This website is connected to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) Project: Combining Gender and Classifiers in Natural Language (grant AH/K003194/1). In this project we investigate a rare type of language, namely those which have both a gender system and a system of classifiers. In such languages nouns are classified by two different systems. We investigate the characteristics of such systems of dual classification, how they interact and how they are exploited simultaneously in tracking discourse referents. On this website you can find out about the classification systems of two indigenous languages of Papua New Guinea, Mian and Kilivila. While Kilivila has a single system of classifiers, an extensive one with a great number of distinctions, Mian has a dual system, which combines four genders and six classifiers. Look for more information on the two languages in the columns on the right. You can explore the Mian and Kilivila systems in more detail using the Digital Collection on this website, which consists of a wide range of different images of Mian and Kilivila objects and people. Once you have a good idea of how it works you can test you knowledge in the Quiz!
Mian is a Papuan language of the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. About 1,700 people speak Mian today. The language is highly endangered because of small speaker numbers and heavy influence from Neo-Melanesian Pidgin. From the perpective of categorization Mian is fascinating because it is one of the relatively rare languages in the world that combines a gender system with a system of classifiers. There are four genders – masculine, feminine and two neuter genders – where articles and the verb change in form depending on the gender of a noun. In addition to this, there are six classifiers which appear predominantly on about 40 verbs of object movement or handling, e.g. give, take, lift, remove, throw, turn and fall. The categories are partly based on shape (long) and function (bundle). So where English just has a single verb ‘to give’, ‘give’ in Mian changes slightly depending on whether one gives an arrow (belonging to the class of long objects) or a bag (belonging to the bundle class). This means that each noun in the language is doubly classified, once by the gender system and once by the classifier system.
Kilivila is an Austronesian language spoken on the Trobriand Islands in Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea, by about 25,000 speakers. It is a Western Melanesian Oceanic language belonging to the Papuan Tip Cluster group. In contrast to Mian, Kilivila does not have two separate systems of nominal classification. Its system of classifiers is intriguing because of its sheer size: there are at least 177 distinct classifiers. These classify human beings or objects in many different ways, for example ‘group of people’, ‘wooden object’ or ‘flexible object’ and they appear on a range of modifiers of a noun, namely on all number words, but also on most demonstratives, that is words like ‘this’ or ‘that’, and some adjectives. The classifiers have other functions as well. They can be used to refer back to objects that have been talked about previously and which fit the category indicated by the classifier. Some classifiers have a collective meaning, for example ‘group of people’. As the language does not express plural on its nouns (in contrast to English, which has cat vs. cats), collective classifiers are the Kilivila way to express the plural.