AA Workshop 2016 Report

For a summary (in Thai) and more pictures, visit the website of the AA workshop 2016 Myanmar Center at Chiang Mai University.

Report on the Austroasiatic Workshop 2016: September 5-7, 2016, Myanmar Center, Chiang Mai University, Thailand

With financial support of the MPI Jena (Science of Human History, Linguistic and Cultural Evolution) and the University of Zurich (Department of Comparative Linguistics) in cooperation with Chiang Mai University (Myanmar Center).

See also https://sites.google.com/site/icaalprojects/aa-workshop-2016/aa-workshop-report

which also includes a link to an extensive collection of photographs.


This was the first time in the 150-year history of the study of the Austroasiatic language family in which a concerted effort has begun to reconstruct Proto-Austroasiatic syntax. The groundbreaking workshop was highly productive. 16 scholars from 8 countries met over 3 days, 8 hours each day. Day 1 consisted of 20-minute presentations of papers submitted before the meeting, and days 2 and 3 were spent on moderated discussion sessions. The evenings were occupied with working dinners at which presentations and discussion continued. The concrete outcomes were as follows:

  • The meeting resulted in a working group to go forward with a coordinated program to address the issues of AA historical syntax;
  • Mechanisms for online data sharing (using OneDrive), research collaboration (using Google docs), and a shared Zotero bibliography were set up;
  • A detailed list of research questions and priorities were noted and agreed upon;
  • Substantial analytical and programmatic agreement was achieved between the Munda specialists attending (especially Gregory Anderson and Felix Rau) resulting in a proximal consensus reconstruction of proto-Munda verb-morphology and proto-Austroasiatic clause constituent order;
  • The proto-Austroasiatic Verb-Initial hypothesis of Jenny received substantial support, and this led to agreement on a strategy to collectively assemble, share, and analyse textual data across the phylum to further investigate this line of research;
  • The group agreed to publish an edited volume (with Brill or DeGruyter Mouton) in 2017 which will include a collectively authored and elaborated position paper plus independently authored papers;
  • The group also agreed plan to reconvene 2 years later (provisionally the same time and place) to review and consolidate progress and plan the next stage of research collaboration.


The following scholars participated in the meeting. Note also that Day 1 was open to visitors, and about 20 students and staff of Chiang Mai and Payap Universities attended.

Mathias Jenny (University of Zurich)

Paul Sidwell (Australian National University)

Felix Rau (Universität zu Köln)

KV Subbarao (University of Hyderabad)

Yamada Atsushi (Japan Health Care College)

Ellie Hall (Payap University, SIL International)

Mark Alves (Montgomery College)

Mayuri Dilip (University of Hyderabad)

Gregory Anderson (Living Tongues Institute)

Bikram Jora (Living Tongues Institute)

Paul Widmer (University of Zurich)

Rikker Dockum (Yale University)

Hiram Ring (NTU Singapore)

Sujaritlak Deepadung (Mahidol University)

Patrick McCormick (University of Zurich)

Mark Donohue (Australian National University)

For the Day 1 program of talks see Appendix 1.

The list of participants reflected the conveners’ concern for a diverse range of input, especially from scholars outside of AA studies who have expertise in areal and typological linguistics and syntax. This proved to be a very successful strategy, specifically:

Rikker Dockum lead discussion on Classifiers and Classifier Phrases in SEAsia and also provided essential technical assistance in helping to set up the online resource sharing and research collaboration tools. This input is absolutely critical for maintaining the level of productivity in collaboration going forward.

Paul Widmer offered an Indo-European perspective, and consequently it became clear that the Indo-Europeanists are facing not only similar issues and challenges, but that they also lacked a coherent or coordinated of program of the kind we are in the process of building. Widmer also provided valuable insight in terms of discussing the use of computational phylogenetic and other statistical methods in historical syntax.

Patrick McCormick brought a historian’s perspective the meeting. This included specific input on the use and limits of historical sources, questions such as the identification and/or construction of linguistic and social groups (with various salutary lessons!) , and how to communicate with scholars in cognate disciplines other than linguistics.

