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Reviewed by:
  • Languages of the Eastern Bird's Head
  • Mark Donohue
Ger P. Reesink , ed. 2002. Languages of the Eastern Bird's Head. No. 524. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. ISBN 0-85883-494-4. ix + 340 pp. Aus$77.00, cloth.

Languages of the Eastern, Bird's Head (LEBH) is an interesting, though challenging book to review. It does not fit the mold of many edited volumes these days. It is a book that is too rarely seen: no "last words" (except for the last chapter—more on this later), no exhaustive studies, but solid material to make a typologist delight, data to make a formalist ponder, and comparison both synchronic and diachronic to make anyone interested in the languages of New Guinea sit up.

The volume consists of five parts: the introduction, by R, detailing some broad comparative issues concerning the Eastern Bird's Head languages, both sociolinguistic and typological; the central chapters, in which we find grammatical sketches of Mpur (by Cecilia Odé), Meyah (by Gilles Gravelle), and Sougb (by R); a salvage sketch of Borai by R; and a lexical overview of the area. The content, then, focuses on the languages of the Eastern Bird's Head (not, as the back cover states [or implies] all of the peninsula: "This book is the first detailed introduction to languages of the Bird's Head peninsula of Indonesia, s [sic] Irian Jaya"). I shall (approximately) appropriate the division of labor on the back cover to represent the division of labor in this review: coverage of the sketches, but more attention paid to the documentary aspects of the presentations, and of the introduction.

To review a book, the bulk of which is a collection of sketch grammars, I must examine the point of a sketch description. This is not trivial: who is a sketch grammar intended for? There has, thankfully, been a flood of sketch grammars on the market in the last decade, so we might have some idea of what a sketch grammar is; but not such a good idea about why it is. This question is addressed in the next section. I then devote considerably more space to a summary and critique of the argumentation and conclusions in R's introduction. There follow highlights of some constructions of particular theoretical interest that are described in the book, and in the conclusion I summarize the historical argumentation.

The point of a sketch grammar.

We might illustrate the two opposing positions in a hypothetical discussion of theory, linguistics, and sketch grammars. On the one hand we have work such as Klamer's (1998) description of Kambera. This is not a comprehensive description of the grammar of the language, covering all the major aspects of the syntax, but it does go into considerable detail on selected topics, to an extent that is rare in most comprehensive grammars. It is this attention to detail that makes it all the more valuable for (nondescriptivist) phonologists and syntacticians, in a way that many more comprehensive grammars are not. Many of the questions that formal theory-inclined linguists, but not necessarily run-of-the-mill typologists, would want to raise have been [End Page 287] explicitly addressed, meaning not only that the material the formalists might wish to learn is readily accessible, but that it has been gathered at all. For such a formalist, a sketch grammar holds little of use: because the material is, by definition, a sketch, meaning that it gives a broad outline and not a detailed character study, it is almost negligent of the author to include too much detail on any one topic, in an effort to cover them all.

On the other hand, for that same run-of-the-mill typologist even a sketch description is better than none: no matter that we cannot know all details of the affixal combinations possible on a verb, it is valuable to know that the verb is prefixing. No matter what the details of causative plus applicative combinations (or bans on such combinations), it is valuable to know that the language has a causative, and an applicative. This is good justification for a sketch of a previously un- or under-described language. (It...


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