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  • Papers in Austronesian subgrouping and dialectology
  • Alexander Adelaar
John Bowden and Nikolaus Himmelmann, eds. 2004. Papers in Austronesian subgrouping and dialectology. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics 563. vii + 169 pp., maps, tables, figures. ISBN 0-85883-477-2. $Aust 49.50 ($45.00 overseas), paper.

This is a collection of papers about low order subgrouping and studies in dialects in the Austronesian language area. The term "dialectology" in its title should not be read in the narrow sense of "dialect geography," but in a broader and more inclusive way. The chapters dealing with dialect issues are concerned with ways of perceiving and naming languages and dialects in Oceania (Crowley), similarity, intelligibility, and subgrouping of Atayalic dialects (Rau), and the description of South Muna (van den Berg). The other chapters involve the classification of Southeast Sulawesi languages (Donohue), Malayic languages (Ross), and Micronesian languages (Song).

Terry Crowley writes about the distinction between language and dialect, showing us how this question is perceived among speakers of Oceanic languages as well as how the Oceanic situation adds to our general understanding of this question. In Oceania, as elsewhere, the distinction often cannot be made. Crowley briefly revisits the several methods of doing so and reminds us of the vicissitudes of trying to apply them. Mutual intelligibility considerations fall flat in the context of dialect chains and a range of extralinguistic factors. Sharing much basic vocabulary may be offset by significant differences in phonology and morphosyntax; moreover, lexical information may be unreliable, or certain lexical items may or may not be interpreted as having cognates, depending on the academic rigor of the researcher and/or the researcher's familiarity with the languages involved and their history. And, of course, in actual practice language status may be largely dependent on extralinguistic factors, sometimes with very little consideration for linguistic criteria.

Crowley therefore leaves the traditional academic criteria behind and tries to approach the language/dialect issue from an indigenous perspective: how do speakers of Oceanic communalects talk about their own ways of speaking and those of others, and about regional diversity around them? And what traditional naming devices do they have? How did colonial contact affect dialect variety and language names? And how did names arise in the case of new languages, such as pidgin Motu and Tok Pisin?

Crowley's contribution is very insightful and adds significantly to our thinking about matters related to the language/dialect distinction. However, the on-the-ground situation he describes in Oceania does not seem to be significantly different from that found in other parts of the world. In fact, it is not hard to find parallel cases outside Oceania for each of the Oceanic cases that he discusses.

The main interest of the contribution is that it adequately documents an area that is home to a significant proportion of the world's languages (there are about 450 Oceanic [End Page 240] languages), and that it takes on some unhelpful theories that have recently been published about languages and dialects and the distinction between them.

According to Dixon (1997:7), the distinction between "language" and "dialect" can easily be made once the sociolinguistic factors involved are removed. It is furthermore possible to use comprehension tests on native speakers in order to eliminate these sociolinguistic factors. Crowley points out the considerable difficulties that such tests would bring along. One would be confronted with diglossic situations (where one language variety may be deemed inappropriate for test purposes), with the problem of quantifying comprehension (how to determine critical percentages to distinguish between languages and dialects), with cases of (active or passive) bilingualism with regard to the tested languages, and with the problem of determining a suitable subject matter for the tests (since comprehension of a conversation or text is codependent on familiarity with the topic of that conversation or text).

Crowley also argues against Peter Mühlhäusler's claim that the concept of 'language' was absent in the precolonial linguistic ecologies of the Pacific. According to Mühlhäusler, indigenous concepts of language have given way to European ones (Mühlhäusler 1996:53–54), and the identification and naming of languages are subjective decisions that constitute a serious trespass...


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