The Contemporary Pacific 14.1 (2002) 276-278
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Topics in Polynesian Language and Culture History
Topics in Polynesian Language and Culture History, by Jeff Marck. Pacific Linguistics 504. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, 2000. ISBN 0-85883-468-5, xviii + 281 pages, maps, tables, figures, appendixes, notes, references. A$59.95.
Topics in Polynesian Language and Culture History is the result of an extended investigation of the relation between languages and the human communities from which words draw their vitality. At its heart is the search for an even better understanding of processes of language change and their implications for the study of culture history. Specifically, Topics applies the comparative method of linguistics to explore the dynamics of questions of kinship and cosmology. To this end, Marck marshals data impressively, and if few of his strictly linguistic conclusions startle the nonspecialist--the substantial shared cosmogonic tradition across the linguistic descendants of Proto-Polynesian, the similarity of the ancestral system of Proto-Polynesian to modern East Polynesian and Tongan characterized by a greater degree of lexical specificity of kinship relations--the general approach is extremely suggestive. Indeed, Marck reminds the reader of the centrality of investigations of Pacific languages in form and substance to broader ethnological goals in historical and contemporary modalities. Comparative investigations of language, notably in the form of lexically specified kinship relations, with an eye toward questions of Islander identity and regional social institutions is, Marck argues, not a matter of some hoary collection of dated monographs but a vibrant and viable source of twenty-first-century scholarship. Topics thus evinces a [End Page 276] classic mode of scholarship, if until recently somewhat out of vogue, which novel and notably digital technology allows to be reconsidered with potential fruits to be harvested across Pacific Islands studies.
Not an introductory text to Polynesian linguistics, Topics nevertheless offers a detailed perspective on recent and long-discussed issues in the study of languages within the region, including issues of chronology and the genetic relations between the languages and, thus, between the speech communities from which those languages draw their life. For one familiar with a Polynesian language the data set is itself remarkable. One without a high degree of familiarity with any Polynesian language will acquire a number of characteristic features of Polynesian languages in general and some of the principle differences between them. Outside the extensive arguments, revisions, and supports provided within the purview of contemporary Pacific linguistic debates, Marck's biggest contribution in this work lies in the application of his fundamentally linguistic method to questions of more general interest. Marck's work is an exemplary application of comparative analytic tools to an ongoing database project, in this case Biggs' POLLEX, a compilation of Polynesian languages. An important methodological move is the joining of a consideration of both diffused and sporadic sound changes--those occurring in only one or two specified and unprincipled environments and importantly sometimes shared between some but not all daughters of a mother language--to regular sound change. Significantly, this extension is a key point of support for a revised standard model of Polynesian language affinities. Because of the digital character of the POLLEX, its entries offered Marck the chance to apply data-mining tools, allowing lexical items or phonetic patterns to be compared across languages and dialects with a greater degree of breadth than is usually available to the pen-and-paper compiler. Ultimately, such tools offered a more refined analysis of the processes of language change that have occurred in the Pacific and thus of the genetic relations of the languages. Equally important, the reanalysis additionally offered the chance to reconsider issues of cosmology and kinship through the lens of Polynesian lexicons. In Topics, the grandfather of linguistic tools--the comparative method--has been shown to be made not less salient by the passing of time but more by the application of novel technologies.
Finally, given Topics' synthetic character, there was little consideration of the influences of culture and society on the (ir)regularity of sound change. Such linguistic facts as speech registers...