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  • From grammar to politics: Linguistic anthropology in a Western Samoan village
  • Michael L. Forman
Alessandro Duranti . 1994. From grammar to politics: Linguistic anthropology in a Western Samoan village. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. xiii + 208 pp. $40.00 cloth, $15.00 paper.

For perhaps the last twenty-five years, ergativity has been a topic of increasing popularity and frequency of occurrence in the linguistics literature. For at least that long, questions regarding "the well-documented nonactor orientation of Austrone-sian languages" (Gil 1999:424) have had prominence in work on, especially, Philippine languages. The book under review merits the attention of all scholars interested in ergativity and in nonactor orientation. I would hope that not only scholars with special interest in Samoan or in Polynesian languages find their way to it. Certainly all Polynesianists have special reason to attend to the book. Beyond Polynesianists, not only all Austronesianists, but also others in linguistics more generally, might profit from reading this book. I fear, however, that even for Polynesian specialists, there is a danger that the work will in too many instances be classified as "anthropology" and thus "not of interest." At least that is my suspicion. In that case, I can only hope that the book finds its way into the hands of any such scholars' students. It is well-written and easy to read. Other reviewers have commented on its usefulness for the classroom. Povinelli at the University of Chicago calls its style "accessible" and says that it ought to serve as "a valuable teaching aid" (1996:163). George at Harvard anthropology sees its place as "helping students confront the discursive foundations of political practice" but also notes more generally that it is a potentially useful textbook given its length and style (1995:572). Lindstrom, in anthropology at University of Tulsa, predicts that it "will advance the college sociolinguistic syllabus." Lindstrom, active in linguistic anthropology in the Pacific, also declares his appreciation of the productiveness of the analytic approach (1996:320). I have taught a course using it as one of a set of texts and found that students were enthusiastic about it and learned from it and are [End Page 440] still talking to me about it long after that particular semester ended. I would add that the price of the paperback edition is low enough that one can use it in combination with other texts without having to assist students in finding loans just to purchase their books.

Hovdhaugen, in a review published in the Journal of Pacific History, describes this book as "well written, well argued", and even more impressively offers this striking, extraordinarily strong endorsement: "Having myself worked for more than 10 years with the Samoan language and Samoan culture I have not found- for the first time in a work on Samoa-a single plain error and not even a statement I disagree with. The book has matured through 10 years and this time has resulted in a book where almost every sentence has been thought and rethought and polished and reformulated several times ending up with a most readable and informative but also extremely challenging book for linguists and above all linguistics. Maybe anthropologists will have the same reaction to the book, although it is my impression that the anthropological part is not that provoking (but equally interesting). And above all, it is a book that calls for a close cooperation between anthropology and linguistics" (Hovdhaugen 1995:254).

What might students of Oceanic languages learn from Duranti's work? Tcherke-zoff comments aptly on Duranti's skills: "As all anthropologists should be, he is fluent in the language of the culture he describes. He is also a linguist in his way of mastering the identification of various semantic and grammatical structures. And I would say that it is his fine anthropological knowledge of Samoan society and culture that allows him to relate politics and grammar in detail" (1996:201). In my estimation, Duranti's identification of various semantic/syntactic aspects of structure may well be superior to what is the current norm in linguistics. Contemporary students of anthropology may yet take a course or two in linguistics, especially...


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