Volume 54 1945 > Volume 54, No. 1 > The origin of the Oceanic languages, by A. Capell, p 62-65
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- 62
THE ORIGIN OF THE OCEANIC LANGUAGES

THE paper by P. A. Lanyon-Orgill in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 52, calls for comment and answer, lest it produce some, very wrong impressions. At the present day it is impossible for one person to be master of more than one section in any branch of science; the whole has become too vast and complicated. The same truth applies to linguistics also, if linguistics is really to be reckoned as a science at all, and one is inclined to tremble when one sees a book on the “Languages of the World”, while the details of the subject are not sufficiently mapped out and systematized. One trembles also when an author who is obviously so much at home in the languages of the world that he is apparently not a specialist in any one branch of them sets out to discuss ultimates regarding one branch. That is what has happened in the paper whose title has been used as the title of the present comments, and the comments themselves were called forth from the present author on reading the article in question.

The bibliography at the end of the paper gives evidence of wide reading on the part of Dr. Lanyon-Orgill, reading, however, that comes from all ages and climates rather than shows itself discriminating. There is one omission from that bibliography, and it is a fatal omission, for it tells that the writer has missed the latest and so far the best contribution to the Oceanic section of his subject. The missing name is that of Dr. Otto Dempwolff, and his work, Vergleichende Lautlehre des Austronesiscehn Wortschatzes appeared as three supplements to the Zeitschrift für Eingeborenensprachen, concluding shortly before his death in 1938. In Dr. Lanyon-Orgill's paper there is a wide search round the world for possible sources of the Oceanic languages, and finally most weight is given to Fr. Schmidt's attempt to connect them with the Mon-Khmer languages. This, however, has not won general acceptance amongst Oceanic students. The chief thing desirable in seeking origins is logical proof, carried through step by step, not mere likelihood based on resemblances that turn up through a few words or constructions. Thirty or so words give no basis of comparison at all, and to appeal to such evidence is unscientific waste of time. In the work of Dempwolff above referred to, itself raised on the foundations laid by Brandes, Kern, Brandstetter, and Ray, definite sound laws are worked- out on which changes from language to language may be tested, and if a word does not fit into the sound-laws of a given language, then the chances are against the connection being more than a resemblance. Dempwolff began from the Indonesian side, and took as his basis the best-known Indonesian languages—Malay, Javanese, Toba-Battak, Ngadju-Dyak, Tagalog, with incidental references to many others. From these he restored a theoretical Indonesian mother-tongue, which he called Original Indonesian (O.IN), just as the theoretical mother-tongue of the Aryan languages had previously been restored. Then he took in representative Melanesian languages, in volumes 2 and 3, taking what he called “criterion languages” in Sa'a and Fiji, and was able to show that a proportion of the previously - 63 determined ‘Original Indonesian’ was found in Melanesia also, and obeyed similar definite phonetic laws. Then he extended his research into Polynesians, taking as ‘criterion languages’ Tonga, Samoa, and Futuna, showing that Polynesian also contained a proportion of the ‘Original Indonesian’ vocabulary and that this vocabulary obeyed definite phonetic laws. His final conclusion was that ‘Original Indonesian’ could also be called ‘Original Austronesian’. He writes toward the end of volume 2: “Strictly speaking, we can designate only O.IN as O.Aus.; but we cannot exclude such words in O.IN—which seem to be confined to Indonesian languages—which appear also both in Melanesian and Polynesian. Consequently, it is but wise to include the entire stock of words of O.IN and call it O.Aus. We may except the naturalized foreign words in Indonesian which are not found in Melanesian and Polynesian”. So his third volume contained above 2, 000 O.IN=O.Aus. words.

Now all this work has been carried out on principles which are completely scientific and can be cross-checked at every step. A few, it may be, will not stand a final test, and Dempwolff himself allows for certain cases in which it is impossible to decide, for instance, whether the original consonant was a dental or the cerebral of the same group, and whether it was nasalized or not. No work on Oceanic linguistics which does not take Dempwolff's findings into account can hope to claim serious attention in future studies of the linguistics of this region.

