Sera and Sissano

Harald Hammarström harald at BOMBO.SE
Tue Jul 10 18:21:22 UTC 2007

Dear all,
Thanks to Malcolm Ross and Mark Donohue for input from their own
first hand experience. I was unclear in my msg saying that someone
had misinterpreted Churchill about the absense of numbers above 1 and
2. What I meant to say was that Sissano is not a 1,2,many system
but a 1,2,2+1,2+2,5 (or 2+2+1). [There is a documented difference
between these two kinds in some cases, i.e., where it is not
legal to say 2+1 for three, probably because 2 means 'a few' rather than
exactly 2.]. So we're all in agreement. However, Laycock also reports
a word for 5 (see below), apparently not a very stable one, given the
input from Donohue and Ross.

Laycock OL 1974 245-277

& = upside down e
N = ng

1 pond&nen 
2 tin
3 tin pond&nen
4 tinutin
5 tartar
6-10 ?

1 pontenen 
2 eltiN
3 eltiN pal
4 eltiN eltiN
5 piNgari ponteneN
6-9 ?
10 piNgariN eltiN

As for numeral systems shrinking, i.e. a former base 5 or 10 system with 
monomorhemic numerals shrinking down to a 1,2,many system (or a 
1,2,2+1,2+2 system), there are _at least_ two independant undeniable such 
cases. One can be found in GP Smith's Morobe Counting Systems and
one is Minor Mlabri a Mon-Khmer language. In both cases, the remaining
1-2 numerals are cognate with the ones in the older system, but we can
be sure that the languages descends from languages with bigger systems
because cognates, with the right sound correspondances, for 3-10 survive
in one case as birth-order names and in the other case in some ritual

Now to the question of the descent of Sera and Sissano. They have
non-AN numerals and, as far as I can see, non-AN pronouns. If they
are linear Austronesian descendants, then these must have been
borrowed or internally replaced. If borrowing, the case would strongly
violate the hypothesis that basic vocabulary (or the like) aren't
borrowed, and further, there is no identifiable source for the borrowings.
Internal replacement also appears intuitively awkward, especially the
numerals (as I am not much of an expert on pronouns and inasmuch as there
are AN-like languages with very deviant pronoun systems e.g. Vanikoro).

Would MD Ross favour a borrowing/replacement scenario of these items
rather than a scenario of an original non-AN language with massive
overlay of AN grammar and lexicon? Please expand.


On Sat, 30 Jun 2007, Malcolm Ross wrote:

