- A grammar of South Efate: An Oceanic language of Vanuatu
The publication of Nicholas Thieberger's (T) A grammar of South Efate (GSE) is significant narrowly to the field of Oceanic linguistics, and more broadly to descriptive linguistics and the production of reference grammars. I will return to its narrow significance later, as it is the importance of this work as a model for grammar writers that is most noteworthy. GSE, along with Stephen Morey's The Tai languages of Assam, published not long before GSE in 2005, sets a new standard for grammar writing, demonstrating what should ideally be included in a comprehensive and accountable record of the grammar of a language. The advance that T (and Morey shortly before him) has made is in incorporating a digital component to the grammar, in the form of a DVD that includes, among other items, a digital dictionary and, most significantly, audio recordings of the primary data upon which the description is based, giving the reader the option of being able to listen to most of the example sentences in the text.
The text of the grammar follows a fairly standard model of grammatical description. What is not standard is the inclusion of a DVD providing the reader with immediate access to the primary data. The DVD includes a '!Readme' html file to guide the reader in its use, and the DVD is as a whole very user-friendly. One is directed to one of three applications, suitable for Macintosh, Windows, or Linux use. Upon starting the application, the user is then presented with a window through which audio files can be played. Brief and to the point instructions are shown in the window as it appears when the application is initially opened. From there one can browse the audio files that are linked to the example sentences (and some lexical data) given in the written text. From a dropdown menu in the top right corner, one chooses either a chapter (from 3 to 12, as chapters 1 and 2 contain no language examples) or one of the eight texts from the appendix. After choosing the desired chapter or text, one is then presented with lines of transcriptions in the main window. To the left of each line of transcription a number is given, which corresponds to the example number in the written text. So, for example, if one is reading chapter 7 and wishes to hear example sentence 12 being spoken, one chooses "Chapter 7" from the drop down menu, then clicks on the line of transcribed text to the right of number 12. And immediately one will hear the original recorded example. This is a truly impressive advance in the presentation of linguistic analysis, giving the reader a real sense of the spoken language, and making the author truly accountable for his analysis. A brave and challenging move.
In order to be able to achieve what he has and present the reader (and listener) with the result that we have in GSE, T has necessarily followed many additional steps that are foreign to the grammar writers who precede him. All good grammar writers record, transcribe, [End Page 613] and translate as much natural data as they are able, and use this as the basis for their analysis and description. Upon completion of the published grammar, the notebooks filled with transcriptions and the original recordings have in the past been filed on the grammar writers' bookshelves or in filing cabinets. But with the recent emphasis on the field of language documentation as distinct from, but vitally linked to, language description, many field linguists are realizing that there are more steps that should be followed, and that a detailed, enduring record of a language should at least involve archiving of the original language recordings. T is somewhat of a pioneer in the field of language documentation, and he has followed many more steps...