This is not to say that all problems have been solved by the appearance of this theoretical O.IN. That is by no means the case. Particulaly unacceptable to anthropologists is Dempwolff's explanation of the spread of the Oceanic peoples. The present writer in his recent Linguistic History of South-Eastern Papua (Sydney, 1943) has shown that the Ur-Melanesisch' theory will not stand the test. The late Mr. S. H. Ray (whom Dr. Lanyon-Orgill quotes frequently and with the honour that is certainly due to him) told the present writer that it was unacceptable to him personally. Dr. Otto Blagden, the English translator of Brandstetter, made a similar verbal comment to the effect that he considered Schmidt's Die Mon-Khmer Völker an unreliable piece of work—many of Schmidt's comparisons he regarded as farfetched and not based on scientific principles. Be these things as they may, it is possible to accept Dempwolff in his restoration of O.IN without accepting also his explanation of how that language spread across the Pacific.

A wrong approach to a problem makes the results of the work valueless. While Dr. Lanyon-Orgill is rightly critical of such work as MacDonald's or Churchill's, he admits similar methods of procedure himself. His choice of authorities is frequently very unhappy. When a problem of such wide ramification as “The Origin of the Oceanic Languages” is under discussion, only the best authorities in each section can be accepted as sound. The trouble is that these are the very people who most notably refrain from committing themselves on general questions of origins—and the lesson is surely wise. Thus Dr. Homer Hulbert may have known his Korea and its language: that does not justify him in drawing comparisons with another group of languages whose sound-laws and history were quite unknown to-him, and for which he had to rely on authorities whose value he was quite unable to assess. His results, then, do not call for consideration. The same applies to “a certain Mr. Keane”, who contributed an introduction to Parker's Malagasy Grammar. The latter deals with the - 64 -um- infix in IN languages with such a thorough knowledge of what he is doing that he treats Malay pĕmilihan, choice (a better spelling than his pamilihan) as p-ĕm-ilih-an from pilih, to choose, when it is actually pĕ-milih-an, with the pĕ(n)- prefix that forms certain types of nouns! Hence when Dr. Lanyon-Orgill quotes his statement that “originally a prefix, it (the -um- infix) as it still is in Samoan (ex. moto, unripe; momoto, to die young), this particle seems to have worked its way into the body of the word . . .” he is quoting something that is obviously untrue and of no authority. Actually, momoto shows a reduplication of the first syllable, and not an infix at all.

In regard to his estimate of Australian and “Papuan” languages Dr. Lanyon-Orgill is completely unfair. What does he mean by ‘the hopeless lack of form and generally debased aspect of the languages of Australia and non-Melanesian New Guinea is particularly apparent in such works as the translation of the Gospel into Arunta’? This is on p. 31, and further on the same page he writes thus: ‘. . . of Saville's notes on Mailu (which attempt to place a debased tongue in an elevated position, e.g., by quoting some fifteen tenses of the regular verb), of W. H. Bird's careful notes on Chowie . . .’ What on earth does he mean? That the Mailu forms do not exist? That the translators of the Arunta Gospels did not really know the language? That a language is “debased” because it is grammatically complicated? Let him study the texts in C. Strehlow's Die Aranda und Loritja-Stämme, or the grammar of Aranda by T. G. Strehlow now appearing in Oceania, which latter, with all its infelicities of arrangement and expression is still the work of a man who was born amongst the people and has spoken the language from childhood. As for Bird's notes, here again is a case of Dr. Lanyon-Orgill's inability to estimate the value of authorities: no one would use them nowadays as a base of study. Some of a much better quality have been published by Rev. Dr. Nekes in Oceania Monographs, No. 3 (dealing solely with pronouns), and these, with the present writer's field work in North-west Australia, have shown the weaknesses of Bird's Djaui work.

