LINGUIST List 14.1859

Thu Jul 3 2003

Review: Language Description: Watters (2002)

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  1. Vajda, A Grammar of Kham

Message 1: A Grammar of Kham

Date: Wed, 02 Jul 2003 15:05:25 +0000
From: Vajda <>
Subject: A Grammar of Kham

Watters, David E. (2002) A Grammar of Kham. Cambridge University Press,
500pp, hardback ISBN 0-521-81245-3 $90.00, Cambridge Grammatical

Announced at

Edward J. Vajda,
Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA

Description of the book:

This book provides a comprehensive description of Kham, a
Tibeto-Burman language spoken in an isolated area of West-Central
Nepal. Kham has never been documented previously in any great
detail. In fact, until the early 1960's the area of Nepal where Kham
is spoken was mistakenly believed to contain a dialect of Nepali
rather than a Tibeto-Burman language of any kind. The language is
divided into several dialects or closely related language forms, some
having only limited mutual intelligibility. The total number of
speakers for all Kham language forms is estimated at about 50,000.
Watters (henceforward W) describes the discovery of Kham as ''one of
the remarkable finds in Tibeto-Burman linguistics this century
(xvii). Because Kham data have never before been brought to bear to
any serious extent in discussions of areal and genetic linguistics,
this book is also noteworthy for the contribution it makes to
historical linguistics.

A chapter by chapter run-down of the book's contents is as follows.

Chapter 1, entitled 'The people and their language', provides the
basic ethnographic and historical background, with maps showing the
location of Kham dialects. There is also a brief typological
description of points to be fleshed out in the subsequent chapters. W
discusses the ''Siberian'' or ''Inner Asian'' flavor of traditional
Kham shamanism to suggest that the original Kham speakers came from
the north. This chapter also introduces W's revised conception of the
genetic classification of Tibeto-Burman languages, which places a
Khamish sister branch alongside Kirantish. Kirantish and Khamish, in
turn, form the Sub-Himalayish sister node alongside Trans-Himalayish
(which contains Tibetan proper) under the Tibetic node of the family.

Chapter 2 discusses the segmental phonology, with preliminary mention
of certain prosodic categories. Individual sections deal with the
consonantal and vowel inventories, and include accompanying
explanations of allophonic variation. W posits 9 vowel phonemes, each
of which is additionally contrastive for length. The 22 consonant
phonemes are restricted to only three points of articulation -
bilabial, alveolar and velar. Aspiration is phonemic in
obstruents. This chapter also describes the basic syllable structure
and tone-related phenomena, treating voice register (modal vs. lax
phonation) as a part of the tonal system (discussed further in the
next chapter). Syllables may consist of the following components: (C)
(G) V (X), where X denotes an optional coda, C an optional consonant,
and G an optional glide.

Chapter 3, 'Tonology', asserts that tone in Kham is monosyllabic
rather than word- or root-based, as is more common across
Tibeto-Burman. Tone involves both melody (high vs. low) and phonation
type (modal vs. lax), resulting in a four-way tonemic contrast. W
stresses that the features of melody and phonation type are
independent parameters (37), though they are linked together in the
production of Kham prosodemes. Complex rules of tonal sandhi often
override the inherent tones of adjacent syllables, especially in
suffixes. W's orthography generally does not mark melody, while a
post-vocalic /h/ indicates lax phonation.

The next several chapters treat individual parts of speech from a
morphological perspective: nouns (ch. 4), verbs (ch. 5), modifiers and
adjectivals (ch. 6), locatives, dimensionals and temporal adverbs (ch.
7), adverbs and adverbials (ch. 8). Finally, chapter 9 covers minor
word classes such as pronouns, demonstratives, question words,
quantifiers, particles and clitics. W uses the term 'adjectivals' in
chapter 5 because there is no clear-cut grammatical class of
adjectives in Kham. The discussion of locatives in chapter 7 also
covers the functions of relator nouns. All of these chapters are
additionally interesting because of the concomitant attention W pays
to historical processes of grammaticalization.

Chapter 10 moves the description beyond the morphology of individual
word classes to the level of clausal structure. Based on his
description of nouns given in chapter 4, W discusses the construction
of noun phrases, the process of nominalization, and the morphosyntax
of relative clauses. There is also considerable coverage of
derivational morphology here, since Kham nominalizations can come from
nearly every other major word class.

Chapter 11 is titled 'Simple clauses, transitivity and voice'. Here W
discusses basic constituent order in simple clauses. Kham, following
the Tibeto-Burman norm, is an AOV, SV language (214). This chapter
analyzes argument structure and its influence on syntactic
constituency. There are copious examples of transitive, ditransitive,
and intransitive sentences, including sentences with positive or
negative copula plus predicate nominal. Certain verbs in Kham require
dative experiencer subjects (224-5). W argues that the distinction
between transitive and intransitive verbs in Kham largely mirrors the
semantic notion of direct vs. indirect causation (255).

