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  • A grammar of Hatam, Bird's Head Peninsula, Irian Jaya
  • Mark Donohue
Ger P. Reesink . 1999. A grammar of Hatam, Bird's Head Peninsula, Irian Jaya. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. Series C-146. xv + 215 pp. Paper. Aus$42.50.

A grammar of Hatam (GH) is one of a slew of publications that have, after a long drought, finally appeared on the linguistic horizon of the Bird's Head in the far west of New Guinea. Recently we have been treated to Abun, Mai Brat, and tidbits of Meyah, Moi, Mpur, Sougb, and Mansim (Baak, Bakker, and van der Meij 1995, Berry and Berry 1999, Brown 1990, 1991, J. Brown 1999, Dol 1999, Gravelle 1998, 2001, Gravelle and Gravelle 1991, and Reesink 2002 and the papers therein). GH, however, has the distinction of being written by a linguist who has proved his ability to describe, analyze, and present the relevant aspects of that analysis for outsiders (e.g., the still-current Reesink 1983).

GH is not as large as the sort of reference grammar that we have come to expect in recent years, with only 215 pages, of which 80 are texts, leaving only 135 pages of sketch description—R notes (8) that "this monograph does not pretend to give more than a preliminary description of Hatam." It is, however, churlish to directly equate the thickness of a volume with the usefulness of its contents; many superlative descriptions have been much less convoluted than many impenetrable tomes. I know that I have produced better (though less broad) description in short works than in long ones, and we should expect that R's experience should lead to a more concise and less labored style, which it does. Indeed, GH is a convincing argument for linguists to dust off their field notes and publish less-than-reference grammars of those undescribed (or under-described) languages that they have some experience with.

Reviewing GH raises another issue that is in need of discussion—the level of competence in a language that authors should possess before their knowledge is published. In part, this question is answered by the editors and reviewers who make the publishing decisions, by those who examine the products of positive decisions in journal reviews, as well as by those who use and cite such grammar sketches in their own surveys, areal studies, and theoretical works. What these people will accept is, de facto, acceptable, and so sketches such as GH do reveal enough competence to be published.

But in larger part it is answered, unfavorably, by examining the overall maturity of the discipline as revealed in other ways. To a great extent linguists seem to firmly believe in the idea of the published article or book being the magnum opus—that a published work should be the last word on the subject, covering all facets of the phenomena that are mentioned in definitive detail and with perfect integration (reviewers for OL are a thankful exception). In effect, we are a discipline that discourages constructive debate through short articles. If we really believed in debate, more pages of more journals would be devoted to shorter, exploratory works, or squibs, that raise, address, or add to, an issue, without necessarily "solving" it. The lack of such collective discussion outside [End Page 244] of conferences leads to unnecessarily slow progress, because of overly slow dissemination of ideas (other than to an "inner circle" of prepublication recipients).

It should be clear that I am in favor of publishing, and letting the scholarly community do what it will with the results, and so am strongly in favor of the sort of publication that GH represents: it is not intended to discourage further research on Hatam, but to entice that research. This is the aim of a good grammar sketch: to present some of the more interesting or salient features of a language. R does not intend to spend years of his life working on this language, but it would be a waste indeed if the time he has spent could not be suitably shared with other linguists.

By its abbreviated nature, a grammar sketch is more documentary than descriptive, but R manages to make...


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