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Reviewed by:
  • The Austronesian languages
  • Angela Terrill
Robert Blust. 2009. The Austronesian languages. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics 602. xxviii + 824 pp. ISBN 978-0-85883-602-0. $Aust. 198.00 (Australia), $Aust. $180.00 (elsewhere), paper.

This is a marvelous, dense, scholarly, detailed, exhaustive, and ambitious book. In 800-odd pages, it seeks to describe the whole huge majesty of the Austronesian language family, as well as the history of the family, the history of ideas relating to the family, and all the ramifications of such topics. Blust doesn't just describe, he goes into exhaustive detail, and not just over a few topics, but over every topic he covers. This is an incredible achievement, representing a lifetime of experience. This is not a book to be read from cover to cover—it is a book to be dipped into, pondered, and considered, slowly and carefully.

The book is not organized by area or subfamily; readers interested in one area or family can consult the authoritative work on Western Austronesian (Adelaar and Himmelmann 2005), or, for the Oceanic languages, Lynch, Ross, and Crowley (2002). Rather, Blust's stated aim "is to provide a comprehensive overview of Austronesian languages which integrates areal interests into a broader perspective" (xxiii). Thus the aim is more ambitious than just discussion of areal features or historical connections, but seeks to describe the interconnections between these.

The Austronesian language family is very large, second only in size to Niger-Congo (xxii). It encompasses over 1,000 members, and its protolanguage has been dated back to 6,000 years ago (xxii). The exact groupings of some Austronesian languages are still under discussion, but broadly, the family is divided into ten major subgroups, nine of which are spoken in Taiwan, the homeland of the Austronesian family. The tenth, Malayo-Polynesian, is itself divided into two major groups: Western Malayo-Polynesian, which is spread throughout the Philippines, Indonesia, and mainland Southeast Asia to Madagascar; and Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian, spoken from eastern Indonesia throughout the Pacific. The geographic, cultural, and linguistic diversity of the family make this an extremely ambitious book. The book is intended to provide an overview of the Austronesian family for the "general linguist" (xxii). The extent to which this has been achieved will be apparent during the course of this review.

The book is divided largely into three parts: background and sociolinguistic information; grammatical information; and the history of the Austronesian languages. The first section includes chapters or sections on the physical and social environment of the Austronesian speakers, the major divisions in the Austronesian family, national languages and lingua francas, and the geography of the family. There is a detailed description of sociolinguistic factors, including speech levels and respect languages, gender-based differences, profanity, secret languages, ritual languages, and, sitting rather oddly with the rest of this chapter, a section on contact-induced language change.

The next four chapters cover topics traditionally encountered in grammatical description: phonetics and phonology, the lexicon, morphology, and syntax. The final four chapters cover historical topics: reconstruction, sound change, classification, and, unusually, "The world of Austronesian scholarship," covering the size of the research [End Page 313] community, periodic meetings and publications, and other aspects of scholarly endeavor on the Austronesian languages.

The first of the three major sections will be very useful for scholars outside the Austronesian discipline, with information on geographic and cultural aspects of the languages, and the major divisions of the family. The chapter "A bird's eye view of the Austronesian language family" is particularly useful in this respect, especially the discussion of languages by geographical region. Interesting tables in these sections list the ten largest and ten smallest languages by speaker population. This section contains a discussion of the geographical layout of the languages in the islands, history of research in the area, and a typological overview of the languages.

The second major part of the book, which will be very useful for typologists, is the description of grammatical topics: phonetics and phonology, the lexicon, morphology, and syntax. These are incredibly detailed and exhaustive. For example, in the chapter on sound systems, although "vowel harmony is rare in AN [i.e., Austronesian] languages," Blust provides...


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