The Languages of Pulau Simeulue and Pulau Banyak: Mutated Forms Point to Southerly Origins

Authors: Robert Amery (University of Adelaide, Australia)
Zulfadli A. Aziz (Syiah Kuala University, Banda Aceh, Indonesia)
Speakers: Robert Amery, Zulfadli A. Aziz
Topic: Language, Community, Ethnicity
The SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2022 Poster Session


The languages of Pulau Simeulue and Pulau Banyak, islands off the west coast of the northern tip of Sumatra in the province of Aceh, Indonesia are under-researched. A language survey undertaken by Aziz and Amery in 2016 reveals that they are most closely related to Bahasa Nias and other languages to the south, and are only distantly related to the languages of mainland Aceh.

Lea Brown (2001) documents mutated nominal forms which play a role in ergativity and other grammatical functions in Nias Selatan spoken on Pulau Nias in the province of North Sumatra. In Nias, intransitive subjects and the objects of transitive verbs are marked by mutation, whilst the agents, or transitive subjects are unmarked. Mutation in Nias involves replacement of the initial unvoiced consonant with a voiced consonant, or if vowel initial, by the addition of an initial n- or g-. Many, but not all, of these same mutated forms appear in free variation with their non-mutated counterparts in a variety of Bahasa Nias that is spoken in two villages in Pulau Banyak, Aceh, but seemingly serve no grammatical function in that variety. Our notes indicate that mutated forms are regarded by Nias speakers as impolite. The mutated n- initial forms, such as nahu ‘dog’, nikhu ‘nose’ and nahi ‘salt’, appear again in Bahasa Sigulai spoken in the most northerly regions of Pulau Simeulue. But the n- initial forms in Sigulai correspond to unmutated forms, for example asu ‘dog’, ihung ‘nose’ and asin ‘salt’, in Devayan, now spoken in central regions of Pulau Simeulue. N- initial forms in Nias and Sigulai derive from vowel initial *asu ‘dog’, *ijung ‘nose’ or glottal initial *qasin ‘salt’ forms in proto-Austronesian (Blust, 2013). It would appear that the grammatical function once played by the mutated n- initial form now serves a social function in the variety of Nias spoken in Pulau Banyak and an identity function to distinguish closely related languages spoken on Pulau Simeulue. With the grammatical function of the n- initial forms in all likelihood preceding the social function, Nias is likely to be more conservative, indicating a southern origin for the languages of Pulau Simeulue and Pulau Banyak.

Keywords: Mutation, lexical correspondences, Pulau Simeulue and Pulau Banyak languages, Bahasa Sigulai, Bahasa Nias