Mark Donohue made valuable contributions in relation areal typology and typology of change, and provided important concepts on the theory of language change and implications for reconstruction. Much of his input consisted of steering the discussion back to the social factors in language transmission and factors conditioning change, helping to make concrete what might have been otherwise overly abstract discussion.

The other participants are all linguists specializing in one more AA language or groups and this can be seen the list of abstracts/papers (Appendix 1).


The fundamental task of the workshop was to establish programmatic follow-through after the publication of the Handbook of Austroasiatic Languages (2014, edited by Jenny and Sidwell) which began as a project first organised at the 2009 ICAAL meeting. The handbook summarised the state of AA studies, synchronic and historical, and included representative sketches of some 26 language (from a phylum of 160+ languages in 13 branches). It became clear that phonological and lexical studies and dominated AA linguistics historically, while syntax has been neglected. Of course, various syntactic studies exist, but they have been entirely individual efforts, informed by disparate theoretical perspectives, have inadequate or incomparable coverage, and are difficult to compare. And although there has been a significant amount of text collection over the decades, this is frequently not published, is not readily available in electronic forms, or is otherwise difficult to work with, and therefore presents challenges for properly grounding syntactic studies.

Going back to the 1st and 2nd ICAAL meetings in the 1970s, there was an emerging discussion of aspects of pAA syntax which was later sidelined as AA studies receded in activity through the 1980s and 1990s. That early work broadly followed the view that the verb medial (SVO/AVP) syntax characteristic of Mainland Southeast Asia and specifically the AA languages of Indo-China is apparently echoed in the order of morphemes within the Munda verb complex, and thus provides a model for proto-AA word order as also being werb-medial. However, recent typological work (especially stimulated by the handbook project) has pointed to verb initial orders in peripheral AA groups, including languages for which no simple contact hypothesis can be advanced, and Mathias Jenny presented a summary of this work and talked the group through a review of the evidence.

A number of issues have now been brought into focus. Firstly, it is apparent that an expectation of verb mediality has coloured descriptive work, leading to various mischaracterizations and/or selective citation of data in the published literature. A more representative sampling of textual data reveals more extensive evidence for verb initiality than previously recognised, and this is particularly true of archaic structures such as incorporated object constructions, and conservative structures such as subordinate clauses. Another point is that a simple comparison of word order in peripheral groups cannot assume that they must reflect archaic structures, e.g. Nicobarese VPA order is quite likely derived from the Mainland AVP pattern by right-dislocation of Agents. By contrast, the emerging hypothesis is that proto-AA order in transitive clauses was VAP (with a discontinuous VP) with restructuring following reorganisation of Comment-Topic structure. It is also not immediately clear to what extent syntactic restructure away from hypothetical verb-initiality was conditioned by contact versus internal tendencies/drift. Many questions arise about the areal context of proto-AA, the dispersal of AA branches, and the establishment of existing syntactic patterns across the phylum.

The First panel on Day 1 dealt with these important big-picture topics, speakers were Jenny, Donohue, Alves, and Sidwell. Jenny sketched out the case for historical verb-initial order and ways that the question can be developed. Donohue presented a detailed areal typology of AA morphosyntax, making good use of WALS data and his own (enriched) online database. Alves focused on the Vietic branch as an exemplar of AVP typology, while Sidwell reviewed the case for AVP > VPA in Nicobarese. The session set the tone for the subsequent discussions hinging on the complex interaction between internal reconstruction and modeling of contact driven change.

The second panel focused on Munda and was delivered by Rau, Anderson, Subbarao, Dilip and Jora. Rau and Anderson gave converging big-picture reconstructions of the Munda Verb-complex, while the other speakers discussed details for agreement systems and TAM marking. This was a crucial session as Munda is the only branch perceived as having clearly archaic verbal morphology, and thus is given much more weight in the reconstruction than patterns found in the more analytically structured branches.

The third panel focused on Khasian and Palaungic languages, which are – after Munda – now recognised as emerging hot beds of old verb-initial syntax. Speakers were Yamada, Hall, Deepadung, and Ring. These northern AA groups are geographically intermediate between Munda and the rest of AA, so they have always been looked upon as potentially being a link between the typological extremes of the phylum, but the emerging picture is now one of a mix of independent and archaic patterns, and a lot of fundamental work needs to be done to clarify the real picture.

