The Kelabit language of Sarawak and the typology of Austronesian languages

On 10 January 2016, Dr Charlotte Hemmings (University of Oxford) gave a seminar at SOAS University of London entitled “Beyond a two-way typology of Western Austronesian”. The seminar dealt with the typological classification of Kelabit (ISO 639-3 code kzi, Glottolog code kela1258), an endangered Austronesian language spoken by about 5,000 people in Bario village and other locations in the Kelabit Highlands region of Sarawak, East Malaysia. Charlotte conducted documentary and descriptive fieldwork on Kelabit (2013-15) and completed her PhD on the language at SOAS in 2016; her thesis includes a sketch grammar of Kelabit, which was previously poorly described, and an in-depth study of its verb system, especially the 3-way voice contrast (Actor voice, Undergoer Voice, and Instrument Voice). Charlotte is now a Leverhulme Early Career fellow at the University of Oxford and continues to research morphosyntactic variation in the languages of Northern Sarawak with a particular focus on how syntactic choices are related to information structure

In this seminar Charlotte looks at the wider question of how Western Austronesian languages (roughly, languages in Taiwan, the Philippines, Madagascar and the western half of Indonesia) can be classified typologically:

Western Austronesian languages are often classified into Philippine-type and Indonesian-type on the basis of structural properties (see Arka & Ross 2005). In this talk, I demonstrate that the two way classification is not sufficient for two main reasons. Firstly, not all languages within a single category are alike and, secondly, there are languages spoken in transitional areas that are not neatly captured by either of the two groups. Using the examples of voice systems and word order – which are often used to distinguish between Philippine-type and Indonesian-type languages – I propose that a better approach is to establish the full extent of variation and highlight the importance of including underdescribed languages in this endeavour. Establishing parameters of variation enables a better understanding of how the structural properties relate to one another and possible paths of historical change.

The video of Charlotte’s seminar is available below and a PDF of the handout (which she refers to throughout) can be downloaded here.