
system is moving from speaker-based contrast to a distance-based system.
Evidence for this contention includes the fact that the hearer-proximal
form is used more frequently, is fixed in a number of idiomatic
expressions, and appears to be the default or unmarked demonstrative for
anaphors in discourse. Although these facts point to a clear asymmetry
between the speaker proximal and the addressee proximal (of the type
observed in the Margetts paper), it is not clear to me from the present
work why these facts about the Pileni hearer proximal mean that it is
moving toward being reanalyzed with a medial function.

Bril's contribution to the volume considers the system of deixis in
Nêlêmwa, a language of the Kanak family spoken on the northwestern coast of
New Caledonia.

Bril describes a system composed of three deictic markers, three anaphoric
markers and five directionals, all of which suffix to various
classificatory material (including a small set of nominal roots, number
markers, a locative root, a temporal root and some kinds of pronouns) --
the resulting compound is a determiner. A particularly fascinating aspect
of this language is the observation that determiners are prenominal when
the NP referent is new and postnominal when it is given. Bril notes that in
certain situations of emphasis, a noun may take both a pre- and a
post-nominal determiner. In the current paper, the exegesis of this system
is necessarily brief, but I look forward to more detailed analysis of this
in future work.

In addition to attaching to classificatory material in order to form
determiners, Nêlêmwa deictic suffixes participate in the formation of
independent and presentative pronouns, locative and temporal adverbs, and
the predicate expressing similarity.

Bril additionally examines the metaphorical extension of spatial and
directional deictics. The directionals expressing "up" and "down" are
mapped aspectually to completion and ongoing actions, respectively; and in
addition to the familiar alignment of up/inland and down/oceanward, up/down
map to the cardinal directions -- down is oceanwards, north and west; up is
inland, south and east.

The paper concludes by briefly touching on the rich use of spatial and
directional morphosyntax in Nêlêmwa narrative, which Bril interprets as
emerging from the fact that the TMA system in this language contains few

Ozanne-Rivierre's paper concerns deixis in Iaai, a language of the Loyalty
Islands subgroup of New Caledonian, spoken on Uvea. Like Kilivila and
Nêlêmwa, Iaai also attaches deictic markers to classificatory material. The
set of roots to which these markers attach is, however, far smaller in
Iaai, consisting of two static markers (specified vs. unspecified) and two
dynamic markers (source and goal). These compound forms are then available
to modify nouns or verb phrases.

Again we find the system of spatial deixis mapping to the temporal domain;
in this case, the speaker and hearer proximal terms refer to proximal time,
while the distal form indicates the distant future. Past in Iaai is
conceived as being "down".

Ozanne-Rivierre also analyzes the alignment of relative and absolute
directional terms. This paper presents a particularly clear analysis of the
effects of topography and geography in an Oceanic locative-directional
system. The island of Uvea curves around a lagoon to the east and has high
cliffs on its convex west coast. Ozanne-Rivierre points out that alignments
within the deictic system are motivated by the particular geographical
specificities of the Uvea landscape, giving rise to two sets of polysemies:
down/ west/ oceanward and up/ east/ inland. She further points out that the
forms indicating east and west can be used in a relative, local context to
mean up or down without evoking the cardinal directions.

Mosel's analysis of demonstratives in Samoan draws on perhaps the broadest
range of data in this selection, incorporating data from elicitation and
field observation, traditional oral and written narratives, modern short
stories and email correspondence. Her analysis and description covers the
syntax and semantics of the deictic systems of demonstratives, local nouns,
directional particles, deictic verbs and temporal adverbial particles, with
a heavy emphasis on the complex system of demonstratives. The Samoan
demonstrative system shows contrasts along the parameters of participant
orientation, spatial orientation, a formal/informal contrast, and contrasts
of singularity, plurality and specificity.

The syntax of local nouns, deictic verbs (which are of the form
"be/do/say/think like this/that"), pronominal and adnominal demonstratives
and temporal adverbials is described and analyzed. In accounting for the
semantics of these forms, Mosel separates situational from non-situational
uses, and in the latter category investigates discourse deixis and
reference tracking in narrative data. She finds that it is the social
rather than the distance-based parameter which maps to non-situational uses
of these deictics. The form which expresses an item close to or in the
possession of the speaker is exploited for cataphoric discourse deixis and
for the tracking of prominent thematic participants. Mosel interprets this
as expressing that the speaker has some information in his or her
possession that will be imparted to the addressee. Conversely, the form
used for items in the possession of or close to the hearer is mostly found
in anaphoric contexts, to express information that the hearer already

In the final contribution to this volume, Ross reconstructs a four-way
semantic contrast in the Proto Oceanic (POc) demonstrative system -- a
tripartite speaker-based paradigm plus an additional fourth term reserved
for anaphoric use. Although the way in which languages carve up the
semantic space of the demonstrative system has remained fairly stable over
time, reconstructing the forms of these items proves to be an intransigent

Rather than reconstructing a single paradigm for POc demonstratives, Ross's
analysis posits multiple sets. He hypothesizes a rapid dispersion of POc
speakers contemporaneous with the loss of the Proto Malayo-Polynesian (PMP)
voice system. The sets of reconstructed demonstratives derive from PMP
demonstrative bases and from the neutralized PMP voice markers -- the
contention here is that as speakers dispersed, they took different subsets
of this disintegrating voice system and co-opted the morphology for use in
the determiner system.