The last panel of the first day gave space for outside perspectives, delivered by Widmer, McCormick and Dockum, which are already summarised above.

The moderated discussions on the following days were wide ranging but was also controlled to ensure that an agreed programmatic outlook was sketched out. The list of themes can be seen in the Appendix 1, and the following outlines the details and specific outcomes which were discussed.


The following points were the result of the discussion on day 2 of overall constituent order in clauses.

  • CONSTITUENCY: It is agreed that identification of verbs is generally not controversial, while pAA argument structure is complicated by the fact that “subject-hood” and “topic-hood” are not easily distinguished. Did pAA have full-fledged subjects or were clauses primarily ordered semantically (e.g., Topic-Comment order)? There is a need to ground the identification of SVO/AVP, Topic-Comment, etc. according to the data in the languages and subgroups.
  • VERB-INITIAL: How can we account for the verb-initial, comment-topic pattern in Khasi-Palaungic languages? Is there any evidence that it is due to contact? If not, we are left with the probability that these are retentions of an earlier stage of PAA.
  • TYPOLOGY: What are the correlates of being a verb-initial/Comment-Topic language? We expect right-branching NP structure, as as is the case throughout most AA languages.
  • WRITTEN ATTESTATIONS: Verb-medial structures are attested in Mon and Khmer writings as far back as the 6th century CE. However, as we are considering a time-depth of thousands of years, and there are contrasting patterns among some AA sub-branches, we must consider such data carefully in light of the typological convergence in the region.
  • TASKS: What will researchers look for in AA languages to address the question of pAA constituent order?

DATA SOURCES: We need a list of data sources to identify evidence for verb-initial vs verb-medial status of PAA. We need an online location to gather and share materials digitally.

LISTS OF QUESTIONS: We need a checklist of issues in clause constituents for investigating and being able to have consistency in cross-linguistic/branch comparison.


It is recognised that issue of word order falls into at least two levels: 1) how words/morphemes form phrases, and 2) how phrases are structured into clauses. VPs may be discontinuous or difficult to characterise, but NPs appear to be more straightforward: the typologically most frequent pattern in NPs among AA languages is right-branching, while classifiers in AA and their position in NPs appear to be the result of contact with other language groups. However, a number of additional questions arose in the discussion, notably of the emergence of grammatical lexical elements in PAA NPs. A detailed typology of AA NPs is required, and following points were listed/discussed:

  • NP elements
  • o Nouns (count, noncount)
  • o Demonstratives and pronouns
  • o Numerals / quantity words
  • o Stative verbs / attributives / adjectives
  • o Relative clauses (overlap with other attributives)
  • o Possessive / genitive marking
  • o Classifiers / sortal measure words
  • Word order, parameters and typology
  • o Right-branching today
  • o Two types: (a) pre-nominal: numeral plus measures/classifiers; (b) numerals plus measures/classifiers post-nominal
  • Questions/hypotheses about PAA NP structure
  • o Did PAA absolutely have noun-modifier NP structure?
  • o Did PAA absolutely have noun-demonstrative word order?
  • o What was the position of numerals/quantity words in the NP? Should we assume it was post-nominal as it was right-branching?
  • o Can we reconstruct the category ‘remote’ in pAA demonstratives? How many degrees of proximity can we reconstruct in demonstratives?
  • o Were there no classifiers? Did PAA have classifiers which relic prefixes (e.g., so-called ‘ka-’ animal prefixes/presyllables)?
  • o Was there a pAA relativizer (Khasi, Vietnamese, Muak Sa-ak, Old Khmer, Literary Mon, and pAA *ma ‘what’ is reconstructed)?
  • o Was there no indication of grammatical marking elements in NPs possessive marker, etc.?
  • o Was there an obligatory pre-head slot in NP (e.g., demonstratives, 3rd person pronoun, “articles”, etc., cf. Nicobarese pre-nominal demonstrative)?
  • o Can Alienable/inalienable possession be reconstructed?


