- William J. Gedney's Concise Saek–English, English–Saek Lexicon
This volume is the latest in a series of masterfully produced volumes by Tom Hudak using unpublished data left by William J. Gedney. In fact, Gedney had talked with his colleagues (including myself) about his data, saying they were stored in his basement in Ann Arbor and that someone would need to publish them. Certainly no one could, at the time, have imagined just how much there was, for it is from that wonderful hoard that Hudak has published eight large volumes. The concise lexicon of Saek–English, English–Saek is the newest.
Bill Gedney was perhaps the premier US researcher of Thai and its relatives in the post World War II period. He received training in Thai with the Peace Corps, and then established a base in Thailand. During the war years of the 1960s he began to develop techniques for the study of Tai language history, especially for the understudied locations. One of his procedures is the widely used checklist of diagnostic forms. But, for some languages, such as Saek, he would go beyond the list of a few hundred words, determining first the contrasts for initials, rhythms, codas, and tones. Knowing those, he would then tax the consultants to think of all the words they knew in each of all possible categories of initials, rhythms, codas, and tones. This method became known among Southeast Asianists as "doing a Gedney." And it was from the application of this procedure that Gedney gained sufficient material for a lexicon of Saek, which he started to organize in 1976. However, from the Acknowledgments section, one gets the impression that many issues remained unresolved, as Hudak says he had to "organize the data into manageable groups" to prepare the manuscript.
The concise lexicon of Saek–English and English–Saek is about a language that is a member of the Tai family, which is geographically incongruous: it is a "cornucopia of archaica" (Paul Benedict, pers. comm.), and has had deep language contact with Vietnamese. The incongruity of Saek is that it is found in northeastern Thailand and Laos, but its phonological and lexical features are like those of languages found far to the north along the Sino-Vietnamese border. Secondly, Gedney once remarked that Saek was like "the Hittite" of Tai, since Saek possesses surprising consonant clusters—tr, tl, kw, khw, thr, and so on—that Gedney found puzzling. Saek is also a rara avis, since it is unique among Tai languages; Saek preserves vocabulary with coda -l, where other Tai languages have changed this to -n, though -l is found in the coda position of items in languages outside the Tai branch. And finally, Saek has undergone much influence on its tones and vocabulary from Vietnamese, as Kosaka (1997) has argued. So Saek's origin and classification remain a puzzle (cf. Chamberlain 1998a,b).
This book is important because it may help restart the scholarly conversation about Saek, since there has not been recent research on it. Moreover, this volume will assist researchers who do not possess the out-of-print larger dictionary, William J. Gedney's The Saek Language (Hudak 1993a). Even for those lucky few who have that dictionary, this [End Page 284] volume adds a new research tool, the English–Saek section of the book, which allows one to search Saek lexemes from their English senses. Hudak also supplies information about the locations of Saek speakers, the history of research on Saek, and gives an introduction to the sound contrasts and changes that are taking place among younger speakers. Beyond that, this new rhyme-based lexicon will allow more intense work on the vowels of Saek and vocabulary items with the "celebrated" -l coda, as Benedict (1997:172) called it. Kudos also to Tom Hudak for adding this useful English–Saek section. The book is handsomely bound with a sturdy cover that will stand much thumbing as one...