William Auguste Foley

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2012/2013
discipline Linguistics
Profesor of Linguistic in the University of Sydney

Research project

Co-evolution and the Development of the Major Word 
Classes in the Austronesian Language Family


This project investigates the question whether there are innate cognitive biases that universally determine word classes in language. This will be investigated in detail in the Austronesian language family, where the status of the noun-verb distinction has long been controversial. We will approach the problem ontogenetically, by a systematic study of a representative sample to establish what evidence there is for coherent classes of nouns and verbs, but, more importantly, in light of a co-evolutionary account, phylogenetically, by how the patterns of words have shifted over time. Austronesian languages exhibit a high degree of diversity: sometimes a tendency to distinguish nouns and verbs seems clear, but elsewhere it seems extremely problematic. In most language families, the predisposition to distinguish nouns and verbs is strong. So what is it about Austronesian languages that leads to a recurring predilection to attenuate the distinction? Given the widespread attestation of a robust noun-verb distinction elsewhere, its attenuation is an analogue of a recessive trait. What conditions select for or against this? What are recurring solutions, evidently co-evolutionarily favoured, and what are outliers, statistically low probability outcomes, and why? While at first glance seemingly quite specialized, the project has broad implications for cognitive and anthropological science. It is the first detailed study within a co-evolutionary framework of any major grammatical property. It seeks to understand linguistic structure and its possible changes through the selective interplay between cognitive biases due to likely panhuman biological givens and specific historical developments. This project probes some of the limitations on innate cognitive endowment for the formation of linguistic structures and their transitions through time and space, in particular the role that language-specific, in a word, cultural, learning plays in language acquisition.



William Auguste Foley is Profesor of Linguistic in the University of Sydney. Born in 1949 in Providence, Rhode Island. He studied Humanities and Social Sciences at Brown University and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley.


His research filds of interest are anthropological linguistics, syntactic-semantic theory, Island Southeast Asian and Pacific languages, historical linguistics and New Guinea prehistory.

Selected publications


‘Events and serial verb constructions’, in M. Amberber, B. Baker and M. Harvey (eds), Complex predicates: Cross-linguistic Perspectives on Event Structure, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, pp.79-109.


‘Language contact in the New Guinea region’, in R. Hickey (ed.), The Handbook of Language Contact, Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA, 2010, pp.795-813.


‘Clause linkage and nexus in Papuan languages’, in I. Bril (ed.), Clause Linking and Clause Hierarchy, Benjamins, Amsterdam, 2010, pp.27-50.


‘The place of Philippine languages in a typology of voice systems’, in P. Austin and S. Musgrave (eds), Voice in Western Austronesian languages, Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford, 2008, pp.22-44.


‘The notion of ‘event’ and serial verb constructions: Arguments from New Guinea’, in W. Khanittanan and P. Sidwell (eds), Proceedings of the Fourteenth Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society, Pacific Linguistics, Canberra, 2008, pp.129-156.


‘Determinism and Universals: the Arguments from Linguistics’, in S. McKinnon and S. Silverman (eds), Complexities, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005, pp.43-63.


Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction, Blackwell, Oxford, 1997.


The Papuan Languages of New Guinea, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986.


senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2017/2018
Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin
discipline History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2018/2019
Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin
discipline Environmental Biology
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2016/2017
Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin
Social Sciences
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin
discipline Sociology