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  • A Grammar of Warrongo by Tasaku Tsunoda
  • R. M. W. Dixon
A Grammar of Warrongo. Tasaku Tsunoda. Mouton Grammar Library 53. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2011. Pp. xxx + 751. $210.00 (hardcover and ebook).

This is an unfortunate publication. The grammatical analysis is loose and stodgy, the presentation unnecessarily long-winded, and the database silently mingles information from several languages. In addition, the author shows unparalleled naivety.

To illustrate the last point first, on page 196 we find example (1) (numbered (3–75) in the original).

  1. 1. (“On a cold winter night”)

    waybalanggo  jomoboro–wo   yago–∅ wajon (AP)

    white man-erg    cattle-dat    grass-acc   burn-nf

    ‘The white man burnt grass for the cattle (to keep them warm).’

Presumably ‘The white man burnt grass for the cattle’ is the translation provided by the consultant, Alf Palmer (AP). This refers to the practice of white cattlemen setting fire to old grass so that new shoots would grow in its place, which provide rich pasture for cattle. Tsunoda is apparently unaware of this, and adds nonsensical remarks in parenthesis—“On a cold winter night . . . to keep them warm.” This is typical of the naivety that permeates the publication.

In 1964, I worked with Alf Palmer at the Palm Island Aboriginal Settlement. Alf told me that he knew Warrungu (the language of his foster mother, his father having been white and his mother Jirru), and also the neighboring language Warrgamay (see Dixon 1981), plus the Girramay and Jirrbal dialects of the Dyirbal language (see Dixon 1972). Warrungu and Warrgamay had not been spoken on an everyday basis for several decades, whereas at that time both Girramay and Jirrbal were still in active use. (Indeed, Alf Palmer used Jirrbal for talking with his wife.) He said that he had tended to muddle things up a bit and suggested that each lexeme should be given in all four varieties, as a way of “keeping them apart.” In this way, we went through more than four hundred vocabulary items (and some bits of grammar). A small sample is shown in table 1.

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Table 1.

Sample of Information Given by Alf Palmer in Four Varieties

Checking the Warrgamay, Girramay, and Jirrbal forms with those given by speakers of these varieties, there are just a few errors in Palmer’s information. ‘Emu’ is actually gundulu in Warrgamay, as in Warrungu, gabirri being confined to Girramay and Jirrbal. [End Page 219] The generic term ‘eel’ in Warrgamay is guymbi, with maginy being confined to Girramay. ‘Woomera’ is jumala in Girramay, as in Jirrbal (although jarin is found in three further dialects of Dyirbal: Wari, Gulngay, and Jirru). ‘Creek (small river)’ is garrgal in Jirrbal and Girramay (malan does occur in Jirrbal, but with the meaning ‘flat rock’).

Between 1971 and 1974, Tasaku Tsunoda worked on Palm Island with Alf Palmer, ostensibly on Warrungu. He completed an M.A. thesis, “A Grammar of the Waruŋu Language, North Queensland,” at Monash University in Melbourne in 1974. His many publications over the past forty years at first referred to the language as “Warungu,” then “Warrungu,” and (since 2004) as “Warrongo” (breaking with an Australianist convention, by employing 〈o〉 rather than 〈u〉 for the high back member of this three-vowel system).

Alf Palmer considered himself to be the “last speaker” of Warrungu, and maintained that the language would die with him. Tsunoda took this literally in print and in conference presentations and has made many statements along the lines of “Alf Palmer passed away in 1981, and the Warrungu language became extinct” (Tsunoda 2006:299). This is simply incorrect. There were a number of other people with a knowledge of Warrungu living on the mainland who were never contacted by Tsunoda, and who outlived Alf Palmer. I knew of Paddy Bute (died 1988) and Andy Denham (died 28 December 1992); there could have been more.

Tsunoda’s grammar does not include a vocabulary and is meant to be used in conjunction with his 125-page 2003 publication A Provisional Warrungu Dictionary. It is interesting to see how far Alf Palmer was able to keep apart his four language varieties...


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pp. 219-222
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