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Reviewed by:
  • Abau grammar sketch by Arnold (Arjen) Hugo Lock
  • William A. Foley
Lock, Arnold (Arjen) Hugo. 2011. Abau grammar sketch Data Papers on Papua New Guinea Languages 57. Ukarumpa, Papua New Guinea: SIL-PNG Academic Publications. xiv + 487 pp.

The title of this book truly undersells it—this is not a mere grammar sketch of Abau, but a full grammar and a fine one at that, which clearly lays out the structure of this fascinating and typologically unusual Papuan language. Abau is spoken in a huge swath of territory along the Sepik River and its southern tributaries, from just west of where the Yellow River joins the Sepik River, all the way to the Indonesian border. Along with the Wogamusin family and the Iwam family (each consisting of two languages), it is a coordinate member of the Upper Sepik subfamily of the large Sepik family (Foley 2005). I cannot possibly do justice to such a detailed work as this in a short review, so I will concentrate on the unusual typological properties of Abau, both within a specific Papuan context and also more widely.

Abau has one of the simplest systems of phonemic consonants among Papuan languages, and indeed the world:

  1. 1.

Note that there is no /t/; [t] is an allophone of /r/ before /s/. A primary allophone of /h/ is [ɸ], occurring word finally, as in yoh ‘banana’ [jɔɸ]; syllable finally, when the next syllable begins with an obstruent, as in yoh-se ‘banana-dat’ [jɔɸsɛ]; initially in a consonant cluster with /r/, as in hreme ‘1pl.dat’ [ɸrɛmɛ]; and before a high front vowel or semivowel, as in hye ‘3sg.m.dat’ [ɸjɛ].

There has been some disagreement over the proper phonemic analysis of the Abau vowel system. Previous work, such as Bailey (1975) and Laycock and Z’graggen (1975), argue for a system with six or eight vowels, respectively, noting contrasts like [re] ‘go’ versus [rɛ] ‘come’, [or] ‘man’ versus [ɔr] ‘black’, and [rɔ] ‘shout’ versus [ro] ‘blow flutes’ versus [rɔw] ‘defecate’. Lock provides the following minimal pairs: [di] ‘spear’, [dɪ] ‘able to’ ([d] is an allophone of /r/ before high front vowels), [rei] ‘go’, [rɛ] ‘come’, [ra] ‘eat’, [ru] ‘copulate’, [rʊ] ‘cassowary bone’, [rou] ‘defecate’, [rɔ] ‘shoot’. The minimal pair ‘defecate’ and ‘blow flutes’ is taken as [rou] versus [rou]. On the bases of the surface contrasts we would expect nine or ten vowel phonemes, but Lock instead proposes a basic five vowel system, as in (2),:

  1. 2.

These five vowels are analyzed as having offglides that account for the other surface contrasts—that is, [ɪ] = /iy/, [ʊ] = /uw/, [e] = /ey/, and [o] = /ow/—so that minimal pairs [End Page 291] are /rey/ ‘go’ versus /re/ ‘come’ and /ro/ ‘shout’ versus /rou/ ‘blow flutes’ versus /row/ ‘defecate’. Lock treats the contrast between ‘man’ and ‘black’ as /uwr/ versus /or/. This analysis requires the exploitation of a contrast between diphthongs like /ey/ and /ow/ and vowel clusters /ei/ and /ou/: /mow/ [mou] ‘give birth’ versus /mou/ [mou] ‘species of water insect’ and /rey/ [rei] ‘go’ versus /rei/ [rei] ‘cut’. Lock has spent many years studying the language and its dialectal variations, so this analysis should be taken seriously, but it does depend on finding such subtle phonetic discriminations as these to be robust. In word-final position, perhaps this contrast may be phonetically sound, but it also occurs in closed syllables in monosyllabic words where it is not clear if it has a strong phonetic basis: /yeyk/ [jeik] ‘canoe’ versus /peik/ [beik] ‘ill’. Further, the idea that a diphthong of a high vowel, plus its corresponding semivowel, is lower than the pure high vowel—that is, Lock’s claim that [ɪ] = /iy/, [ʊ] = /uw/, /ri/ [di] ‘spear’ versus /riy/ [dɪ] ‘able to’ and /ru/ [ru] ‘copulate’ versus /ruw/ [rʊ] ‘cassowary bone’—is phonetically quite odd; such diphthongs are usually higher, as they are for the mid vowels in his analysis, so perhaps a better alternative may be /riy/ [di] ‘spear’ versus /ri/ [dɪ] ‘able to’ and /ruw/ [ru] ‘copulate’ versus /ru/ [rʊ] ‘cassowary bone’.

Nouns in Abau have...


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