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  • A grammar of Jingulu: An Aboriginal language of the Northern Territory
  • Jane Simpson
A grammar of Jingulu: An Aboriginal language of the Northern Territory. By Robert Pensalfini. (Pacific linguistics 536.) Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, 2003 Pp. xix, 262. ISBN 0858835584. $51.54.

This grammar, published by the major publisher of Australian and Pacific language materials, is of an endangered and typologically interesting language. Jingili people live in the Northern Territory of Australia. Their country is on the border of Pama-Nyungan languages (normally suffixing) and non-Pama-Nyungan languages (often prefixing), and their language, Jingulu, shows features of both types. It is part of the proposed Mirndi family, a geographically discontinuous group whose genetic unity is still debated (Green & Nordlinger 2004). Pensalfini builds on an earlier descriptive study done when there were more speakers (Chadwick 1975). Chadwick presents Jingulu as a language with fiendishly complex morphology that interacts with an interesting regressive vowel harmony process (van der Hulst & Smith 1985). Since Chadwick’s study, the language ecology of the area has changed, and Jingili people mostly speak Kriol, code-switching to Jingulu and Mudburra.

The bar has been raised as to what a reference grammar of a small language should contain (Himmelmann 1998). The grammarian is torn between the demands of the grammar-reading public (You mean there’s nothing on weak crossover!), the likelihood that this grammar will be the main source of information on the language (Where’s the stuff on gesture/kinship/speech events/information structure?), and the fact that most publishers don’t sell texts and dictionaries of small languages.

P’s grammar is characterized by bold analyses. He carried out fieldwork in the context of preparing an MIT Ph.D. dissertation, informed by minimalism, well aware of Rachel Nordlinger’s work on a neighboring and genetically related language, Wambaya, informed by lexical functional grammar (Nordlinger 1998). So, naturally, he asks questions relevant to the theoretical concerns of the time. He carefully tries to gather data on multiple wh-questions; looks for ways to translate sentences with quantifiers and modals, with definiteness, and with indefiniteness; and looks at coordinate and reflexive constructions and complex constructions. These are hard questions and P is open about the difficulties that can arise, especially in a situation of language death. He is careful to note the absence of confirming or disconfirming data. The result is a richer understanding of what is happening in the language—for instance, the presence of a kind of indefinite suffix, quite unusual in Australian languages (203–5).

How does P face the challenge of language documentation? His field tapes and transcripts are held in a public archive (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies), and a separate collection of texts and a dictionary has been submitted for publication. He appends eleven texts (Ch. 7, 241–58), including some that show code-switching into Kriol, and occasionally he gives illuminating Kriol glosses from his informants. This grammar comprises analysis of what his teachers said; he does not draw together the earlier records of the language. It is rich in example sentences, mostly from texts, but he follows too many Australian grammars in omitting the source for each example sentence. This is especially unfortunate in language-loss situations, since which speaker said which sentence is important for understanding the variation that P notes (although he is generally good about commenting on rarity). [End Page 425]

Ch. 1 (1–19) has a good discussion of the present-day complex language situation and a section on kinship, but little on the ethnography (no reference to the early-twentieth-century investigations (Spencer & Gillen 1904) or the late-twentieth-century work on the Murranji land claim). No more than fifteen people spoke Jingulu fluently when P learned it, and it was not used much in everyday conversation. So the Jingulu language systems of individuals are no longer constrained by the need to understand and be understood. They may have to dredge their memories (what do I call my mother’s brother?). When a speech community erodes and speakers shift to using other languages, the language systems of the last few speakers may diverge more widely than the language...


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