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  • Perspectives on the Bird's Head of Irian Jaya, Indonesia: Proceedings of the Conference, Leiden, October 13-17, 1997
  • Sander Adelaar
Jelle Miedema, Cecilia Odé, and Rien A. C. Dam, eds. 1998. Perspectives on the Bird's Head of Irian Jaya, Indonesia: Proceedings of the Conference, Leiden, October 13-17, 1997. Amsterdam/Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi. xiii + 982 pp. Maps, figures, tables. ISBN: 90-420-0644-7. Hfl. 423/US$180.

This book is a collection of papers presented at a multidisciplinary conference entitled Perspectives on the Bird's Head of Irian Jaya, Indonesia, held in Leiden in 1997. It contains papers from a large number of specialists on the Bird's Head (the northwest peninsula of New Guinea so-named for its shape) from all over the world. There are sections dealing with social sciences and humanities in general, with anthropology, demography and ethnohistory, with history, with linguistics, and with geology, botany, and archaeology. The variety of issues that they cover provides an integrated picture of research that has been done in the Bird's Head area.

In this review, I will concentrate on the nine papers in the section "Linguistics: Bird's Head, and beyond." They are generally of a high standard. They read well and give a good picture of the main issues regarding the languages of the Bird's Head area. Four deal extensively with language classification and show the significant progress that is being made in this area; others provide descriptive and sociolinguistic data on Maybrat, Meyah, Abun, Mpur, and Tidore.

In his keynote address to the linguistics section of the conference, Bill Foley takes the opportunity to reiterate his position on genetic subgroupings in New Guinea. While not entirely irrelevant for an understanding of a language's history, genetic classifications often tell very little about what languages are like in this area. Languages are no natural species, and their genetic affiliation ("the Platonic essence") is therefore no blueprint for their current structure, as in biogenetics. Political fragmentation is the cause of the great linguistic complexity in New Guinea, where clan affiliations across village communities are often more important than village affiliations.

Foley also proposes a phonological, morphological, and syntactic characterization of Non-Austronesian languages, setting it off against properties commonly found in Austronesian languages in the area. What is noteworthy about the characterization of Austronesian languages made by Foley (and other contributors to this volume) is that it describes a (Oceanic) sub-branch of Austronesian rather than the Austronesian family in general. Features like SVO order, a five-vowel system consisting of a, e, i, o, u, an isolating morphology, and a weakly developed inflectional morphology are by no means applicable to the Austronesian family in general. This makes the dichotomy between Austronesian and Non-Austronesian even more fuzzy, which is important because it actually strengthens Foley's view that their genetic division plays a subordinate role in the languages of New Guinea. [End Page 177]

Other papers concerned with the classification of New Guinea languages are by Andrew Pawley, Ger Reesink, and Lourens de Vries. In his re-assessment of the Trans New Guinea (TNG) phylum hypothesis, Pawley gives a brief overview of how it developed and how it was reviewed by scholars outside the Australian National University. He then reports on the activities of a new comparative Papuan project started in 1994 by the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at ANU and by the University of Sydney. With the use of more sophisticated methodology, this project endeavors to test and refine the classifications reached in the 1970s by Wurm and his team. Those classifications were largely based on lexico-statistics, but as it turns out, Pawley and colleagues are discovering that they are generally borne out by research based on the comparative method and bottom-up reconstructions involving basic vocabulary, phonology, and pronominal systems.

The TNG hypothesis is basically correct, and it has at least three subgroups: Madang-Adalbert Range, Goroka-Kainantu, and Finisterre-Huon. Z'Graggen's Madang-Adalbert Range Group, which has been the starting point of the reassessments made by the comparative Papuan project, has been redefined as consisting of five subgroups: Rao Coast, Mabuso, North...


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