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Metathesis and unmetathesis: Parallelism and complementarity in Amarasi, Timor

Friday 24 March 2017
Friday Afternoon Lecture
P.N. van Eyckhof 2
2311 BV Leiden


I provide a complete analysis of synchronic CV -> VC metathesis in Amarasi, an Austronesian language of western Timor. Metathesis and unmetathesis realise a paradigm of parallel forms, pairs of which occur to complement each other throughout the language.

Metathesis in Amarasi is superficially associated with a bewildering array of disparate phonological processes including: vowel deletion, consonant deletion, consonant insertion and multiple kinds of vowel assimilation, any of which can (and do) vary by lect in their realisation. By proposing that Amarasi has an obligatory CVCVC foot in which C-slots can be empty, all these phonological processes can be straightforwardly derived from a single rule of metathesis and two associated phonological rules.

Three kinds of metathesis can be identified in Amarasi. (i) Before vowel initial enclitics, roots must undergo metathesis, responding to the need to create a phonological boundary between a clitic host and enclitic. Such metathesis is syntactically driven but phonologically conditioned. (ii) Metathesis occurs within the syntax to signal attributive modification. A syntactically metathesised form cannot occur at the end of a phrase and thus requires the presence of an unmetathesised form to complete it syntactically. (iii) In the discourse an unmetathesised form marks an unresolved event or situation. Such an unmetathesised form cannot occur in isolation and requires a metathesised form to achieve resolution. Metathesis in Amarasi is the central linguistic process around which linguistic structures are organised.

Amarasi metatheses also reflect fundamental Timorese notions of societal and cosmic organisation. Alongside weaving and other performed activities, metathesis is an important linguistic marker of identity in a region obsessed with similarities and differences of identity between different groups. The complementarity of Amarasi metathesis and unmetathesis within the syntax and within discourse reflects the Timorese division of the world into a series of mutually dependent binary and complementary pairs. As well as being the key which unlocks the structure of the language, metathesis is also a reflection of the structure of Amarasi society and culture.

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