Book Review: The Lexicon of Proto Oceanic: the culture and environment of ancestral Oceanic society; 4: Animals, edited by Malcolm Ross, Andrew Pawley and Meredith Osmond

In: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia

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Malcolm Ross, Andrew Pawley and Meredith Osmond (eds.), The Lexicon of Proto Oceanic: the culture and environment of ancestral Oceanic society; 4: Animals. Canberra, Australia: Pacific Linguistics, The Australia National University, 2011, xxvi + 576 pp. [Volume 4 of 7 planned volumes]. ISBN: 9780858836266. Price: AUD 120.00 (paperback).

Proto Oceanic (POc) is the proposed ancestor to the Oceanic languages, a sub-category of the Austronesian language family. Most linguists agree that the 450 Oceanic languages share a common lineage and a geographic continuity throughout the regions known as Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia, with minor exceptions. The Lexicon of Proto Oceanic book series investigates relationships between language lineages and their geographic distribution by using the comparative method. Historical linguists rely on this fundamental approach in order to identify cognates and establish sound correspondences that demonstrate relatedness between languages. Such terms may stem from an ancestral Oceanic proto language. The comparative method excludes words that are similar either: by chance; through language universals, such as the use of ‘mama’ by infants; or through borrowing or diffusion between users of different languages (Blust 2014).

Four volumes in the series have been published to date: 1) material culture; 2) physical environment; 3) plants; and 4) animals. The book chapters follow a format that allows their use as quick referential texts or to be read as sets of cohesively themed essays. In Volume 4: Animals, significant linguistic data is supplemented with contextual observations as to why some vocabulary terms remain more stable than others through millennia among widely spaced island populations. For example, Oceanic marine life names have relatively high stability levels, as Andrew Pawley demonstrates in Chapter 3. Current archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests that ancestral Oceanic peoples moved east from northern New Guinea about 3400BP and began settling the near and then more distant Pacific Islands. The settlers depended heavily upon coastal marine life for subsistence; the types of marine creatures near different islands are broadly consistent, which contributed to similarities in linguistic categories of detailed knowledge systems and nomenclature. Marine life taxonomy is a key focus of Volume 4, along with birds and insects. Few mammals resided on many Pacific islands until humans arrived with dogs, pigs, and rats.

In Chapter 1, Ross, Pawley, and Osmond provide a clear context for their work within the field of Austronesian linguistics and ethnobiology. The authors’ significant research experience frames their explanations of methods and potential false assumptions, thus demonstrating the complexities of comparing data gathered in diverse ways from dictionary authors and researchers. Credible assumptions are proposed in the book to establish historic terms and life-ways, while weaker theories are positioned as candidates for stable name use, pending further data. In Chapter 2, Meredith Osmond builds nomenclature lists from diverse languages in order to describe 78 Linnaean families of fish and establish 145 ProtoOceanic (POc) terms, which likely represents 30–40% of a typical coastal Pacific Islander 300–400 term vocabulary of marine life. Insights into types of interactions between people and marine life enrich the analysis. Common cross-language phonological substitutions are identified. As languages diverged, the names used for some types of creatures changed. In Chapter 3, Pawley seeks reasons for stable or unstable term use longevity by analyzing data from 15 Oceanic languages for 52 of the proposed 145 POc fish names. The stable names are all uninomials. Binomial names often contain a modifier that is subject to contextual variability. Other stability determinants include: taxonomic ranking levels; types of human/creature interactions; creature behaviour and appearance; and geographic distribution ranges, although inconclusive data indicates the need for further research.

In Chapter 4, for aquatic invertebrates, Pawley proposes 42 POc names, 33 of which are for crustaceans or molluscs. Aquatic invertebrates provided many important sources of food, tools, and trade items for Pacific Islanders. Pawley recorded 240 names for aquatic invertebrates in one Fijian language, but data sources for other languages are much smaller. Taxonomies of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians are addressed by Osmond and Pawley in Chapter 5, which includes domesticated and introduced terrestrial creatures. The variability of indigenous terrestrial creatures in diverse islands yields POc terms for creatures such as: cuscus, bandicoot, bats, and rats. Marine mammals are included in this chapter, although marine mammals and turtles are often considered to be fish in Oceanic taxonomies, a topic addressed by Pawley in Chapter 8.

Ross Clark’s contribution on POc bird names in Chapter 6 follows the Linnaean classification system used to structure the book, although in Oceanic languages non-aquatic creatures are often classed with birds using a form of the term ‘manu’. Clark proposes 80 terms as POc bird names from the 200 cognate sets of bird names analyzed in the text, although many more unrecorded Oceanic bird names exist. In particular, passerine birds are under-represented in wordlists, while records of sea bird taxonomies are quite rich from seagoing peoples. Clark provides pertinent observations on naming practices, such as the use of onomatopoeia for naming birds that may be more often heard than seen.

In Chapter 7, terms for ‘Insects and other creepy crawlies’, Osmond proposes a range of proposed POc terms and some interesting verb-noun associations. Examples include: a cognate for lice and another for the action of searching for lice; one term means mosquito in one subgroup of languages and in another subgroup of languages it refers to the state of being stung by a mosquito. Insightful background information is provided on naming practices that may arise from onomatopoeic or supernatural associations with a creature, or from wordplay around human interactions with types of insects that intrude into people’s lives. Supernatural associations may be designated by adding a certain affix, or forbidding the use of a creature’s name.

In Chapter 8, Pawley investigates the consistency of use for broad categorical terms applied to: fish; shellfish; other marine creatures; birds and bats; and insects and other creepy crawlies. The chapter begins with a concise review of recent ethnobiological theory, a section which guides readers into the complexities of comparing cross-cultural biological categorization systems built upon evolutionary change in contrast with taxonomies drawn from observation and experience. For readers who are new to ethnobiology, this section is worth reading before other sections of this book. Chapter 8 is an attempt to determine if ‘natural sequences of taxonomic shifts’ can be established. Pawley also investigates possible consistent factors that influence significant differences in the application of categorical terms among languages sharing common ancestral vocabularies. However, as one might guess by now, more research and data is required.

One of the key values of this impressive book is to establish a base and direction for future research. 89 line drawings of creatures support cross-language identifications. The first appendix lists the data sources used. The second appendix lists the languages referred to in the book, which are sub-grouped geographically, alphabetically, and with maps. Indexes of reconstructions are also provided by sub-protolanguage groups and in alphabetical order, followed by an index of English and biological terms. One deficiency in the organization of the book is the lack of a chapter-by-chapter list of the proposed POc terms. This would allow the reader to quickly check a chapter category for a POc term. Otherwise, this book and its other volumes represent a very significant contribution to knowledge in Austronesian linguistics and anthropology by these authors and editors.


Blust, Robert (2014). ‘Some Recent Proposal Concerning the Classification of the Austronesian Languages’, Oceanic Linguistics 53(2):300–391.

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