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7 March, 2002

Charles E. Cairns <>
Marcel den Dikken <>

For more than a year now, faculty and students in the doctoral program in Linguistics at The City University of New York have been conducting research on the Rotuman language. A click to the "language" page from the Rotuman web site (<>) reveals some of the reasons why linguists have been interested in Rotuman; the current project is exposing many more interesting properties of Rotuman. We and a student, Ms. Ana Longenecker, began our project last year. Ms. Shalom Tua'toko, a Rotuman woman who works for the United Nations, has been helping us. Shalom's parents visited New York City last year, and they graciously helped us by making some recordings and by correcting some false impressions we had formed about the language. This semester we are conducting a course "The Structure of Rotuman." Shalom attends whenever her work schedule permits.

A community resource: the proposed web site. We plan to develop a web site in connection with this project in the near future. This web site will serve two purposes: one will be to invite Rotumans around the world to participate in the study of their language. One way we plan to do this is to ask Rotumans to respond to specific questions about how Rotumans would say particular things, and what particular constructions mean - we have an example a little later in this description. Another possible way to make our web site a community resource is to write our conclusions in a form that is accessible to Rotumans who have not had a lot of training in formal linguistics. We are particularly keen on learning from Rotumans what sort of material they would like us to put on our web site about the language.

The second purpose of the web site will be to inform linguists around the world about the realities of Rotuman. There has been an interesting flurry of articles in scholarly journals about Rotuman in recent years about the language, focusing mostly on the distinction between the complete and incomplete forms of words (illustrated below, and see < for an explanation of these terms). Linguists' beliefs about Rotuman have played a significant role in the development of some theories of linguistics, even though most of these beliefs have been based on a superficial reading of Churchward's 1940 grammar and dictionary. We hope that a responsible portrayal of the language as it really is will have a salutary result.

A word about linguistic studies of Rotuman. In 1940, C. Maxwell Churchward published a very thorough, insightful, and intelligent grammar and dictionary of Rotuman. Since then, there have been two strands of research into the language. One has been scientific efforts to trace the history of the language; the Andrew Pawley (1979) reference on the Rotuman web site exemplifies that very well. The second line of research into Rotuman is exemplified by the references to Niko Besnier's (1987) research, also accessible from the Rotuman web site; our research is, generally, in this latter vein.

In 1977, one of us, Cairns, published an article about Rotuman phonology, analyzing the differences between two forms of words. As explained on the Rotuman web site, most words in Rotuman have both a complete and an incomplete form. So, for example, the word for flower, 'hosa' appears in the complete form (hosa) when the speaker means "the flowers", and in the incomplete form, hoas, when the speaker means a more indefinite "flowers."

Cairns' 1977 analysis was framed in the linguistic theory then in vogue. In the intervening twenty-five years, there has been a significant number of articles (a complete bibliography will be made available upon request, and we hope to post a bibliography on our web site). These articles are all reanalyses of essentially the same facts, and they have appeared whenever there has been a change in the theory of linguistics. The authors typically go back to the same facts and claim that their new theory provides more fruitful insights about the language. The problem is, as we have discovered in our own research, that the "facts" used to justify these new theories are frequently simply wrong.

A question for Rotumans. Rotumans use the complete/incomplete distinction in some interesting and subtle ways. We have constructed a pair of sentences A and B, below, and we would like to know if Rotumans agree with our (and Shalom's) judgments about what they mean.

Sentence A:     'amiar tokatomiar 'e la hanis se 'aeag

Sentence B:     'Amiar tokatomira 'e la hanis se 'aeag

Do readers agree with this understanding of these sentences? Sentence A might be used by a pair of parents who are threatening their obstreperous child with a loss of affection unless there is an immediate improvement in behavior. Sentence B would mean that it was already too late - no matter what the child does, he has forever lost parental love. So while Sentence B has a ring of definitiveness about it, Sentence A says that the process of ending the affection, though already under way, has not yet reached its definitive end-point. The loss of affection may still be reversed in the scenario depicted by Sentence A, but the message in Sentence B is that it's all over.

If we are correct, then it would mean that the entire semantic difference between the two sentences is carried by the form of the pronominal suffix (-tomiar or -tomira). The first form, -tomiar in Sentence A, gives an air of indefiniteness, whereas the -tomira form in Sentence B is more definite.

We would love to hear your opinions! Please contact either of us at the email address on the top of this project description. And stay tuned for our web site!


Bibliography of Rotuman Language Studies

Seminal Works

Hocart, A.M. 1919. Notes on Rotuman grammar. Journal of the Anthropological Institute XLIX. 252-64.

Churchward, Clerk Maxwell. 1929. Definiteness and indefiniteness in Rotuman. Journal of the Polynesian Society 28. 281-84.

