Many Austronesian languages show a far greater than chance correlation between morphemes that begin with a velar nasal and the general semantic domain 'mouth/nose'. Morphemes in this category may be either nouns ('saliva', 'snot', 'chin', 'beard', 'lip') or verbs ('gape', 'gnaw' 'grin, show the teeth', 'gnash the teeth', 'pant'). Widely distributed cognate sets show that some of these forms were found in Proto-Austronesian or other early Austronesian protolanguages. However, the great majority of n-initial forms that refer to the oral/nasal area appear to be peculiar to a single attested language or low-level subgroup, and suggest that this sound-meaning correlation continued to be productive through some six millennia of linguistic history. The problem of historical transmission that the phonestheme n- raises is a general one encountered wherever submorphemes are widely shared in noncognate forms. However this problem is ultimately solved, the fact of historical transmission shows that the phonestheme is a psychologically real unit of linguistic structure that can persist through hundreds of generations of speakers.
Oceanic Linguistics – University of Hawai'I Press