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So close and yet so different: Reconstructing the phonological history of three Southern New Caledonian languages


  • William Zetterberg

Summary, in English

This thesis investigates the phonological history of three languages spoken in southern New Caledonia: Ajië, Tîrî, and Xârâcùù. New Caledonia is an overseas special collectivity of France, located in the Southwest Pacific Ocean, which is home to a remarkable linguistic diversity, with around 28 distinct indigenous languages varieties spoken today. These languages, known as Kanak languages, are members of the Oceanic subgroup of the Austronesian language family. The majority of these languages are spoken on the main island, Grande Terre, and are commonly organized into two subgroups, a Northern and a Southern group. The Southern languages have previously been proposed to form two distinct sister groups alongside the Northern subgroup, a Mid-Southern and Far-Southern subgroup respectively. However, little research has so far been conducted on the phonological history of the languages that have previously been classified in the Mid-Southern group, and it has not been possible to systematically evaluate the position of these languages in relation to the languages of the Northern and Far-Southern subgroups. This thesis therefore focuses on the three most well-documented members of the Mid-Southern group, Ajië, Tîrî, and Xârâcùù, with the aim to reconstruct the phonological structure of the last common ancestor of these languages. The goal of this reconstruction is to clarify the position of the Mid-Southern languages within the New Caledonian group. In order to reconstruct the phonological system of this common ancestor, a large set of lexical and morphological items were collected from various published wordlists and dictionaries in the three languages, from which cognate words were compiled between the three languages, and sound correspondences were generated. In the results and discussion, the correspondences between the languages are systematically analyzed, based on which predictions are made about phonological properties in the common proto-language. As such, this study presents the first phonological reconstruction of the ancestral form of the Mid-Southern languages of mainland New Caledonia. The results of this study indicate that many of the characteristic phonological traits found in the Mid-Southern languages evolved already in the common Proto-Mid-South language. By further comparing the results with higher-order Austronesian reconstructions, this phonological reconstruction supports a distinct Mid-Southern subgroup of the New Caledonian mainland, which is characterized by a number of phonological innovations of which several are not known in or cannot be reconstructed to the neighboring Northern and Far-Southern subgroups.







Examensarbete för masterexamen (Två år)


  • Languages and Literatures


  • Historical linguistics
  • Comparative method
  • Reconstruction
  • Sound change
  • Phonology
  • Austronesian
  • Oceanic
  • Contact linguistics


  • Arthur Holmer (docent)
  • Mechtild Tronnier