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The Australian National University

Dr Mark Donohue

BA Asian Studies (Hons Linguistics), PhD (ANU), Fairy Godmother to the Bhutan Oral Literature Project
ARC Future Fellow and Senior Research Fellow, Department of Linguistics, College of Asia and the Pacific
ANU College of Asia and the Pacific

Areas of expertise

  • Indonesian Languages 200313
  • Pacific Languages 200320
  • Linguistic Anthropology 160103
  • Comparative Language Studies 200322
  • Language In Time And Space (Incl. Historical Linguistics, Dialectology) 200406
  • Linguistic Structures (Incl. Grammar, Phonology, Lexicon, Semantics) 200408
  • Computational Linguistics 200402
  • Linguistics 2004
  • Social And Cultural Geography 160403
  • Asian History 210302
  • Historical Studies 2103
  • Indian Languages 200315
  • Other Asian Languages (Excl. South East Asian) 200317

Research interests

Austronesian languages, Papuan languages, morphosyntax, phonology (particularly tone, retroflexion, and phonotactics), historical and areal linguistics, linguistic typology, Himalayan linguistics; languages of Nepal, Bhutan and India, especially Kusunda, Kuke and Bumthang. Kusunda linguistics and culture history. Computational and interdisciplinary social-historical linguistics.

For more information, see


Current projects: the social history of Island Southeast Asia and Melanesia, as revealed through areal linguistic research; ongoing fieldwork on Austronesian and Papuan languages of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (focussing on Tukang Besi, Palu'e, Ambai, Arguni [Austronesian], Skou, Damal, One, Iha [Papuan]), work in Himalayan languages (particularly Nepali, Kusunda and Kuke) with a view to understanding historical interactions in and across Asia.

Career highlights

Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Sydney (1998-2002); Assistant Professor, National University of Singapore (2002-2006); Professorial Fellow, Monash University (2006-2008); Lecturer, intensive courses in Papuan Languages (Australian Linguistics Institute, 2002), Transitivity, clause and discourse structure (Summer Institute of Linguistics, Sentani, Indonesia, 1999), Languages of Oceania (Tsukuba University, Japan, 2002), The structure of Tukang Besi (GLOW Summer School, Stuttgart, Germany, 2006), Phonological typology of Papuan languages (Linguistics Institute, University of California, Berkeley, 2009); Research Fellow, Linguistics, RSPAS, ANU (January 2009-December 2010); Senior Research Fellow, Linguistics, College of Asia and the Pacific (January 2011+), ARC Future Fellow (June 2011+).

Researcher's projects

Understanding Human History in Asia through linguistic analysis

This project will calibrate our understanding of linguistic change, and explore social interaction in Asia in areas and times for which there are no written records. It builds on interdisciplinary work rewriting the Austronesian expansion across Southeast Asia, recent breakthroughs in the computational treatment of linguistic data, and ongoing collaborative work assessing the Asia/Melanesia dichotomy. It will assess linguistic evidence with geographic, biological and ethnographic materials, at selected sample points. This will improve our understanding of social interactions within and across Asia, and will advance our quantitative understanding of language change – a major objective for linguistic theory.

 Phonotactic typology

 While much work has been conducted on typology in the last decades, phonological typology is relatively neglected, and the typology of syllable structure, while widely acknowledged to be important, has not been consistently investigated. We are working to thoroughly codify a large sample of languages (currently 2000+) in order to determine phonological dependencies that relate to phonotactics. Our work is available at

Prosodic Systems in New Guinea: Integrating computational and typological approaches to linguistic analysis

The world's languages make heavy use of prosody--tone, stress, intonation, and length--to communicate meaning, and tone is the most complex of these elements. Although non-tone languages typically exploit pitch for intonational purposes, the more sophisticated use of pitch in tone languages means that speakers of such languages will have quite different mental representations of pitch from speakers of English and better-known European non-tone languages. This project will investigate the tone and reduced-tone languages of New Guinea, a linguistically under-investigated area of the world which is home to a sixth of the world's languages. The project will collect substantial new bodies of recorded and transcribed language data from several undescribed tone languages. It will then use computational and theoretical methods to analyze the geographical distribution of tonal properties and the interaction of tone and other prosodic features.

The project will incorporate technology into linguistic field work and develop an exemplary model of prosodic description. Language consultants will be trained in the model's use, leading to more accessible primary data and more accountable descriptions. The data will be made available in a form that can be readily used by scholars, language teachers, and communities of speakers and will support the development of writing systems and literacy programs for these languages.

 New Guinea's place in Southeast Asia: a study integrating archaeology, linguistics and genetics

 Integrated linguistic and archaeological research will be conducted on the Onin Peninsula of Papua Barat, Indonesia to investigate the social interaction between western New Guinea and eastern Island Southeast Asia during the Holocene, and potentially earlier. The multi-disciplinary research will be integrated with leading work on human genetics to shed light on the historical construction of identity for purportedly 'Papuan' and 'Austronesian' communities who live in this region today, as well as critically evaluate the relevance of the application of these linguistic categories to non-linguistic contexts, namely, cultural or ethnic affiliation

Language description projects

Work on individual languages; see for details.


Current student projects

Owen Edwards is examining the discourse-driven conditions for Metathesis in Amarasi, a language from West Timor.

Keren Baker is preparing a description of the interaction of prosody, word order, and pragmatics in Lyngngam, an Austro-Asiatic language of Meghalaya state, in North-east India.

Chikako Senge is writing a reference grammar of Wanyjirra, a Pama-Nyungan language from north-west Australia.

Liu Naijing is working on tone in the Tibetan language of Tsum.


Past student projects

Virginia Dawson has recently completed a thesis about differential object marking and incorporation, illustrated with data from Tiwa, a Bodo-Garo (Tibeto-Burman) language from North-east India.

Fanny Cottet is working on describing the phonetics and phonology of Mbahám, a Papuan language of the Onin peninsula, in western New Guinea.

Antoinette Schapper completed a descriptive grammar of Bunaq, a language straddling the Indonesia/East Timor border.

Doug Marmion worked on Wutung, a Skou language of north-west Papua New Guinea.


Projects and Grants

Grants are drawn from ARIES. To add Projects or Grants please contact your College Research Office.

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Updated:  24 April 2017 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers