Big words, small phrase


Big words, small phrases: Mismatches between pause units and the polysynthetic word in Dalabon

Nicholas Evans, 1*

1University of Melbourne.

Janet Fletcher, 2

2University of Melbourne.

Belinda Ross3

3University of Melbourne.

*Correspondence address: Prof. Nick Evans,

Linguistics and Applied Linguistics, School of Languages and Linguistics, University of Melbourne, Parkville, VIC 3010, Australia.

Citation Information. Linguistics. Volume 46, Issue 1, Pages 89–129, ISSN (Online) 1613-396X, ISSN (Print) 0024-3949, DOI: 10.1515/LING.2008.004, January 2008

Publication history: 30 07 2004 09 05 2005


This article uses instrumental data from natural speech to examine the phenomenon of pause placement within the verbal word in Dalabon, a polysynthetic Australian language of Arnhem Land. Though the phenomenon is incipient and in two sample texts occurs in only around 4% of verbs, there are clear possibilities for interrupting the grammatical word by pause after the pronominal prefix and some associated material at the left edge, though these within-word pauses are significantly shorter, on average, than those between words. Within-word pause placement is not random, but is restricted to certain affix boundaries; it requires that the paused-after material be at least dimoraic, and that the remaining material in the verbal word be at least disyllabic. Bininj Gun-wok, another polysynthetic language closely related to Dalabon, does not allow pauses to interrupt the verbal word, and the Dalabon development appears to be tied up with certain morphological innovations that have increased the proportion of closed syllables in the pronominal prefix zone of the verb. Though only incipient and not yet phonologized, pause placement in Dalabon verbs suggests a phonology-driven route by which polysynthetic languages may ultimately become less morphologically complex by fracturing into smaller units.