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  • A grammar of Abma: A language of Pentecost Island, Vanuatu
  • Kilu von Prince
Cynthia Schneider . 2010. A grammar of Abma: A language of Pentecost Island, Vanuatu. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics 608, xxi + 271 pp. ISBN 978-085-88-3607-5. $Aust. 99.00 (Australia), $Aust. 90.00 (elsewhere), paper.

Cynthia Schneider's grammar is the first comprehensive description of Abma, an Oceanic language of Vanuatu, spoken by about 7,800 people on Pentecost Island. While the author is right to announce that "there is scope for more investigation in every major area" (15), she succeeds in her primary goal of introducing all major structural aspects of the language; a good number of examples from her own research lend substance and clarity to her generalizations.

The first chapter explores the language in relation to neighboring and closely related languages. The dialectal variety within the language is explored in some detail and gives interesting insights into changes in the sound system, including a shift from lower to higher front vowels. This chapter also contains a commendably thorough account of what little previous work had been done on the language.

The chapter on phonology identifies Abma as one of several languages of Vanuatu with a relatively large vowel inventory, mostly due to the phonemic difference between long and short vowels (cf. François 2005, von Prince 2012). The brief treatment of word stress is important for the later discussion of phonological word boundaries, but it leaves the reader desiring an account of the acoustic correlates of stress in the language.

The third chapter, on morphology, is mainly dedicated to the formal properties of a variety of morphological processes. While slightly unorthodox, this structural decision is plausible, insofar as several of the complex morphophonological processes have similar structural properties across word classes and functions, as, for example, the sensitivity to morae in reduplication patterns. At the same time, this chapter is slightly inconsistent in that the functions of most morphological processes are described only later in the book, while the functions of reduplication are dealt with entirely in this chapter. In this context, Schneider's interpretation of verb reduplication deserves closer scrutiny. She gives intensity and intransitivity as the two productive functions of verb reduplication; however, most of the examples she gives for the former function could also be interpreted as signaling pluractionality, as, for example, in /deŋ~deŋ/ 'cry all the time', from /deŋ/ 'cry', or /wat~wat/ 'break into pieces', from /wat/ 'break'.

The interpretation of some cases of reduplication as a process of detransitivization is problematic, insofar as the notion of transitivity is not defined with sufficient precision by the author, as I will explain further below.

Ch. 4 comprises an inventory of word classes with brief descriptions of their main properties. Nouns are further divided into temporal, locative, and general nouns. Both locative and general nouns include a subclass of items that are obligatorily inflected to specify the person and number of their possessor.

The class of verbs is further broken down according to their transitivity, which allows for a distinction between intransitive, ambitransitive, and transitive verbs. Ambitransitive verbs are special in that they may, but do not need to, have an object, as, for example, rarei, which can mean either 'be careful' or 'care for'. While for most ambitransitive [End Page 597] verbs the subject is the agent of the action, irrespective of the presence of an object, in some cases the subject of an objectless ambitransitive verb is interpreted as its patient, as, for example, with sroo, which translates either as 'lose' or 'be lost'.

There are two types of adjectives, with type 1 adjectives occurring before the modified noun, and type 2 adjectives occurring after it. Type 2 adjectives behave like stative verbs when used as predicates.

The section on pronouns contains the interesting observation that the first person plural exclusive and second person plural pronouns are homophonous.

The remainder of ch. 4 covers a variety of smaller classes, from prepositions to interjections, many of which could be explored further. While some items are explained in more detail in later chapters, others remain elusive. For example, the section on adverbs contains quite a number of items...


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