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Reviewed by:
  • Dictionnaire nêlêmwa-nixumwak français-anglais (Nouvelle-Calédonie)
  • John Lynch
Isabelle Bril . 2000. Dictionnaire nêlêmwa-nixumwak français-anglais (Nouvelle-Calédonie). SELAF No. 383; Langues et Cultures du Pacifique 14. Paris: Peeters. 523 pp. 1680 Belgian Francs (42 Euros), paper.

This is the latest in a series of descriptive studies on the languages of New Caledonia, most of which have been produced by linguists working at LACITO in the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris.

The language under study here is spoken by about 1,000 people living on the extreme northwest coast of the New Caledonian mainland. There are two main dialects: Nêlêmwa /nẽlẽmwa/ is the more northerly, spoken in the Poum area; Nixumwak/nixumwak/lies to the south, in the area of Koumac (and it has sometimes been referred to in the earlier literature as Koumac or Kumak). It is bordered to the north and east by Nyelâyu (Ozanne-Rivierre 1998), to the east by Caaàc, and to the east and south by Yuanga (Schooling 1992). Major previous studies on one or other of these dialects include Haudricourt (1963) and Bril (1995).

Preliminary sections (7-12) contain acknowedgments, lists of abbreviations, and so on.1 These are followed by an introductory section (13-24) outlining the place of the language within Austronesian, Oceanic, and the New Caledonian family, some background to the current study, and a discussion on kin terms and terms for aspects of social organization.

There follows a thorough outline of the phonology (25-46) and a brief grammatical sketch (47-75), themselves useful contributions to the Oceanic literature. Nyelâyu has a complex phonology typical of New Caledonian languages: contrast between voiceless aspirated, voiceless unaspirated, and prenasalized stops in labiovelar, bilabial, apical, palatal, and velar positions (although the Nixumwak aspirated stops are realized as voiceless fricatives in Nêlêmwa); contrast between voiced and voiceless nasals, lateral and semivowels; seven oral and five nasal vowels; and a phonemic vowel-length distinction. The orthography uses digraphs and trigraphs for complex consonants (e.g., kh for Nixumwak /kh/ and Nêlêmwa /x/, phw for Nixumwak /phw/, etc.); the circumflex accent distinguishes nasal from oral vowels, while vowel length is written by doubling the letter—thus ûû = /ũ:/. Phonological and grammatical differences between the dialects are noted where they occur.

The grammar sketch is a brief summary of Bril's (B) Ph.D. dissertation (1995). Like its close relative Nyelâyu (Ozanne-Rivierre 1998, reviewed in OL by Lynch 1999), Nêlêmwa2 is an ergative language: intransitive clauses have the structure [End Page 428] VS, while transitive clauses are VAO or VOA, with agents marked by one of the preposed particles (e)a [+human] or ru [-human]. As in its closer relatives, there are rich systems of deictics and demonstratives, possessive classifiers, and numeral classifiers.

There is a bibliography (497-499) and two illustrative texts (501-519) at the end of the book where, following standard French practice, the table of contents is also located (521-527).

The bulk of the book is a dictionary of Nêlêmwa: a general Nêlêmwa-French- English list (77-368), followed by two finderlists, French-Nêlêmwa (369-441) and English-Nêlêmwa (443-496). The back-cover blurb states that there are approximately 3,500 entries in the main dictionary, which makes it a substantial one by Pacific standards.

The choice of typography and format makes the work quite readable. In the main dictionary, Nêlêmwa items are in bold, with the headword set out slightly to the left and in a larger font than examples within the entry; French definitions and translations are in normal font, English in italic, while grammatical information, cross-referencing, and the like are in a smaller font, usually at the end of the entry. Where forms differ between dialects, these are clearly labelled as P (for Poum, thus Nêlêmwa) or K (for Koumac, thus Nixumwak). Definitions are clear, concise, and yet comprehensive, and there is adequate exemplification of usage, idioms, and so on. (One would always...