An author who makes unreasonable statements of this sort shows himself completely untrustworthy. So he does also when he treats an entire family of languages (the Australian) as showing a ‘hopeless lack of form and generally debased character’. Whatever is his standard of judgment? Debased from what? He obviously has not studied the best and most thorough works on the subject, e.g., the later work of Rev. J. R. B. Love also in Oceania Monographs, No. 3, or Dr. Roth on Pittapitta, to mention only two. He has relied, it would seem, on Schmidt, who has never been in Australia or heard any of the languages actually spoken, but has trusted entirely in authorities, many of whom he himself is the first to admit, are completely unsatisfactory. The wise man and true scientist in such a case at least suspends judgment. And where is Saville's delineation of Mailu inferior, except perhaps in volume, to Hanke's ‘fine study of Bongu’ an epithet which is deserved? Has the writer ever studied any of the actual translations into Mailu, or the native literature recorded by Saville in In Primitive New Guinea? This procedure is not worthy of one who presumes to undertake a scientific study of language.

It is well to draw attention at this point to another recent contribution to Oceanic studies that seems likely to throw a good deal of light on the problem. The reference is to Dr. Paul K. Benedict, writing in the American Anthropologist, vol. 44, no. 4, pt. 1, October-December, 1942, on ‘Thai, Kadai and Indonesian’. He approaches the - 65 subject from the side of a student of the Thai languages in particular, and bases his Indonesian studies on Dempwolff's results. When, therefore, he claims relationships between words and languages, he does it as Dempwolff did it—on the basis of definite sound-laws and regular phonetic change. While his work is still in the experimental stages, it is very suggestive. Taking some of the minor languages spoken along each side of the China-Indochina border, viz., Kadai and Kelao in China, Laqua and Lati in Indochina, and Li in Hainan island, he suggests the following grouping:

  • Proto-Austie
  • Thai
  • Kadai
  • Indonesian
  • Mon-Khmer
  • Annamite
  • ?Miao-Yao
  • Sino-Tibetan
  • Chinese
  • Tibeto-Burman
  • Karen

He regards the centre of dispersion as having been in Southern China, near the present Kadai tribes. The Proto-Indonesian peoples would have migrated from the south China coast, perhaps via Hainan to Formosa and the Philippines, and also in a southerly direction through Annam, Borneo and Java, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. The Cham and Malay areas he regards as IN enclaves on the mainland, not as centres of dispersion. Thai-Kadai then are the northern division of Schmidt's Austric superstock (which he is willing to take as established by Schmidt's arguments), and he holds that the cleavage between these and Mon-Khmer occurred in South China and Indochina area. The Malay was a seaborne migration from the islands of Indonesia.

These suggestions are very promising, and worthy of further enquiry on the part of scholars who have the necessary understanding of the Austro-Asiatic languages, but as yet they are only suggestions to be weighed and considered. It is perhaps too early to undertake any final answer to the question that forms the title both of this paper and the one which inspired it. Attention should be paid to the latter part of E. Piddington's studies in his edition of R. W. Williamson's posthumous Essays in Polynesian Ethnology—which also might have had a place in the bibliography, although it is not concerned with linguistics. There he demonstrates the variety of interpretations not only of linguistic but also of cultural elements. He shows how many and varied have been the conclusions already drawn about Polynesian origins, by different authors working on the same set of facts. If about Polynesian, which is only one branch of Oceanic linguistics, then what about the whole field? We are all liable to rush in where angels fear to tread, but he who does so has a title already chosen for him. There are simply not the data in existence to justify conclusions about ultimate origins. Dr. Piddington may be sceptical even about Dempwolff's theoretical restorations (this does not arise in the book quoted), but he would have still more right to be sceptical when an attempt is made to go behind all that is known, or ever can be known, and derive family from family, as is done by the writers whom Dr. Lanyon-Orgill quotes, without even such help as the concept of phonetic law may be able to give. In these matters of ultimates a wise agnosticism is to be commended, even if we do hazard an occasional opinion about the peopling of Oceania itself.