Combining syntactic, lexical and phonological reconstruction, we can potentially identify and reconstruct proto-AA morphemes that played a role in linking and coordinating syntactic structures. We can also reconstruct paradigmatic sets such as pronouns, which can also be sources for such morphemes. The session reviewed and discussed the following:

  • Proto-AA *tə linker/subordinator was reviewed, and similarity to other morphemes suggested by Shorto (2006) critiqued. Does it come from a grammaticalised verb “to arrive”?
  • Personal pronouns/demonstratives – Sidwell’s 2015 AA pronouns reconstruction was critiqued and revised. In particular, third-person pronouns were distinguished from demonstratives and categories of gender and number provisionally assigned.
  • Other paradigmatic lexical/morphological items were suggested and discussed:
  • Prepositions: Is the term over specified? There was discussion on ‘semantic/grammatical role’ marking of such lexical elements.
  • TAM, polarity markers
  • Degree expressions
  • Position/direction/temporality
  • Colours
  • Kinterms
  • Other lexical fields and potential sources of grammaticalized forms.
  • Serial Verb Constructions: Were these available in proto-AA, and was there a grammaticalization path to TAM markers?


This session was one of the crucial milestones of the workshop. It worked out in more detail the emerging reconstruction of the Munda Verbal Complex. In addition to identifying the specific order of functional categories, what morphemes are reconstructable to fill each slot? Some two dozen proto-Munda morphemes were discussed, and AA etymologies identified for most of these. It is evident that various morphemes were already grammaticalized in proto-AA while others fell along a cline of grammaticalization. Other issues include this list:

  • What is the role of phonology/prosody?
  • What is the significance of full and short forms of nouns in Munda(e.g. do embedded object forms preserve historical Proto-AA root structure)?
  • How integrated was the Munda Verbal Complex? Anderson played Sora recordings that clearly demonstrate that verbal complexes are being pronounced as a string of prosodic words rather than being tightly bound into a single prosodic word (as Donegan and Stampe have argued for decades in various publications).

The data – especially as presented by Anderson – directly contradict the long-standing Munda-MK typological polarity argument and show Munda languages to be much more AA-like. Overall, the group was persuaded to consider Munda, while typologically distinct in various ways, to be much less of an outlier in the AA family than has been generally recognised.

The classification of Munda was reviewed and the emerging consensus divides the branch into perhaps 6 equidistant sub-branches (not the traditional North-South split) and Gtaq – which has a very SEAsian-like iambic word template – is now argued to be one of the coordinate branches. This argues for a relatively shallow time-depth for Munda, more in line with other AA branches, and facilitates a tighter integration of Munda into a coherent syntactic reconstruction of pAA.


Various issues were raised and discussed:

  • There is apparently no evidence of inflectional morphology in proto-AA, but derivational morphology is clearly indicated and reconstructed (e.g. causative, instrumental, nominalization, etc.) indicating that distinct open classes such as Noun and Verb are indicated.
  • How much noun-compounding did PAA have? There are a significant number of distinct roots, reducing the need for compounding. Is compounding of PAA nouns reconstructable at all? To what extent are present patterns a result of contact?
  • What was the amount of reduplicative/expressive word-formation? Imitative and expressive vocabulary and word formation seem to be deeply embedded in AA, although Munda seems to be different form the rest of AA in this respect.
  • Any grammatical functions reconstructable (e.g., plurality, intensification, distributive, imperfective, etc.)?


The session on language contact began with a role-playing/thought experiment looking at the role of contact in language transmission. The concept of “uninterrupted vertical transmission” was then unpacked and critiqued.

  • What social factors are relevant in language transmission and how do they interact?
  • It is generally assumed that contact may be from L2 acquisition. However, when a non-native speaker uses one’s L1 and manifests contact influence one’s L1, is that broken or continuous transmission?
  • From the discussion, the following factors to consider conditioning contact/transmission emerged:

1. Social complexity/diversity

2. Institutional support

3. Time depth

4. Population (size?)

5. Intensity of interaction

6. Prestige / social status / attitude

7. Kind of interaction

8. Percentage of bilingualism

9. Tolerance for linguistic variation

10. Typological pressure

11. Overt structure vs. Ø

12. Semantico-syntactic functions.

Can we reconstruct the social situation of proto-AA society? For example, were proto-AA speakers hunter-gathers and/or horticulturalists in contact with northern Neolithic farmers? – Various scenarios are to be considered.


