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  • A dictionary of Kalam with ethnographic notes by Andrew Pawley and Ralph Bulmer
  • Juliette Blevins
Andrew Pawley and Ralph Bulmer (with the assistance of John Kias, Simon Peter Gi, and Ian Saem Majnep). 2011. A dictionary of Kalam with ethnographic notes. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics 630, xiii + 810 pp. ISBN 978-085-88-3604-2. $Aust. 132.00 (Australia), $Aust. 120.00 (elsewhere), hardcover.

Of the 800 or so known Papuan languages, less than five percent have dictionaries that do justice to their extensive vocabularies, indigenous taxonomies, and semantic networks.1 Even fewer works on Papuan languages attempt to capture the encyclopedic knowledge behind words that relates to interaction with and understanding of the natural environment. This was a central goal of anthropologist Ralph Bulmer when he began fieldwork in 1960 with the Kalam people of the Upper Kaironk Valley in the Bismarck and Schrader Ranges of what is now the Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. Bulmer viewed the ultimate dictionary as:

a form of ethnographic description, a kind of encyclopedia of those elements of Kalam culture and society that are codified in language. Entries should do more than provide convenient English translation equivalents of Kalam words. They should provide a systematic description of Kalam semantic categories and relations, which in many cases differ markedly from those of English and other European languages. The semantic structure of terminologies, such as terms for kinship and colour, or taxonomies of the animal and plant world, or the parts of complex objects, should be easily recoverable from the information given in dictionary entries. Definitions should include, or be supplemented by commentary on the cultural significance of particular lexical concepts and lexical forms. Points of disagreement, as well as of agreement, among Kalam speakers should be recorded.


In order to produce a work of this kind, Bulmer joined forces with linguist Andrew Pawley, and with Kalam language and culture experts John Kias, the late Simon Peter Gi, and the late Ian Saem Majnep, as well as a range of specialists in the biological sciences. Due to his untimely death to cancer in 1988 at age 60, Ralph Bulmer was not able to see this project through to the end. The team of collaborators, however, inspired by Bulmer’s vision, worked on. Andrew Pawley headed this team, and, as the main architect of the dictionary, put in over 10,000 hours writing most of the text and designing the volume, not to mention editing, checking, and rechecking successive drafts. As a consequence of Pawley’s tireless work, a half-century after Bulmer filled his first Kalam notebooks, A [End Page 191] dictionary of Kalam, with ethnographic notes was complete at just over 800 pages, adhering to Bulmer’s vision, and setting a new standard for Papuan lexicography.

The volume is structured in a friendly way for readers who are new to the language. After the front matter, six short introductory chapters (89 pp.) provide background information necessary for easy use and full appreciation of the dictionary.

1 Guide to the Dictionary lays out the aims and scope of the dictionary, the structure of the dictionary, dictionary entries and subentries, the three major varieties of Kalam represented, the words selected for inclusion, and notes on the writing system and how it differs from other systems in use. Three varieties of Kalam are cataloged: Etp mnm and Ti mnm, two regional dialects, and Alŋaw mnm, the Pandanus language, a ritual language. The Kalam word mnm means ‘the characteristic or normal sound made by a thing, including animals and people; speech, talk, discussion, utterance, discourse; language, dialect’. It is modified in Etp mnm and Ti mnm by the words for ‘what, which thing’ (interrogative) in the two distinct varieties under discussion. The Pandanus language, in contrast, is a variety of the language used by people when in the forest harvesting fruit of the mountain pandanus, alŋaw, or when cutting and cooking cassowary flesh. Abbreviations after headwords for these three language varieties are odd choices. Where a naïve reader might expect EM for Etp mnm, TM for Ti mnm, and AM for Alŋaw mnm, the authors use K for the Etp mnm spoken...


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