Penelope Howe: Word order and the verb voice system in Northern Malagasy dialects


23. 10. 2019 09:15


Trainee centre 3.40, Vodární 6, Olomouc


Malagasy is often cited as a language that clearly exhibits Verb-Object-Subject (VOS) basic word order. While a rare trait worldwide, this is relatively more common among Austronesian languages, since verb-initial word order (VSO or VOS) descends from Proto-Austronesian. Although pragmatic considerations and certain syntactic constructions permit other word orders (usually SVO), in many dialects and Official Malagasy, the basic order remains VOS. However, in the Northern dialects, both VOS and SVO word orders are possible in unmarked declarative clauses (Potsdam & Polinsky 2014). The frequency and pragmatics of the use of SVO in these dialects remains largely unexplored. Another aspect in which Malagasy is frequently claimed to be linguistically conservative is its “Philippine-style” verb voice system, in which one can identify up to five different morphological voices (e.g., Dahl 1996). How faithfully this system reflects those of languages from which it is descended, however, is a matter of debate (Adelaar, p.c.); lexicalization and erosion of the voice system are evident in various dialects, but functional aspects of the system in modern usage and in different dialects need further study.

The current work-in-progress examines word order and voice in interview and narrative data collected from speakers of Northern dialects. It investigates the frequency of SV(O) word order and possible pragmatic or information structure factors that condition its use. In addition, it explores the relationship between word order and voice form to ask whether the shift towards SVO word order may also contribute to erosion of the voice system.


Dahl, O. C. (1996). Predicate, Subject, and Topic in Malagasy. Oceanic Linguistics35(2), 167–179.

Potsdam, E., & Polinsky, M. (2014). INFORMATION QUESTIONS IN MALAGASY DIALECTS: OFFICIAL MALAGASY AND ANTAKARANA. In Proceedings of the workshop “Dialectal variation in Madagascar” (p. 13). Antsiranana, Madagascar.


Penelope Howe is a freelance linguist and independent linguistic researcher in Madagascar, where she conducted her dissertation research and served as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Antananarivo in 2018 after receiving her PhD from Rice University (Houston, Texas, USA) in 2017. Her research focuses on dialectal variation in Malagasy, applying primarily experimental and quantitative approaches to areas ranging from (socio)phonetics, phonology, and prosody to functional syntax. Her dissertation presented previously undocumented evidence of emergent phonological tone in the Central Malagasy dialect group.