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Reviewed by:
  • Perspectives on grammar writing
  • Harriet E. Manelis Klein
Perspectives on grammar writing. Ed. by Thomas E. Payne and David J. Weber. (Benjamins current topics 11.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2007. Pp. 218. ISBN 9789027222411. $128 (Hb).

Why would you want to have this book in your library? If you have ever thought of writing a grammar, grammatical sketch, lexicon, vocabulary, or dictionary, you would want this volume as a primer, a handbook, a guide to the many different facets of grammar writing. It consists of a comprehensive introduction and ten essays, each of which deals with grammar writing. Some essays are very scholarly with notes and references, some focus on grammars for an academic audience primarily, and others are more concerned with grammars as a tool for local communities and for language preservation. These essays, however, form a coherent whole in their contribution to a vision of a ‘grammar’.

Conceived of as a means of noting the value of descriptive grammars and, to a certain extent, the waning significance of descriptive linguistics within the field of theoretical linguistics, this volume reiterates in many different ways the importance of data and the exposition and analysis of data both for the speakers of a language and for those interested in that language. Especially meaningful to understanding the history of descriptive linguistics, which was initially about writing grammars, William Bright’s essay ‘Contextualizing a grammar’ deals with the dichotomy between the philological tradition and the anthropological linguistic tradition of the early twentieth century and the more contemporary dichotomy between the formalists and the functionalists.

Michael Noonan, in ‘Grammar writing for a grammar-reading audience’, notes that using extreme forms of either formal or functional frameworks leads to making distinctions that do not exist in a specific language. He suggests that grammar writers should use a balanced formal/functional approach, where those parts of a grammar based on elicited forms should use a formal approach in which hierarchies of structure work better and a functional approach should be used for the more pragmatic and discourse-oriented parts of the analysis. [End Page 944]

David J. Weber, in ‘Thoughts on growing a grammar’, and Noonan both remind us that in order to further descriptive efforts one should choose an academic institution that values descriptive writing, in terms of both a graduate school and/or a teaching career, and that grammar writing should be accorded the same respect as purely theoretical writings.

The introduction, written by Thomas E. Payne, provides us with a concise statement of the academic trajectory of language documentation as a defining feature of descriptivism, its importance, its fall from importance, and its renewed stature as more and more languages are disappearing. Other essays provide us with a view of the early stages of such documentation by focusing on fieldwork and how it should be done. What is highly recommended by most of the authors is that the descriptive grammar efforts of a nonnative researcher be combined with greater participation in this effort by members of the community speaking that language.

Perhaps the most different approach to description is that of collaborative research, a topic that means different things to different authors. Weber suggests that linguists be prepared to become ‘secondary field workers’, by which he means working with someone who in the past has collected field data but is no longer in a position to actively continue in the field or is unable to write up the data. He considers this to be a good mechanism for avoiding the loss of data that occurs as a result of the loss of the data collector.

Collaborative fieldwork is discussed by Aleksandr E. Kibrik (‘Collective field work: Advantages or disadvantages?’), but his concept of collaboration is different from that of Weber. For Kibrik, many grammars can be written when fieldwork is part of a team effort. How this can be accomplished is competently laid out and reflects a flexibility that depends on the fieldwork situation. Furthermore, this approach allows for greater efficiency and speed for data collection.

Fieldwork, which is necessary to gather the data to be used in writing the grammar, is the source...


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