Mathias Jenny at the NEILS 7 conference


A few Tibeto-Burman languages of Northeast India make use of a causative construction with prefixed pe- or similar elements. These forms are untypical in the linguistic environment. They apparently take the place of the inherited *s- causative, which in most Tibeto-Burman languages has been replaced by a postverbal auxiliary. Two cases in point are Angami Naga and Mikir (Karbi). In both languages, the causative prefix can be linked to the general Tibeto-Burman root for ‘give’, reconstructed as *bəy. This root appears as a full verb meaning ‘give’ in both Angami Naga and Mikir.

The grammatical use of preverbal ‘give’ to mark permissive and jussive, in some cases more generally causative, expressions is one of the common features of Southeast Asian languages, but it is less frequent on the periphery, including peninsular and insular Southeast Asia and parts of Myanmar. Especially Tibeto-Burman languages seem to be outside the sphere of this construction, though colloquial Burmese and some varieties of Jinghpo in Myanmar make use of it. In Karenic languages, which have adapted to the SVO word order of their neighbors, the situation is less straightforward, while verb-final Lahu in Thailand uses causative ‘give’ postverbally with a restricted set of verbs.

Preverbal ‘give’ as causative auxiliary is consistent with the general Southeast Asian typological profile, but not with the verb-final layout of the Tibeto-Burman languages, which favor postverbal auxiliaries. While the use of preverbal permissive ‘give’ in Burmese can be explained as influence from Mon and in Jinghpo from Shan, the contact situation is less clear in Northeast India, though Austroasiatic (Pnar, Khasi) influence is one possibility in Mikir, and maybe Angami Naga.

This study looks at the ‘give’-constructions in a number of languages from Southeast Asia through Myanmar to Northeast India, trying to find patterns in distribution and syntactic behavior. The study is based both on published sources and original fieldwork by the author in Thailand and Myanmar.