A number of relevant points came out of Widmor’s presentation on diachronic syntax in Proto-Indo-European studies.

A study of sound changes in Turkic suggests that all phonemes have changed in some way at least once within 1,200 years. Discussion: Is it not possible for some sounds to remain stable for long periods, will this be phylum specific?

Lexicostatistical and related methods make inferences based on ~2% of the lexicon; how reasonable is this, how much useful information is not considered?

A PIE Bayesian phylogenetic tree generated based on NP structure yields a “blurry” set of connections leading to the resulting final nodes. Language contact provides an excellent explanation for the discrepancies in the tree, and therefore such modeling can permit inferences concerning social factors.


The working group laid out a comprehensive plan to proceed with research cooperation such that specialists in the various branches can integrate data and research findings via online mechanisms. In addition, specialists in branches not represented at the meeting can be drawn into the cooperation and given access to the infrastructure.


· GOOGLE DOCS/SHEETS: Online files and spreadsheets were established, shared and tasks initially assigned. The participants were shown how to update the files, use tools in the spreadsheets, leave comments, and so on. The following spreadsheets were set up:

  • PAA predicate (Ring, Rau)
  • Verb template (Subbarao, Anderson)
  • NP structure (Alves)
  • Pronouns (Sidwell)
  • Classifiers (Ring, Dockum, Alves)
  • Numerals (Sidwell)
  • ONEDRIVELIVE.COM: A folder has been set up for data/publication sharing. Rikker Dokkum has uploaded more than 100 relevant, largely unpublished, Thailand dissertations in PDF. The cloud folder shared with all participants and reminders and updates will be sent out from time to time.
  • ZOTERO.COM: A bibliography for data sources/publications will be coordinated by Dokkum, who will provide assistance for participants using Zotero.


The final session was run as a business meeting. The following matters were discussed and/or resolved:


The workshop resolved to produce an edited volume. Since first drafts of the papers have already been submitted, it was decided to fast-track publication to allow publication in 2017, aiming to come before the next open ICAAL meeting.

  • A companion volume to the AA handbook, on AA historical and areal syntax, the scope will include a position paper with overview of work to-date and outline of the way forward and various synchronic and diachronic papers on specific languages and language groups, broad comparative studies, and areal/contact issues.
  • Co-authoring is supported/encouraged for papers, and the widest possible author input will be sought for the position paper.
  • The first publisher to be approached will be Brill (Mainland and Insular South East Asia series), and other potential publishers were discussed.
  • Post-workshop drafts are to be submitted for editing by February 1st, 2017.


The ICAAL held at Siam Reap in 2015 delegated the workshop to decide the venue of the next open ICAAL meeting. Various tentative options in India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and France have been raised. Since then, John Peterson (Kiel University, Germany) has signaled his willingness to host a meeting. The meeting took the view that a meeting in Europe would be appropriate since it has not been held there on any of the six previous occasions, and the location in northern Germany could prove significant in drawing in the involvement of the AA research community in Scandinavia, who have previously been reluctant to participate in ICAAL.

  • The meeting resolved to pursue the option of holding the next ICAAL in Kiel, Germany in early September, 2017.

There was some discussion about whether future workshops should be held separately or in conjunction with the open ICAAL meetings. The meeting eventually decided that it is desirable to separate the workshops and open meetings, in order to have clearly separate streams for independent and collaborative projects, with each reporting to the other.


It was agreed that the membership of the working group is generally open but with expectations of (a) respect of the materials and data and (b) active cooperation in pursuing the collaborative program that has been mapped out.

The working group is now considered a permanent standing sub-group of the ongoing ICAAL movement, convened by Jenny and Sidwell.

APPENDIX: workshop timetable

Day 1, 5 September 2016 Room: HB7801

Days 2 & 3, 6-7 September Room: HB7801

Moderated Discussion Sessions