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  • A Grammar of Tukang Besi
  • René van den Berg
Mark Donohue . 1999. A Grammar of Tukang Besi. Mouton Grammar Library 20. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, New York. 24.0 x 16.0 cm. xxvi + 576 pp. 14 figures, 23 tables, 7 plates, 5 maps. DM 348, approx. US$ 174.00, cloth. ISBN 3-11-016188-5.

Tukang Besi is spoken in the archipelago of the same name east of the island of Buton in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. The four main islands are home to a population of some 80,000 people who speak this language, but with sizable Tukang Besi communities elsewhere in Indonesia, the total number of speakers may well be over 150,000. The islands have little arable land, and in combination with perennial water shortage, this has led to major emigrations, as well as to nontraditional economic activities such as trading in smuggled goods. All over Southeast Sulawesi and Maluku, one can find second-hand clothes in market places, smuggled from Singapore by Tukang Besi traders. Tukang Besi is also one of the world's finest diving places.

This grammar, a revision of the author's dissertation defended at the Australian National University in 1995, is the first description of the native language of these people. It is solid, detailed, and comprehensive, and therefore an extremely valuable addition to our still limited knowledge of the language situation in Southeast [End Page 430] Sulawesi. Donohue's (hereafter D) work will clearly be the reference point for this language for many years to come.

I will briefly give an overview of the book, interspersed with some critical comments. As starters, eight photographs and three maps give the reader an idea of the people speaking this language and their location. The pictures are a welcome reminder that a language is spoken by people (pace the cat on plate 4, also listed as a helper, but presumably in a different category). The introductory chapter presents useful background information on the area, the people, and the language. I found the section on history far too short (no mention of the relationship to Tidore, the Buton sultanate, the colonial period, etc.). Better is the section on dialects, but the most surprising absence is the lack of any discussion of where Tukang Besi fits in the Austronesian family tree. The traditional Buton-Muna microgroup clearly doesn't satisfy, but that hardly justifies a complete silence on the topic.

Chapter two on phonology and morphophonology presents a sound analysis (in both senses), with very detailed phonetic descriptions of each phoneme (but not backed by acoustic evidence), tables of vowel sequences, examples of variable phonetic processes, and an interesting discussion on orthographic issues. In most respects, Tukang Besi is a straightforward Sulawesi language: five vowels, open syllable structure, penultimate stress, prenasalized consonants analyzed as units, and the regionally typical implosives. I found the section on consonant gemination (a rather unusual feature in Southeast Sulawesi) disappointing. Is it really always optional? If so, what are the factors influencing the choice to geminate? Speech style, age, gender, or simply dialect? These questions are not considered at all. I also missed a separate section on the adaptation of loanwords, of which there are many, although there are some scattered comments in places.

Chapter three plunges us straight into the "genius" of the language. Tukang Besi grammar is—with one major exception—unsurprising: subject and object marking on the verb, a realis-irrealis distinction on the verb, applicative and causative derivational morphology, various sets of pronouns, extensive use of classifiers, to mention just a few characteristics. What makes Tukang Besi stand out among the languages of Sulawesi is its unique nominal marking. Consider the following examples (taken from section 3.4):

(1) No-tinti na ana.
3R-run     NOM   child
'The child is running.'

(2) No-kiki'i te     iko'o na  beka.
3R -bite     CORE 2SG     NOM cat
'The cat bit you.'

(3) No-kiki'i-ko  (na iko'o) te   beka.
3R -bite- 2SG.OBJ  NOM 2SG     CORE cat
'The cat bit you.'

The prefix no- unambiguously indexes the subject in all three cases, but the difficulty lies with...