Churchward, Clerk Maxwell. 1940. Rotuman grammar and dictionary. Sydney: Methodist Church of Australia. Reissued in 1978 by AMS Press,

Reference Studies on Rotuman and the Languages of the Region

Arms, D.G. 1974. Transitivity in Standard Fijian. University of Michigan dissertation.

Codrington, R.H. 1885. The Melanesian languages. Clarendon Press. [pp. 401-8]

Geraghty, Paul. 1983. The history of the Fijian languages. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

Geraghty, Paul. 1993. Rotuman. In Darrell Tryon (ed.), Comparative Austronesian dictionary. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Part I, fascicle 2. 931-36.

Grace, George W. 1961. Lexicostatistical comparison of six Eastern Austronesian languages. Anthropological Linguistics. 1-22.

Grace, George W. 1967. Effect of heterogeneity in the lexicostatistical test list: The case of Rotuman. In G. Hightower et al. (eds), Polynesian culture history: Essays in honor of Kenneth P. Emory. Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum Press. 289-302.

Grace, George W. 1981. Indirect inheritance and the aberrant Melanesian languages. In Jim Hollyman & Andrew Pawley (eds), Studies in Pacific languages and cultures in honour of Bruce Biggs. Auckland: Linguistic Society of New Zealand. 255-68.

Lynch, John. 1998. Pacific languages: An introduction. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. [available at New York Public Library]

Milner, George. 1971. Fijian and Rotuman. In Thomas A. Sebeok (ed.), Linguistics in Oceania. Current Trends in Linguistics (8). The Hague: Mouton. 397-425.

Pawley, Andrew. 1979. New Evidence on the Position of Rotuman. Working Papers in Anthropology, Archaeology, Linguistics, Maori Studies, no. 56. Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Pawley, Andrew. 1996. On the position of Rotuman. In Nothofer (ed.). 85-119.

Schmidt, Hans. 2000. Rotuma: Sprache und Geschichte. Großbarkau: Edition Barkau.

Voegelin and Voegelin. Rotuman sentence profile. Languages of the World. Indo-Pacific Fascicle 3. 110-25.

Theoretical Studies Mentioning/analysing Rotuman Data

Besnier, Niko. 1987. An autosegmental approach to metathesis in Rotuman. Lingua 73. 201-23.

Biggs, Bruce. 1965. Direct and indirect inheritance in Rotuman. Lingua 14. 383-445.

Blevins, Juliette. 1994. The bimoraic foot in Rotuman phonology and morphology. Oceanic Linguistics 491-516.

Blevins, Juliette & Andrew Garrett. 1998. The origins of consonant-vowel metathesis. Language 74. 508-56.

Cairns, Chuck. 1977. Universal properties of umlaut and vowel coalescence rules: Implications for Rotuman phonology. In Alphonse Juilland (ed.), Linguistic studies offered to Joseph Greenberg. Saratoga, CA: Anma Libri & Co.

Gupta, Prahlad & David Touretzky. 1993. Connectionist models and linguistic theory: Investigations of stress systems in language. [mentions Rotuman several times] Available on-line at:

Hale, Mark & Madelyn Kissock. 1998. The phonology-syntax interface in Rotuman. UCLA Occasional Papers in Linguistics 21.

Kikusawa, Ritsuko. 2001. Rotuman and Fijian case-marking strategies and their historical development. Oceanic Linguistics 40. 85-111.

McCarthy, John. 1995. Expressions of faithfulness: Rotuman revisited. ROA-110, available at:

McCarthy, John. 2000. The prosody of phase in Rotuman. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 18. 147-97.

Norquest, Peter. 2002. Kinds of correspondence in Rotuman and Kwara'ae. Paper presented at the LSA conference in San Francisco.

Norquest, Peter. to appear. The collapse of the foot in Oceanic. WECOL 2001 Proceedings.

Schmidt, Hans. 2002. Temathesis in Rotuman. Paper presented at the 5th International Conference of Oceanic Languages, Canberra, January 2002.

Vamarasi, Marit. n.d. Stress, long vowels, and diphthongs in Rotuman. Paper presented at the 6th International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics (6-ICAL).

Vamarasi, Marit. 1998. The Rotuman 'transitive' suffix: Could it actually be a detransitivizer? Paper presented at the 8th International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics (8-ICAL), Taipei, Taiwan, 28 December 1997 -- 2 January 1998.

Vamarasi, Marit. 1999. The functions of complete and incomplete in Rotuman verbs. In Neile Kirk & Paul Sidwell (eds), From Neanderthal to Easter Island, AHL Studies in the Science & History of Language 2. 75-84

Vamarasi, Marit. 2002. Rotuman subject suffixes and the stative-active distinction. Paper presented at the 5th International Conference of Oceanic Languages, Canberra, January 2002.


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