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  • Nhanda: An aboriginal language of Western Australia
  • Mary Laughren
Juliette Blevins . 2001. Nhanda: An aboriginal language of Western Australia. Oceanic Linguistics Special Publication No. 30. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. xv + 170 pp. ISBN 08248-2375-3. Paper. US$25.00.

Through this volume Blevins makes available the first detailed description of the Nhanda language, covering its phonology, morphology, and basic syntax, and including both English-Nhanda and Nhanda-English wordlists. The data rely almost exclusively on the speech of a single speaker, Mrs. Lucy Ryder, from whom Blevins, in collaboration with Doug Marmion from the Yamaji Language Centre, recorded Nhanda over a period of three years in the 1990s. Nhanda is no longer spoken as a primary language of communication, English having replaced it in this role for several generations now. Blevins informs us that, at the time of European occupation of their lands in the nineteenth century, Nhanda-speaking people lived along the western Australian coast between the Murchinson River in the north and the location of present-day Geraldton in the south. According to Blevins, their territory occupied "a coastal strip 20-100 kilometers wide." The exact location of Nhanda country in precontact times is understandably difficult to ascertain with any real accuracy, but the reader should be aware that authors differ in where they draw the boundaries of traditional Nhanda country (see Tindale 1974).

B reviews earlier sources of documentation of Nhanda in chap. 1, "The Language and its Speakers," including the works of several nineteenth century recorders. She has pieced together a picture of dialectal variation, comparing the speech of Mrs. Lucy Ryder, who represents a northern variety, with the more southerly dialects represented in earlier sources. This chapter also situates Nhanda in relation to surrounding languages, all of which were classifed by O'Grady, Voegelin, and Voegelin (OVV) (1966) in their massive survey of Australian languages as belonging to the South West Group of the Pama-Nyungan (PN) language family.

Another published description of Nhanda, although much more limited than B's study, is included in OVV 1966:119-128. This was based on fieldwork carried out by Ken Hale and Geoff O'Grady in 1960. OVV 1966 classified Nhanda as a member of their Kardu subgroup along with its northern and eastern neighbors Wajarri, Yingkarta, Malgana, and Badimaya, on the basis of the percentage of shared vocabulary on a Swadesh-style 100-word list. Blevins and Marmion (1994) and Blevins (1999) have disputed this classification, arguing, mainly on the basis of distinct morphological paradigms but also on the basis of phonological peculiarities not shared by the other Kardu languages, that Nhanda was more likely to be a distinct PN language predating the advent of speakers of languages belonging to OVV's (1966) South West Group. Some additional data presented in this work strengthens this hypothesis, in my view. However, in the book under review here, which appears to predate Blevins (1999), B seems to be proposing a less radical scenario in which Nhanda is simply shown to be quite radically divergent on a number of points from other Kardu languages. [End Page 259]

Although B makes reference to data from other sources, she is quite selective. She has missed an ideal opportunity to provide us with a richer account of Nhanda encompassing all the information available, given its very limited and finite nature. The publication of a truly comprehensive description of Nhanda would have been of greater value as a record of the language for both descendants of Nhanda language speakers and for linguists wanting to know about this language. While B's Nhanda-English lexicon purports to be "a list of all attested Nhanda stems and basic words" (139), this is clearly not the case, because words that appear in sentence examples taken from O'Grady and Hale's notes discussed in the morphology (chap. 3) and syntax (chap. 4) sections fail to make their way into B's word lists. Such omissions include basic vocabulary such as wiinta 'tree' or waka'i 'snake'. This failure to include the data available from previous works is particularly disappointing for the following reasons. B's work is based on the speech...


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