Anthony Grant: 'On the problems inherent in substantiating a linguistic area: the case of the Western Micronesian Sprachbund'
(abstract of a paper presented at the Conference on Linguistic Areas, Convergence and Language Change at the University of Manchester, UK, 22-23 November, 2002)

Thomason (2000) has written about difficulties involved in proving that constellations of shared features constitute a linguistic area. Such heuristic problems will be discussed in regard to the potential Sprachbund status of Western Micronesia. The languages involved are Western Chuukic varieties (Ulithian, Woleaian, Sonsorolese and varieties of Saipan Carolinian), Yapese, Palauan, and peripherally Chamorro of the Marianas.

All belong to the Malayo-Polynesian branch of Austronesian. Most are Oceanic (Chuukic participates in Nuclear Micronesian, Yapese is part of the Admiralties group originally from the Bismarck Archipelago, a primordial division of Oceanic). But Palauan and Chamorro belong to the Western Malayo-Polynesian anti-group. They are not closely related and have not successfully been subclassified further (Blust 2000). Thus two of the four groupings in this Sprachbund are near-isolates and Yapese is an Admiralties offshoot. In addition, Nguluwan, a variety of Yapese spoken ion the atoll of Ngulu, has absorbed even more lexical and structural features from surrounding languages than the rest of Yapese has.

These languages show partial convergence through many structural features, especially some highly-marked phonotactic and morphosyntactic properties, which are absent in many of the languages spoken nearby. Additionally they share further features presumably inherited from Proto-Malayo-Polynesian. There is also plentiful shared lexicon of various kinds: there are shared inherited Malayo-Polynesian lexicon, additional items originating in one language which passed to others in the group (especially from Palauan and Chuukic to Yapese: Ross 1996), and later shared cultural loans from German, Spanish, Japanese and English.

There are historical reasons for bracketing these languages together and for positing cultural exchange, given the role of the Yap Empire in pre-modern times and its dependence upon stone money obtained from Palau. We can additionally trace influences by doing philological work on some of these languages. In substantiating Western Micronesia as a Sprachbund I will discuss probative issues raised by two of the four participatory stocks lacking close relatives. I will separate diffused from inherited features among a group of ultimately related languages. I will further discuss the paradox that many typological features connecting these languages run in the opposite direction from those mediating lexical influence.