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  • Edible gender, mother-in-law style, & other grammatical wonders: Studies in Dyirbal, Yidiñ, & Warrgamay by R. M. W. Dixon
  • Anne Storch
Edible gender, mother-in-law style, & other grammatical wonders: Studies in Dyirbal, Yidiñ, & Warrgamay. By R. M. W. Dixon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv, 342. ISBN 9780198702900. $110 (Hb).

‘A language is a social phenomenon’, Dixon states at the beginning of this book. Merely looking at the structure of a language, he explains, is not a helpful tactic in attempting to understand the principles of linguistic features; a semantic approach, he sets out to demonstrate, might be much more fruitful. It is precisely this perspective on linguistics that is at the core of this inspiring book. The studies on Dyirbal, Yidiñ, and Warrgamay, three languages of north-eastern Australia, that are presented in the volume are all about meaning—how speakers make meaning, how grammatical features represent meaningful social and cultural practice, how meaning changes, and how it is always there, in multiple ways. The linguistic signs the author deals with are never simple; they are all semantically complex and express, for example, principles of taxonomy as well as cultural memory, individual ideas about the world and experiences of change and diversity. Words and grammar, as presented in D’s work, need to be seen in their social and cultural context and have to be studied with an awareness of the historical and political situations of the languages in question.

The linguistic features presented by D are among the topics of some of the most celebrated work on Australian languages at large, such as edible gender, mother-in-law speech style, and ergative syntax. Much of the work on these topics has been published, over almost half a century, by the author himself. Here, he has assembled a collection of texts that were, with two exceptions, previously presented as part of his monographs or as chapters in journals and edited volumes. D has not, however, simply reedited his texts, but carefully revised and recontextualized them. Additional overviews and rich comments bind the different chapters together and help to achieve coherence and accessibility throughout the volume. This specific structure and history of the book inspires a kind of ‘double reading’ experience: the reader is provided with a brilliant collection of papers on key topics in Australian linguistics, but also receives a programmatic introduction, if you will, into the work of R. M. W. Dixon and his way of seeing language and linguistics.

The volume is organized in five parts, made up of several chapters each. The first chapter stands separately, providing rich background information on what is to follow. D sets out with a kind of mission statement: ‘One can only fully comprehend the interwoven underpinnings and implications of a language through having some familiarity with the shared cultural heritage of its speakers’ (1). Whatever ‘cultural heritage’ might be here—we have to acknowledge, he implies, different sociocultural concepts, language practices, and people as being fundamentally coeval. Therefore, even though all of the linguistic analyses that are presented in the following chapters are based on D’s basic linguistic theory and widely accepted models of linguistic description, salient contributions to knowledge-making and semantic analysis in this book are presented as coming from the people who speak the languages under study: Chloe Grant (to whom the book is dedicated) and many others (all listed in the acknowledgments section at the end of the book). Their names are given throughout the text, wherever relevant, and the author’s emphasis is on his teachers, not on ‘informants’ or ‘consultants’.

Besides setting the scene in this introductory chapter for the ‘linguistic wonders’ to come in the following chapters, D also makes clear that even wonders are subject to change. With regard to Australia’s languages, however, change very often meant marginalization and silencing, and the author leaves no doubt about whom to assign the blame: the European invasion—from the 1860s in north-eastern Australia—has been disastrous, and its consequences are consistently referred to in the various following chapters, which, as the author points out, provide insights into previously much more complex and richer communicative practices. [End...


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pp. 710-712
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