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Reviewed by:
  • Mussau grammar essentials
  • Juliette Blevins
John and Marjo Brownie. 2007. Mussau grammar essentials. Ukarumpa: Summer Institute of Linguistics. Data Papers on Papua New Guinea Languages, vol. 52. iv + 221 pp. ISBN 9980-0-3223-5. Available online at

Mussau or Mussau-Emira is an Oceanic language of the St. Matthias island group of New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea, spoken by approximately 5,000 people. Mussau, together with closely related Emira and Tench (or Tenis), make up the St. Matthias language family, which may comprise a first-order subgroup of Oceanic, or a first-order subgroup together with the Admiralties group (Ross 1988, 2002:148; Ross, Pawley, and Osmond 2003:343–44). Given the genealogical status of the language and the apparent prehistoric geographic isolation of its speakers, it is not surprising that Mussau has a wealth of conservative lexical and grammatical features (Ross 2002:148). At the same time, aspects of the grammar are unusual for an Oceanic language, and suggest that a comprehensive description of the language will contribute both to the study of Oceanic prehistory and linguistic typology.

Earlier grammatical descriptions of the language include Blust's (1984, 2001) phonological notes and Ross's (2002) short sketch. While the volume under review contributes to a better description of Mussau-Emira, it is by no means comprehensive, and leaves a range of descriptive issues open for further study. This is in line with the nature of this SIL series. As editor René van den Berg notes on the copyright page of this volume, the SIL Data Papers on Papua New Guinea Languages normally "do not provide a comprehensive treatment of the topic and may contain analyses which will be modified at a later stage." They are, in a sense, working papers, or reports of work in progress, and are published as part of an effort to make data on little-known languages more widely available, even if incomplete.

The volume includes nine chapters and an appendix with two short texts. Though the authors state that the volume is "based on our work with speakers of the Southern Mussau dialect … as well as some texts written by speakers of the Eastern and Western dialects," and that "most of the examples … are taken from written or transcribed texts" (10–11), the source of examples is not given. The only exception is the Appendix of glossed and translated texts (208–14), both "written" by native speakers, and a passing remark at the end of the book (205) that work on demonstratives was based largely on a written corpus. Potential differences between the written and spoken language are not addressed, but should be, if the analysis is based primarily on written texts.

Chapter 1 is a brief introduction covering the location of the language and its speakers, the language name, linguistic classification and dialects, an overview of the culture, linguistic vitality and education, previous work on the language, and a brief typological overview. The section on linguistic classification and dialects lacks references to earlier [End Page 298] published work. In this section the authors note that Mussau-Emira has had "relatively little influence from surrounding languages," but in the discussion of culture, it is reported that traditional ties of marriage were primarily with people from Manus (unfortunately unlabeled on map 1) where at least 17 distinct languages are spoken. One wonders about the linguistic consequences of this intermarriage pattern. Also in this discussion, we read that several features of Mussau-Emira are "quite dissimilar to the languages of New Ireland and Manus, the closest neighbouring languages." However, features unique to Mussau-Emira in this geographic region are not discussed further in the volume.

Chapter 2 treats the phonology of Mussau, including the phoneme inventory, orthography, phonotactics, syllable structure, stress, reduplication, morphophonemics, and loan word phonology. Minimal pairs supporting segmental and length contrasts are not provided (though they are in Brownie 2000), nor is a chart with phonemes and their orthographic representations. The section on phonotactics focuses on the evolution of closed syllables in the language. This occurs when word-final mu > m; when voiceless vowels are optionally dropped word-finally...