> I haven't been following this discussion, but perhaps I can offer some 
> clarification with regard to comments I have just seen. If I'm going over 
> previously trodden ground, please excuse me.
>> >(Arop Sissano - N New Guinea).
>> >This information, that Arop and Sissano only had 1 and 2, is an
>> >illegal inference from the fact that only 1, 2 were published in >a 
>> wordlist in a book by Churchill. That he only listed 1 and 2 is 
>> >understandable as he was doing a comparative study, and there is >no 
>> statement there to say that there were only two numbers.
> No, Chan has it right. Sissano counts 1, 2, 2_1, 2+2, 2+2+1 (at least, it did 
> when I collected data from native speakers in the 1970s). Arop and Sissano 
> are dialects of the same language, spoken in the large village on Sissano 
> Lagoon that was destroyed by a tsunami some years ago.
>> The only data I currently have is from Eugene Chans list of numbers at 
>> It shows 1 and 2 used for all numbers from 1-10. Chan was careful, and 
>> didnt infer or claim numbering sequences that he hadnt seen in 
>> authoritative sources. Many of his numbering systems stop, at, say, 6.
>> The related Sera, next door, certainly does have morphemes for 3 and 5, but 
>> similar morphemes for 1 & 2.
>> >Anyone seeing the actual number morphemes, which are not
>> >Austronesian and not obviously cognate with any close Papuan
>> > language, in Arop and Sissano would have to ask if they are really linear 
>> Austronesian descendants!?
>> They are probably not linear Austronesian descendants!?. Should they be?
> What is a 'linear Austronesian descendant'? If you mean that these languages 
> represent continuity from generation to generation, rather than masses of 
> Austronesian borrowings into a Papuan language, then, yes, they are clearly 
> Austronesian, but have undergone a striking set of changes (especially Sera). 
> According to Laycock, if I remember correctly, speakers of Arop claimed to be 
> descended from Papuan speakers from somewhere inland (Olo, I think) who had 
> been given asylum at Sissano and acquired the language, retaining just a few 
> Olo words.
>> The two morphemes, /pontanen/ and /entin/, certainly dont look like 
>> conventional An numbers, but they could, just possibly, be An hand parts, 
>> like finger, or thumb, or even ordinal numbers  first and second  where 
>> the use of visible hand tallying made the voicing of numbers almost 
>> redundant. Or they could even be special names for counting certain 
>> objects. I will need to wait for more information, before I get myself into 
>> even more illegalities.
> As far as I know, these are not inherited Austronesian words. At some point, 
> shared ancestors of Arop/Sissano and Sera speakers lost the quinary system of 
> their earlier ancestors and replaced it with a Papuan-like system. I don't 
> know where the words came from. They don't crop up elsewhere in wordlists for 
> these languages.
> - Malcolm Ross
> _____________________________________
> Malcolm D. Ross
> Professor, Department of Linguistics
> Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies
> Building No. 9, The Australian National University
> CANBERRA A.C.T. 0200, Australia
> ANU CRICOS Provider Number is 00120C
> On 30/06/2007, at 2:37 PM, Richard Parker wrote:
>> >>  The old documents preserve a lot. I know of only one An language
>> >>that had only 2 words, 1 and 2, for their entire counting system
>> >Also, what seems not be widely known, body-tally systems are >attested in 
>> the torres straits and mainland australia. There are >some refs (though 
>> Bill McGregor should have a bigger database of the Australian cases):
>> >
>> Many thanks for your paper (and your others)  very useful.
>> >>  eg: many Vanuatu languages still retain hand+1,2,3,4 for 6-9,
>> >> so those  islands must have been first settled before the full
>> >> An decimal system was conceived. It's possible, even, to detect >> 
>> sequential waves of Vanuatu settlement as the number systems
>> >> grow more sophisticated.
>> >> There's an alternative, of course, that they were too stupid, >>or too 
>> conservative, to accept a simple new system brought in by >> 
>> Austronesian-speakers ready-equipped with the PAn decimal >>system.
>> >This account is wrong in two places. The Vanuatu lgs could not have
>> >_retained_ an old hand+1,2,3,4-system if they are Oceanic (or you'd
>> >have to revise the POc-numeral reconstruction considerably).
>> You said it! Something really should be done about large
>> quantities of linguistically illegal number systems scattered
>> around Oceania.
>> I was using retained in the normal way, not realising its
>> implications as a linguistic technical term.
>> But most Vanuatu languages use recognisable POc morphemes to
>> construct 6-9. (I have next to no data on Vanuatu numbers above
