Structure and Use of the Tahitian Language

The goal of this project is to investigate the structure and current usage of the Tahitian language. The first part of the project consists in documenting aspects of the grammar and sound system of the language as it is spoken by fluent speakers. Tahitian is deservedly of great interest to linguistics because certain aspects of the grammar are relatively unusual; however, relatively little is known about it and related Polynesian languages. Even less work is readily available to English-speaking researchers. This research project will explore how Tahitian works and relate that to how human languages more generally work. Although the project is on-going and will investigate numerous topics, we mention two here:

  • On the grammar side, Tahitian is relatively unusual in have a basic word order of Verb-Subject-Object, also called verb-initial. The PIs will explore the structure of information questions (such as Who did you see?), which typically have the question word at the front of the sentence and thus diverge significantly from the otherwise robust verb-initial behavior of Tahitian. Only about 10% of the world's languages are verb-initial and they are concentrated in the Pacific. Dr. Potsdam and other researchers have proposed that there are restrictions on how questions are expressed in verb-initial languages; however, relatively little in-depth work has been done on specific languages investigating these hypotheses. This part of the research will yield a detailed description of information questions in Tahitian and will relate the findings to cross-linguistic claims and theories.
  • On the sound side, Tahitian is special in having a very small inventory of consonants and vowels. A Ph.D student will be looking at how the unusual sound system affects the organization of the vocabulary and the detailed phonetic expression of the sounds. It is hypothesized that the limited number of sounds influences the form of possible words in the language. The student will also be recording speakers' pronunciation of words to determine whether different sounds are actually pronounced slightly differently in different words. Using state-of-the-art recording equipment, he will record a representative "phonetic dictionary" of the language, which will contribute to understanding the role that the unusual sound system has on the phonetic detail in the language. The phonetic dictionary will be of use to researchers and educators broadly and it is expected that the patterns in vocabulary and pronunciation that are uncovered will inform theories of the mental lexicon.

The second part of the project will look at the status and use of Tahitian among younger speakers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the language is undergoing relatively rapid changes under influence from French, particularly in urban Papeete and environs, and that it is "potentially endangered". Potential endangered languages are those which are socially and economically disadvantaged, under pressure from a larger language, and beginning to lose child speakers. With various experimental techniques, we will quantify these changes and the effects that French is having on young speakers' Tahitian fluency. Our goals our modest but the findings will contribute to an understanding of the relative influences that outside languages are placing on the long-term survivability of Tahitian.

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