The Info List - Sama-Bajaw Languages

The Sama–Bajaw languages are a well established group of languages spoken by the Bajau and Sama peoples of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. They are mainly spoken on Borneo and the Sulu Archipelago between Borneo and Mindanao.


Grimes (2003) identifies nine Sama–Bajaw languages.

  1. Balangingi (Bangingi'; Northern Sama)
  2. Central Sama (Siasa Sama)
  3. Southern Sama (Sinama)
  4. Pangutaran Sama
  5. Mapun (Kagayan)
  6. Yakan
  7. Abaknon (Inabaknon)
  8. Indonesian Bajau
  9. West Coast Bajau

The first six are spoken in the Sulu region of the Southern Philippines. Indonesian Bajaw is spoken mainly in Sulawesi and West Coast Bajaw in Sabah, Borneo. Several dialects of the languages can be identified.[2]

Blust (2006)[3] states that lexical evidence indicates that Sama–Bajaw originated in the Barito region of southeast Borneo, though not from any established group of Barito languages. Ethnologue has followed, calling the resulting group 'Greater Barito'.


Pallesen (1985:18) classifies the Sama-Bajaw languages as follows.

  • Sama-Bajaw
    • Abaknon
    • Yakan: Northern Yakan, Southern Yakan
    • Sibuguey (Sama Batuan)
    • Sulu-Borneo
      • Western Sulu: Sama Pangutaran, Sama Ubian
      • Inner Sulu
        • Northern Sulu: Tagtabun Balangingiq, Tongquil Balangingiq, Linungan, Panigayan Balangingiq, Landang-Guaq, Mati, Sama Daongdong, Kawit Balangingiq, Karundung, Pilas
        • Central Sulu: Sama Kaulungan, Sama Dilaut, Sama Kabingan, Sama Musuq, Sama Laminusa, Sama Balimbing, Sama Bannaran, Sama Bangaw-Bangaw, South Ubian
        • Southern Sulu: Sama Tanduq-baas, Sama Simunul, Sama Pahut, Sama Sibutuq, Sama Sampulnaq
        • Sama Lutangan, Sama Sibukuq
      • Borneo Coast
        • Jama Mapun
        • Sabah Land Bajaw: Kota Belud Bajaw, Kawang Bajaw, Papar Bajaw, Banggi Bajaw, Putatan Bajaw
        • Indonesian Bajaw: Sulamu, Kajoa, Roti, Jaya Bakti, Poso, Togian 1, Wallace, Togian 2, Minahasa



Western Austronesian languages are characterised by symmetrical voice alternations. These differ from asymmetrical voice alternations, such as active and passive, since the voices can be considered equally transitive.[4] Hence, the terms Actor Voice and Undergoer Voice are sometimes used.

  • Actor Voice (AV) refers to the construction in which the actor or agent-like argument is mapped to subject.
  • Undergoer Voice (UV) refers to the construction in which the undergoer or patient-like argument is mapped to subject.

The voice construction is signalled through morphological marking on the verb.

Western Austronesian languages are typically subdivided into Philippine-type and Indonesian-type languages on the basis of the voice system:[5]

Philippine-type Indonesian-type
Multiple Undergoer Voices that map different semantic roles to subject Two symmetrical voices: Actor Voice and Undergoer Voice
AV has lower transitivity True passive construction
Case marking of nominal arguments Applicative suffixes

The voice alternations in Sama–Bajaw languages have some characteristics of Philippine-type languages and some characteristics of Indonesian-type languages.[2]

Miller (2014) says that there are three main voice alternations in Sama-Bajaw:[6]

  • An Actor Voice (AV) construction marked with a nasal prefix
  • A transitive non-AV construction with the bare verb
  • Another non-AV construction with morphological marking on the verb and case marking on the agent

In many Philippine languages, the UV construction is said to be basic. This has led people to analyse the languages as syntactically ergative.[7] This analysis has been proposed for Sama Southern (Trick 2006);[8] Yakan (Brainard & Behrens 2002);[9] Sama Bangingi’ (Gault 1999)[10] and Sama Pangutaran (Walton 1986).[11] These languages are said to have Philippine-type voice systems.

