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  • A grammar of Nungon: A Papuan language of northeast New Guineaby Hannah S. Sarvasy
  • Lourens De Vries
Hannah S. Sarvasy. 2017. A grammar of Nungon: A Papuan language of northeast New Guinea. Grammars and Sketches of the World's Languages: Mainland and Insular South East Asia. Leiden: Brill. xxi + 637 pp. ISBN 978-90-0433750-3. $167, hardcover.

This grammar is a strikingly comprehensive reference grammar of the Papuan language Nungon, belonging to the Finisterre-Huon family and spoken by just around 1,000 people in the Morobe Province of Papua New Guinea. The book has thirteen chapters covering not only the traditional topics of a reference grammar (phonology, morphology, syntax of phrases and clauses, clause combining) but also aspects of discourse, cultural pragmatics of communication, greeting practices, and nonverbal communication. The book is based on the PhD thesis that the author defended at James Cook University, in Cairns, Australia, in 2015. In its approach to language description and linguistic theory, the book follows the tenets of Basic Linguistic Theory (Dixon 2010). In that respect. but also in the thorough approach to field work and in the deep interest in cultural and social aspects of languages and speech communities, the book clearly and fruitfully reflects the perspectives of her supervisors R. M. W. Dixon and Alexandra Aikhenvald.

Nungon is a Papuan language of the familiar nuclear Trans-New Guinea (TNG) type, with clause chaining, switch reference, simple nominal and complex verbal morphology, basically nominative alignment (with occasional ergative marking in quite a few TNG languages), and rich in markers of informational status that interact with semantic case role markers in encoding grammatical relations in the clause. There is a restricted set of formal types of switch reference systems in Papuan languages, dependent on the various grammaticalization paths they followed (Roberts 1997; de Vries 2010). A common grammaticalization path is to turn the distinction between finite and nonfinite verb forms into a cataphoric different subject and same subject distinction in clause sequences. Nungon also followed this path: when a verb in a medial clause has no number and person marking for its subject, it counts as a same subject form; and when that marking is present, it counts as a different subject form.

Nungon discourse reflects the recapitulative, thematizing, and quotative framing tendencies of very many nuclear Trans-New Guinea languages (and beyond), with tail-head linkage (de Vries 2005), conflated relative/adverbial clauses with theme or setting function ((Foley 1986: 201), a key role for verbs of speaking in the domains of intention and purpose (Reesink 1993), and various other features (Foley 2000).

The comprehensiveness of this grammar, based on solid field work in the immersion tradition and with an emphasis on recording, transcribing, and analyzing many hours of relatively spontaneous verbal interaction, makes it extremely valuable because it adds depth, nuance, and important new observations on phenomena we thought we knew. For example, the chapter on nonfinal verbs has a fascinating section on noncanonical uses of medial verbs, in appended medial clauses, nonfinal clause types concluding clause chains, and in imperative strategies. That chapter enriches our knowledge of Papuan clause chaining, in itself a familiar phenomenon, very significantly and innovatively. The [End Page 510]same can be said of other topics: for example, the rich description of Nungon number marking. The comprehensiveness combines with crystal clear exposition of complex data and well-argued analyses. The grammar is 637 pages long, but only 31 pages are devoted to texts, which is a pity in an otherwise comprehensive grammar.

Sarvasy does not mention the literature on the (nuclear) Trans-New Guinea group as a genetic group that includes the Finisterre-Huon language family. This could be because the author reasons that the Trans-New Guinea hypothesis is not based on rigid bottom-up reconstructive work but on less rigid top-down mass comparative reconstruction. But this has also blinded the author somewhat to Trans-New Guinea as a typological context for the Nungon data, and for Finisterre-Huon languages more generally.

This typological nuclear or mountain Trans-New Guinea profile (with some extensions into the lowlands) has to do with clause chaining and switch reference, with topical subordinate...


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