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  • A grammar of Semelai
  • Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald
A grammar of Semelai. By Nicole Kruspe. (Cambridge grammatical descriptions.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xxii, 493. ISBN 0521814979. $170 (Hb).

Aslian languages, of the Mon-Khmer division of Austroasiatic, are not widely known. Most of them are in danger of disappearance, under the encroaching influence of the dominant Malay. This grammar of Semelai, by Nicole Kruspe, is the first comprehensive grammar of an Aslian language. It is based on substantial fieldwork, and cast—just like all worthwhile grammars—within basic linguistic theory.

The grammar starts with a detailed discussion of Aslian languages, their place within Mon-Khmer, and their prehistory and typological characteristics, followed by an up-to-date report on every language still spoken. In subsequent chapters, K offers readers a refined analysis of Semelai.

This is a most complex language, in just about every area. Among its most remarkable features is a nonconcatenative morphological system of prefixes and infixes (including infix reduplication), whereby affixes are attached to the left edge of the word as prefixes or as infixes depending [End Page 415] on the number of syllables in the word. So the comparative marker rʔ is prefixed to a monosyllabic root, as in sey ‘be thin’ versus rʔ -sey ‘be thinner’. If a root has two syllables it is infixed, as in jləŋ ‘be long’ versus jə-ra-ləŋ ‘be longer’. This property is inherited from Mon-Khmer. In addition to these inherited affixes, Semelai has borrowed a variety of suffixes, prefixes, and circumfixes from Malay, and thus acquired a whole new concatenative morphological system as a result of intensive contact. ‘Light syllable’ reduplication has also been borrowed from Malay; nowadays, all of these processes apply to roots of Semelai and also of Malay origin. This is a spectacular example of system-altering contact-induced change. And it goes against quite a few assumptions—including the belief that bound morphemes are hardly ever borrowed, or that suffixes are borrowed and prefixes are not, or that borrowing can only happen between two structurally compatible systems.

In its phonology, Semelai has thirty-two consonants and twenty vowel phonemes, whose distribution is related to the position they occupy within the syllable. The open word classes are nouns, verbs, and expressives (iconic utterances that simultaneously provide information about both the predicate and its arguments). Adjectival notions are expressed through a subtype of intransitive verbs. Semelai has a rich array of verbal morphology that change word class or affect transitivity. Among the latter are four causativizing morphemes and a ‘middle’. An additional valency-increasing suffix has an applicative-like function with intransitive verbs, and marks iterative aspect with transitive verbs. Serial verb constructions express manner and motion. Like many Southeast Asian languages, Semelai employs synonymous serialization. The only means of reporting speech is direct quotation introduced by the quotative marker, which is of verbal origin. Every section of K’s grammar is supplied with information on other Aslian languages, a feature that makes the book an invaluable asset for comparative linguists, besides its being a must-have for typologists and grammar analysts.

This grammar makes exciting reading for a wide variety of audiences. An anthropologist will appreciate the special avoidance speech style used by the Semelai in the jungle, when collecting forest products or preparing a swidden. As K puts it, ‘the jungle is seen as fraught with peril’ (7), and lexical taboo is a way of avoiding an attack from a dangerous animal or a malevolent spirit.

Detailed and competent reference grammars based on original fieldwork are the backbone of an empirically based science of linguistics. K’s fundamental work on Semelai is one such grammar. The editors of ‘Cambridge grammatical descriptions’, and Cambridge University Press, are to be congratulated on this seminal publication.

Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald
La Trobe University
Research Centre for Linguistic Typology La Trobe University Victoria 3086 Australia []


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pp. 415-416
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