Chapter 12 moves on to describe the key grammatical functions of the
verbal predicate, namely tense, aspect, and modality. W focuses on how
these categories overlap in meaning. Example sentences illustrate the
rich interaction of Aktionsart categories with tense distinctions.

Chapter 13 is entitled 'The modality of certainty, obligation,
unexpected information'. Here W explains the Kham system of
evidentiality and its interaction with deontic expressions. He also
covers mirative forms, which are used to convey newly discovered
information (288-96); as well as of reportative forms, which convey
hearsay information. Mirative forms do not comment on the source of
the information (which may be hearsay or represent an event witnessed
by the narrator), but merely underscore that the given information is
new or even unexpected for the narration.

Chapter 14, 'Non-declarative speech acts', covers the expression of
direct and indirect questions, rhetorical questions, and various kinds
of imperatives. As in other chapters, the discussion is amply
illustrated by example sentences with clear morpheme glossing. There are
also both literal and idiomatic English translations to most examples.
The literal translations are quite valuable in helping better to convey
the grammatical 'flavor' of the Kham constructions.

Chapter 15 moves away from the simple sentence to discuss interclausal
relations and complex sentence structure. The sentences in this chapter
are syntactically complex in that they require at least two verbs. Types
of clauses covered include adverbial clauses of various sorts. There are
also sections on clause chaining and switch reference (322-30),
complement structures (331-45), and coordinate structures (345-9). The
discussion of complement structures includes various types of imbedding
associated with modal verbs.

Chapter 16, titled 'Nominalized verb forms in discourse', opens onto
one of the interesting structural hallmarks of the Kham language
group: the morphological ability to nominalize entire verbal
predicates. W concludes that the nominalized forms are used to mark
material that is temporally disjunct from that of the surrounding
context. Such forms contrast in discourse with the non-nominalized
forms, which are encountered more frequently overall and are used to
convey background information (369).

Chapter 17, 'The Kham verb in historical perspective' returns to the
issue of Kham's genetic position within the classification of
Tibeto-Burman. W argues that Kham person and number agreement patterns
are an archaic retention from Proto-Tibeto-Burman (371). Here W delves
into both intra-Khamic comparisons as well as cross-Tibeto-Burman
comparisons involving verb agreement morphology to fortify his

Chapter 18 includes three Kham texts with morpheme glosses and
interlinear translation: 'Tipalkya kills a leopard', 'Jaman and the
witches', and 'Mana and the leopard'. As with most of the other Kham
language data provided in this book, these texts are published here
for the first time.

Chapter 19 is an English/Kham glossary containing over 400 basic
vocabulary items. Each is provided by Proto-Kham and
Proto-Tibeto-Burman reconstructions where possible.

The book ends with a lengthy bibliography and a general index.

Critical evaluation:

Kham has an unusual structure, containing a number of characteristics
that are of immediate relevance to current work on linguistic theory,
including split ergativity and the system of demonstrative
pronouns. The language's verb morphology, in particular, holds out the
promise of leading to a clearer understanding of the genetic history
of the entire Tibeto-Burman family. W has performed extensive
fieldwork of several dialects of Kham and includes copious examples
from multiple dialects throughout his discussion of various
grammatical structures.

Besides the inclusion of rich dialectal contrasts, this book contains an
unexpectedly rich investigation of diachronic problems that impinge on
our understanding of the entire Tibeto-Burman language group. I had
expected to find a detailed synchronic documentation of the language,
which indeed is provided. But I was surprised by the unexpected added
bonus of so many innovative interpretations of diachronic issues.

Because Kham was discovered and documented only during the last 40
years, most of the data, like W's analysis itself, is completely new
to linguistics literature. Most of the bibliographic references, for
instance, do not refer to earlier publications dealing with Kham, but
rather are included to support W's broad use of typological
comparisons in his analysis of Kham language structure. The basic
documentation of language facts is itself excellent and very
detailed. This is a credit both to W and to the series editors,
R.M.W. Dixon and Keren Rice, who insist both on a high standard of
scholarship as well as on stylistic and organizational clarity. This
book succeeds admirably on both scores, and will doubtless prove
extremely valuable to future linguists as a source of example material
from this previously underdescribed language.


Edward J. Vajda is a professor of Linguistics, Russian Language, and
Eurasian Studies at Western Washington University. He is an editor of
the journal Word. His research interests include minority languages of
the former Soviet Union. For the past several years he has been
intensively involved in linguistic research on the structure of Ket, a
language isolate spoken by a few hundred people in Central Siberia
near the Yenisei River.
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