>> 10). The number systems noticeably degrade from north to south,
>> until, in New Caledonia, POc morphemes are almost unrecognisable.
>> POc: *sa-kai, *ta-sa, *tai, *kai  *rua  *tolu  *pat, *pati, *pani  *lima, 
>> *onom,  *pitu,  *walu,  *siwa,  *sa (nga) puluq
>> Now, are the following examples retentions of older systems in the normal 
>> sense, or innovations in the narrow linguistic sense?
>> Motlav (Banks Islands, N Vanuatu): Bi-twagh, Bo-yo, Be-tel, Be-Bet, 
>> teBe-lem, leBe-te, liBi-yo, leBi-tel, leBe-Bet, songwul
>> Katbol (Malekula): sapm, i-ru, i-tl, i-Bat, i-lim, sout, so-ru, se-tl, 
>> se-Bat, langal
>> Iaai (Loyalty Islands): xacha, lo, kun, wak, thabung, thabung ke nua xacha, 
>> thabung ke nua lo, thabung ke nua kun, thabung ke nua wak, li benita
>> Orowe (New Caledonia): rrake, keehru, kerrere, kevwe, keni, keni me rrake, 
>> keni me keehru, keni me kerrere, keni me kevwe, keni me keni.
>> (4 types of accented e omitted, for clarity)
>> It looks quite obvious (to me) that the Oroweans have a less
>> developed system, where 10 = 5 & 5, than the Motlavians, who use a single, 
>> freestanding word, and all of them have systems that are less developed 
>> than proto-Oceanic, which has a single meaning-
>> free word for all the 1-10 digits.
>> How can comparative theory linguistics accommodate this paradox?
>> >  Second, languages switch back and forth between decimal, quinary
>> > and vigesimal systems with little correlation to stupidity. See a
>> > recent OL article by Bender and Beller called classifiers and
>> > counting systems or similar).
>> Ive read most of their articles available on the web, and can
>> readily accept that people could retain a traditional system,
>> possibly with substantial numeral classifiers, for counting things that are 
>> culturally important to them, alongside a new (usually
>> decimal) system for new things, just as they still do on this
>> island, where Spanish applies to some things, Surigaonon to
>> others, and Americano when youre not quite sure.
>> And we English count dozens of eggs, and scores of years. The special 
>> counting system for tennis is said to be preserved in a small temple at 
>> Wimbledon.
>> Ive yet to see any proven demonstration (although plenty of
>> inferences) that whole groups of people have actually changed
>> their systems back to something more primitive.
>> Who would want to order thabung ke nua lo (say,cigarettes)in Iaai, when he 
>> could just say *pitu in his ancestral proto-Oceanic?
>> Im actively hunting for examples of change of system and
>> morphemes,together, either way, but, so far, Ive only come across loans 
>> of some isolated words, as in Swahili, where Arabic names
>> have only been adopted for 6,7, and 9: moja, mbili, tatu, nne,
>> tano, sita, saba, nane, tisa, kumi, but Bantu retained (sorry 
>> kept) for everything else.
>> Some of it is truly baffling:
>> The Papuan languages of Halmahera seem to use one (and only one)
>> An word in their 1-10 words - /siwo/ for nine, yet their close An
>> neighbours, Patani and Sawai, use /fapolo/ and /popet/.
>> This kind of 9 morpheme 1 before 10 is rare, and usually seems
>> to be symptomatic of a suppressed base 4 system, where 8=2x4, as in 
>> some groups in Flores and Sumba, others in Aru Island, Enggano, Wuvulu, and 
>> almost half of the Taiwanese languages.
>> The only straightforward An base 4 systems I can find are Biem and Wogeo in 
>> the New Guinea Schouten family.
>> (In none of the above do I have any data for numbers above 10, so
>> I cant yet tell if they go on from 4-8 to call 12 a dozen. Im
>> hoping somebody can help me out on this).
>> The construction of 9 in Nghada (Flores) - /ta esa/ is almost the
>> same as Taokas (Taiwan) /tanaso/. Both have an combination phrase
>> 8 involving 4 morphemes, /zua butu/ and / mahalpat/. Theyre 2200
>> miles apart, and theres nothing comparable on the straight line
>> between them.
>> Here is a comparativists view of it:
>> An interesting set consists of Thao tanacu , Favorlang tannacho ,
>>  Taokas tanaso '9', which point to an earlier *[st]a[nng]aCu. The
>> first syllable might reflect *sa- 'one', in which case we are
>> perhaps dealing with a subtractive form.
>> Laurent Sagart The Higher Phylogeny Of Austronesian And The Position Of 
>> Tai-Kadai
>> It actually seems to be the start of a new (suppressed) base 4
>> count, from two 4s, and maybe the reconstruction puts the 1 at the wrong 
>> end.
>> >Yes there are such cases. When I said there is no other etymology
>> >for 5 than 'hand', I should have said 'hand' or 'some part of the >hand'.
>> >But I didn't, so you can have the 10 dollars if you want.
>> No way would I claim a prize in such a specious way. But it is worth noting 
>> that whole hand is not always the morpheme.
>> Regards
>> Richard
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