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  • Comparative grammar and typology: Essays on the historical grammar of the Austronesian languagesby Alain Lemaréchal
  • William A. Foley
Alain Lemaréchal. 2010. Comparative grammar and typology: Essays on the historical grammar of the Austronesian languages. Orbis Supplementa35. Paris: Peeters. xx + 368. ISBN 978-90-429-2254-9. €79.00, paper.

This is a very difficult volume to review. It consists of a series of papers previously published in French, translated into English, and now collated together here. From a number of comments in the text, it is clear that the author feels that his work has been snubbed and not given its fair due in the heavily English language dominant academic environment of Austronesian linguistics: hence this translated collection. While it is certainly true most academics based in the English-speaking world, and that includes the overwhelming majority of Austronesian specialists, only rarely read materials in languages other than English, as we shall see, there are quite likely other compelling reasons why the author’s publications in comparative and historical Austronesian linguistics have been rarely referred to. While the data collected and the breadth of the author’s reach is quite impressive, this book is in most respects very much in left field in Austronesian linguistics. The author has clearly been involved in research on comparative Austronesian linguistics for several decades, but has done this largely on his own and with little engagement with wider work in the field. His reading of its scholarly literature appears very partial. He jumps upon what will support his claims, but ignores most things that contradict them. There is little or no true argumentation. The exposition is essentially an iteration of bold claims, with no true rigorous argumentation to back them up. The text is littered with “coulds” and “mays.” Although reconstruction of the prehistory of Austronesian languages necessarily works with unattested forms, the standards of argumentation expected are still higher than mere possibilities (although it needs to be admitted that these textual laxities could simply be an artifact of translation).

Further, his use of the comparative method and its central and indispensable law of regularity of sound change are lax indeed. Irregular consonantal correspondences are brushed aside with nary a comment, and vowels seem to count for nothing. Floating morphemes with slippery, almost ghost-like, meanings proliferate. His conclusions are sweeping and, if found to be true, would require a complete rethink of everything we know about the prehistory and grouping of Austronesian languages. Given such profound implications, we would demand a much higher burden of proof and solid argumentation. And all of this is not helped by the extremely terse writing and dense presentation of the book; it will take a very dedicated scholar of comparative Austronesian linguistics to wade through it.

But beyond all these negative comments, Lemaréchal does highlight some very important data and brings up some central and as yet unaddressed questions in comparative Austronesian linguistics, and for this we are all in his debt. He has compiled the data, so that now these questions can be researched, and researched rigorously. In a way, he has raised a question [End Page 517]I have often asked myself. On current work in the field, we reconstruct Proto–Malayo-Polynesian as being grammatically much like Philippine languages, with their symmetrical systems of multiple voices (Riesberg 2013). But if we were to reconstruct its grammar using Dempwolff’s (1934–38) methodology, by applying the comparative method to three daughter-languages of apparently different first order subgroups, such as Nias, Makasarese, and Chamorro, I very much doubt we would reconstruct a language that looks much like Tagalog. Why is this? We are using a methodology pioneered by giants like Dempwolff or Bloomfield (1925), yet we seem to be getting the wrong results under current understandings in the field. In a way Lemaréchal’s book is an attempt to address this question. He gives the wrong answer in my opinion, but we should thank him for bringing this problem out into the open.

Lemaréchal’s basic claim is that the currently accepted view of Austronesian subgrouping, the structure of Proto-Austronesian grammar, and received wisdom concerning...