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  • The languages and linguistics of the New Guinea area: A comprehensive guide ed. by Bill Palmer
  • Antoinette Schapper
Bill Palmer (ed.). 2017. The languages and linguistics of the New Guinea area: A comprehensive guide. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter Mouton. 1036 pp. Maps, illustrations, indexes, reference list, table of contents. ISBN 978-3-11-029525-2. €269.00, hardcover.

Numbering more than 800 languages from upward of 20 different families, Papuan languages represent a sizeable chunk of the planet's linguistic diversity. Papuan languages are also among the least well-documented in the world. These factors make the task of assembling a handbook of the Papuan languages [End Page 430] utterly unenviable. And yet in The languages and linguistics of the New Guinea area: A comprehensive guide we have a satisfyingly wide-ranging volume that overviews the current state of knowledge in Papuan linguistics in a way that should be accessible to the student and nonspecialist linguist.

Bill Palmer's opening chapter sets out the scope of the volume. The title could be taken to mean that Austronesian languages would also be covered in the volume, seeing as several hundred are found in the New Guinea Area as defined by Palmer. However, this is not the case. The volume is concerned almost exclusively with Papuan languages. Austronesian languages are only dealt with in so far as they come into contact with Papuan languages (parts of chapter 5 and 7, and the whole of chapter 9).

The second chapter by Andy Pawley and Harald Hammarström is a lengthy one dealing with the very many languages hypothesized to belong to the putative Trans–New Guinea family. The first 60 pages of the chapter are given over to a catalog of languages and language groups with some claim on the label TNG. Much of the space is taken up merely by listing the language names, ISO 639-3 codes, population size, and state of documentation. Reading it, I wondered whether one would not have been better off simply referring the reader to Ethnologue or Glottolog for the information. The purpose of the section was, of course, to group languages based on the strength of their claim to TNG membership. On the margins, the division into two categories of languages with weak claims to TNG membership ("Groups and isolates with weaker claims to membership" and "Groups and isolates sometimes assigned to the TNG family without sufficient supporting evidence") did not seem well justified. I could not, for instance, discern why Mor and Tanah Merah would be in different categories when Ross (2005) gives the same two possible pronominal correspondences for the languages. The second half of the chapter presents a top-down view of some typological and historical features of TNG languages. But really the languages are so numerous and so varied they deserve a handbook of their own.

The following two chapters by Bill Foley are sister chapters covering the diverse northeast and northwest regions of New Guinea, respectively. These contiguous regions are, as Foley points out, a continuous patchwork of small diverse languages grouped into small non-Trans-New Guinea families and separated only by an international border imposed in very recent times. Arranged by language family, the chapters cover an impressive amount of material and are thorough introductions from which the reader can seek out more information through the references. Presumably due to the long production time involved in such large volumes, the recent surge in grammatical descriptions for languages in the northeast (e.g., Hatfield 2016; Honeyman 2017; Wilson 2017; Barlow 2018; Brooks 2018) was not included in the references, but the existence of such work bodes well for the future of linguistic documentation of the region. Sadly, there are no such encouraging signs for the northeast region; the only grammar is Anceaux's one of Nimboran dating back to [End Page 431] 1965. Foley squeezes as much information as possible out of the extent sources, but it is clear for many families next to nothing is known. Foley rightly highlights the really urgent need for work in northeast New Guinea.

Moving westward, the fifth chapter by Gary Holton and Marian Klamer deals with the large western region...


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