Far more amenable to analysis are the local nouns found throughout the
Oceanic family. Two classes -- or rather, as Ross is careful to argue, two
constructions -- of local nouns can be reconstructed for POc, free local
nouns and inalienably possessed local nouns. The free nouns for the most
part have both a locational meaning and a common noun meaning. When the
inalienably possessed nouns have a common noun counterpart, it refers to a
body part (a well described phenomenon throughout the language family).
Ross also points out a robust relational local construction in which an
adposition is combined with a local noun to indicate a location with
respect to some entity. He notes that in some languages the local noun has
however been reanalyzed as an adposition (although the examples in this
section leave me unsure whether Ross interprets all of the examples where
the adposition is lost as examples in which the local noun has been
reanalyzed in this fashion, or whether there is some intermediate step).

Ross finishes by examining systems of directionals in Oceanic, concluding
that POc had a series of directional verbs which often occurred as final
verbs in serial constructions, and that these were reanalyzed as
directional clitics in a number of daughter languages. Some languages
further shift the category of these items by analyzing them as the second
element of a compound verb.


The organization of a set of papers like this in a single volume will be of
particular utility to scholars who are trying to come to grips with
describing deixis in an Oceanic language -- each of the seven chapters
dealing with the system of a particular language could very well stand as a
chapter on deixis in a comprehensive grammar.

The sample of languages considered is rather skewed toward the western edge
of the Oceanic region, and the inclusion of two Polynesian (Pileni, Samoan)
and two Papuan Tip (Saliba, Kilivila) languages in the sample of seven
leaves some subgroups unrepresented (in particular, a description of a
Micronesian language would have been a welcome addition). Given, however,
the vast number of languages in the family, and the relatively small
fraction for which complex contextually sensitive data are available, the
skewing of the sample is more a reflection of the availability of data than
of editorial oversight.

A particularly intriguing observation which emerges again and again is the
asymmetry between speaker proximal and hearer proximal forms in
speaker-based deictic systems (e.g. remarks by Ross on the
pragmatic-definite function of the hearer proximal in Takia, by Margetts on
the unmarkedness of the speaker proximal in Saliba and by Næss on the
similar function of the hearer proximal in Pileni). No broad theoretical
analysis is offered for this pattern, although Mosel's analysis of the
interaction between social and spatial information is insightful and I
suspect similar analyses might account for some of the puzzling data. Also
absent is any data showing distinctions between items introduced by the
speaker and those introduced by the addressee in dialogue -- such data has
shed light on asymmetries between proximal and distal forms in languages
like English (see e.g. Strauss 2002).

Finally, a particularly strong point of the volume is the inclusion of a
great deal of data in context. Not only are single sentence examples
presented with ample explication of their discourse context, a number of
the papers include fairly extensive paragraph-length examples of deictics
in context, and two of the contributions have appendixed texts (Bril on
Nêlêmwa, Ozanne-Rivierre on Iaai).

All in all, the volume represents a significant contribution to the field
of Oceanic linguistics. Despite the fact that it does not answer all of the
questions that it brings up, its coherent articulation of both the breadth
of and the gaps in our current knowledge is sure to inform and stimulate
the reader.


Gundel, Jeanette K., Nancy Hedberg & Ron Zacharski. 1993. Cognitive Status
and the Form of Referring Expressions in Discourse. Language. 69(2):274-307.

Pederson, Eric & David Wilkins. 1996. A cross-linguistic questionnaire on
'demonstratives'. Manual for the 1996 Field Season. Cognitive Anthropology
Research Group. Nijmegen. 1-13.

Strauss, Susan. 2002. This, that and it in spoken American English: a
demonstrative system of gradient focus. Language Sciences. 24: 131-52.


Keira Gebbie Ballantyne recently finished her Ph.D. at the University of
Hawai'i at Manoa. Her doctoral work investigated reference (including the
demonstrative system) and tense-mood-aspect in narrative and non-narrative
discourse in Yapese, an Oceanic language spoken in Micronesia. Her research
interests also include typological and comparative approaches to textual
structure, corpora of underdocumented languages, and cognitive and
functional approaches to language.