West Coast Bajau, however, is said to have an Indonesian-type voice system because there are two transitive voices; a true passive construction (-in-) and an applicative suffix (-an).[2] This makes West Coast Bajau more similar to the languages of Sarawak and Kalimantan than the other languages of Sabah.[12]

Indonesian Bajau also has an Indonesian-type voice system as illustrated below:[13]

Actor Voice

ng-ita uggo' aku
AV-see pig 1SG
'I saw the pig'

Bare Undergoer Voice

kita-ku uggo'
see-1SG pig
'I saw the pig'


di-kita-ku uggo'
PASS-see-1SG pig
'The pig was seen by me'

Accidental Passive

ta-kita uggo' ma aku
ACC.PASS-see pig OBL 1SG
The pig was accidentally seen by me'

In some Sama-Bajau languages there are restrictions on how the non-AV actor is realised. For example, in Sama Bangingi’ the non-AV actor is typically a pronominal clitic in first or second person.[6]

The voice alternations in Sama-Bajau languages can also be accompanied by a change in the case-marking of pronouns and a change in word-order.[2]

Case Marking

Sama-Bajau languages do not have case-marking on nominal arguments.

Nonetheless, pronouns have different forms depending on their grammatical function. Like the languages of Sarawak,[14] West Coast Bajau has two different pronoun sets[2]

  • Set 1: non-subject actors
  • Set 2: all other pronouns

In contrast, most of the languages of Sabah have three sets of pronouns:[2]

  • Set 1: non-subject actors
  • Set 2: subjects
  • Set 3: non-subject, non-actors

In West Coast Bajau, the non-subject undergoer can be optionally realised using both the Set 1 and the Set 2 pronouns.[2]

Zero anaphora is possible for highly topical arguments, except the UV actor, which cannot be deleted.[2] This is common across Western Austronesian languages.[15]

Word Order

Like the languages of the Philippines, the Sama–Bajaw languages in the Sulu tend to be verb-initial.[6] However, in most languages word order is flexible and depends on the voice construction. In the Sulu, SVO is only found in the context of preposed negatives and aspect markers. In West Coast Bajau, on the other hand, SVO word-order is also found in pragmatically neutral contexts.[6] This, again, makes West Coast Bajau more similar to the languages of Sarawak, than the other languages of the Sama-Bajaw group.

Verheijen (1986) suggests that the Bajau language spoken in the Lesser Sunda Islands has no fixed position of the subject but is fixed VO. The language has several properties that are said to correlate with VO word-order:[16]

  • Prepositions
  • Noun‑Genitive
  • Noun-Relative
  • Noun-Adjective
  • Noun-Demonstrative
  • Preverbal negatives
  • Initial subordinators

The preferred word-orders for five Sama-Bajau languages are shown below. The word order is represented in terms of the semantic roles: actor (A) and undergoer (U).[6]

AV Word Order Zero UV Word Order Affixed Non-AV Word Order
Sama Bangingi' V A U
Central Sama V A U (if A = pronoun)

V U A (if A = full noun)

V A U V U A or V A U
Southern Sama V A U (if A = pronoun)

V U A (if A = full noun)

V A U V U A (V A U also possible)
Pangutaran Sama V A U V A U V A U or V U A
West Coast Bajau A V U V A U or U V A U V A (less often V A U)

In all Sama-Bajau languages, the position of the actor is fixed, directly following the verb in the zero UV construction. Elsewhere, the order of actor and undergoer depends on the animacy of the arguments.[6] This could be seen to follow the Philippine tendency to place actors first in the clause.[17]

If we rephrase these orders in terms of grammatical function, a number of Sama-Bajau languages could be said to be VOS languages. S is equivalent to the actor in AV and the undergoer in UV. O is equivalent to the non-subject core argument.

Word Order and Information Structure

Variant word-orders are permitted in Sama-Bajau languages. The different word-orders have different information structure interpretations. This differs depending on the voice of the clause.

Miller (2007) suggests that verb-initial order in West Coast Bajau UV clauses strongly correlates with foregrounding.[2] He argues that this is the basic word order given that the undergoer in final position does not have a specific pragmatic status. In contrast, fronted undergoers are highly active and accessible.[2] Both SVO and VOS orders occur with equal frequency in narrative texts, though VOS is highly preferred in foregrounded clauses.[2]

AV clauses are predominantly subject-initial regardless of grounding.[2] In fact, SVO is the only word-order permitted in subordinate clauses. Where verb-initial clauses in AV do occur, however, they typically represent key sequences of action in the storyline.[2]

There are also specificity effects in AV verb-initial word order. VOS is acceptable when the non-subject undergoer is non-specific, but sometimes considered unacceptable if the undergoer is specific.[2] The same is true for definite undergoers.[2] However, the effects are not found when the word-order is VSO and the undergoer is in final position. In this case, the structure is grammatical regardless of whether the undergoer is definite/specific or not.

