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  • Classifiers: A typology of noun categorization devices by Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald
  • Alan S. Kaye
Classifiers: A typology of noun categorization devices. By Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xxvi, 535. $110.00.

The book under review is the most thorough attempt to date on noun categorization devices. It surveys about 500 languages, which the author claims is one-tenth of all languages (pp. 5; 435). (A more accurate figure, following Peter Ladefoged’s estimate, is approximately 7,000.) The reader will find it user-friendly as a reference (the preface [ix] states that it can also serve as a textbook, a difficult task indeed) since it contains the complete list of the languages, language families, linguistic areas, and protolanguages used (489–507).

The author, a student of the prolific Russian linguist Igor Mikhailovich Diakonoff (d. 1999) and a Research Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR from 1980 to 1989, began her career working on Afroasiatic (PhD on Berber). After moving to Brazil, where she was Professor of Linguistics at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, she began researching Amazonian languages, so it is not surprising to see many examples in the present work based on her South American fieldwork, in addition to Papua New Guinean languages, her current specialization.

The author unquestionably assembled a phenomenal amount of information. Consequently, she had perforce to rely on numerous written sources, and, inadvertently, errors crept in. For instance, in checking references to Arabic (509), I found that the information given as supposedly occurring on p. 121, in fact, appears on p. 120. Aikhenvald states (quoting Joseph H. Greenberg [On language: Selected writings of Joseph H. Greenberg, ed. by K. Denning and S. Kemmer, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990]) that ‘numeral classifiers are emerging (emphasis mine) in Omani Zanzibar and in the Egyptian variety of Arabic’ (120). She was evidently unaware that Greenberg cites data from an 1894 source (listed in his bibliography) for the Omani-Zanzibarian Arabic dialect which, in fact, no longer even exists. In another instance, we read that in American English, a ‘beautiful flower’ is pronominalized as ‘she’ and an ‘ugly cactus’ as ‘he’, but this seems far-fetched to me (346). On yet another occasion, we read that ‘in Chinese, the personal pronoun ta can only be used with human referents’ (439), but this is not so (see Comprehensive Chinese-English dictionary, Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Instruction Publication Society, 1991:851).

Let me now specifically address the social and cultural parameters of classifiers (340–51 and passim). A opines, correctly in my view, that they are ‘the easiest to immediately connect with extralinguistic phenomena—either of physical environment, or of culture’ (340). They certainly do provide insight into a speaker’s Weltanschauung. Yet I wonder if she is correct in stating that in a language with a large set of numeral classifiers, the variation encountered depends on the ‘competence’ of the native speaker (98). She reports that Japanese has several hundred numeral classifiers; however, speakers typically use only about 38 (106). From my perspective, this has nothing to do with competence; rather, this is analogous to one’s knowledge of technical vocabulary or jargon. Beyond this, it must be said that the volume is not as carefully edited as one would like, containing various minor stylistic and spelling errors.

Several areas explored in this book are worthy of further investigation. First, what are the overall ramifications of cultural change influencing linguistic change, for example, the Khmer Rouge’s abolition of the honorific classifiers in Cambodia (347)? Second, why do isolating languages tend to have many more classifiers than nonisolating ones? Third, why are numeral classifiers so prevalent in Southeast Asia and so rare in Africa? And fourth, what are the linguistic parallels to the classifier (handshape) situation in sign languages?

Alan S. Kaye
California State University, Fullerton


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