Topic and Focus

In West Coast Bajau it is possible for subjects, obliques and adjuncts to appear pre-verbally. Only non-subject arguments cannot appear in this position. Miller (2007: 193) suggests that there are two positions pre-verbally: topic and focus. Topic represents presupposed information whilst focus represents new information. In both AV and UV clauses, the preverbal subjects can be either topic or focus. Obliques, on the other hand, are always focus.

Consequently, Miller (2007: 211) analyses the clause structure of West Coast Bajau as follows:[2]

Pragmatic Structure of West Coast Bajau


The preverbal focus position can be followed by focus particles such as no.[2]


Proto-Sama-Bajaw is reconstructed in Pallesen (1985). Pallesen (1985) considers the homeland of Proto-Sama-Bajaw to be the Basilan Strait area, around 800 AD.


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Sama–Bajaw". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Miller, Mark (2007). A grammar of West Coast Bajau. ISBN 9780549145219. 
  3. ^ Blust, Robert. 2006. 'The linguistic macrohistory of the Philippines'. In Liao & Rubino, eds, Current Issues in Philippine Linguistics and Anthropology. pp 31–68.
  4. ^ Himmelmann, Nikolaus P. 2005. The Austronesian Languages of Asia and Madagascar: Typological Charactersistics. In A. Adelaar and N. P. Himmelmann (eds.) The Austronesian Languages of Asia and Madagascar, 110-181. London: Routledge.
  5. ^ Arka, I. Wayan; Ross, Malcolm (2005). The many faces of Austronesian voice systems: some new empirical studies. Pacific Linguistics. ISBN 0 85883 556 8. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Miller, Mark. 2014. 'A comparative look at the major voice oppositions in Sama-Bajau languages and Indonesian/Malay. In Wayan Arka and N. L. K. Mas Indrawati (eds.) Argument realisations and related constructions in Austronesian languages, 303-312. Canberra: Asia-Pacific Linguistics.
  7. ^ Aldridge, Edith. 2004. Ergativity and Word Order in Austronesian Languages. Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University.
  8. ^ Trick, Douglas. 2006. ‘Ergative control of syntactic processes in Sama Southern’. Paper presented at Tenth International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics. January 2006. Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, Philippines
  9. ^ Brainard, Sherri and Dietlinde Behrens. 2002. A Grammar of Yakan. Manila: Linguistic Society of the Philippines, No. 40, Vol. 1
  10. ^ Gault, JoAnn Marie. 1999. An ergative description of Sama Bangingi’. Manila: Linguistic Society of the Philippines.
  11. ^ Walton, Charles. 1986. Sama verbal semantics: classification, derivation and inflection. Manila: Linguistic Society of the Philippines
  12. ^ Clayre, Beatrice. 1996. The changing face of focus in the languages of Borneo. In H. Steinhauer (ed.) Papers in Austronesian Linguistics No. 3, 51-88. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
  13. ^ "Bajau: A Symmetrical Austronesian Language on JSTOR". JSTOR 416102. 
  14. ^ Clayre, Beatrice. 2014. ‘A preliminary typology of the languages of Middle Borneo’. In Peter Sercombe, Michael Boutin & Adrian Clynes (eds.) Advances in research on cultural and linguistic practices in Borneo, 123-151. Phillips, Maine USA: Borneo Research Council.
  15. ^ Himmelmann, Nikolaus P. 1999. ‘The lack of zero anaphora and incipient person marking in Tagalog’. Oceanic Linguistics 38 (2): 231-269
  16. ^ Verheijen, Jilis (1986). The Sama/Bajau Language in the Lesser Sunda Islands. Pacific Linguistics. 
  17. ^ Billings, Loren. 2005. Ordering clitics and postverbal R-expressions in Tagalog: a unified analysis? In Andrew Carnie, Heidi Harley & Sheila Ann Dooley (eds.) Verb First: on the syntax of verb-initial languages, 303-339. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Pallesen, A. Kemp. 1985. Culture contact and language convergence. Philippine journal of linguistics: special monograph issue, 24. Manila: Linguistic Society of the Philippines.