LINGUIST List 8.913

Sat Jun 21 1997

Review: Sneddon: Indonesian Grammar

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Message 1: Sneddon: Indonesian Grammar

Date: Fri, 20 Jun 1997 17:38:31 +0100
From: Mark Donohue <>
Subject: Sneddon: Indonesian Grammar


Sneddon, James Neil. 1996. Indonesian: a comprehensive grammar. London:
Routledge. xxviii + 369 pages + references + 13 pages of index. US$35.00.

Reviewed by Mark Donohue, University of Manchester:


Sneddon (S) states that "This is a description of the Indonesian language
for English-speaking teachers and learners and for any others interested in
the language and its structures." (p1), and many formatting and content
choices flow from this simple statement, a point to which I shall often
return later. After a detailed table of contents, S has put a 14 page
glossary of all the terminology he has used in the book. This is written
in such a way that the non-specialist and specialist alike are able to
appreciate the definitions given there - for the linguist, it is always
useful to have a potentially ambiguous term defined as it is used in the
book or article in question, and S accomplishes this in enough detail to
satisfy the linguist, but not so much that the non-linguist will feel

Skipping the introduction for the moment, S has chosen to divide the book
into four large chapters, rather than a more specialised set of smaller
chapters; this has had remarkably little affect on the readability of the
work, and the findability of the subsections - aided by an exhaustive 12
page index at the back of the book. These chapters are unabashedly
functional, and are discussed individually below:


This chapter covers the usual word formation processes that occur in a
language, including a discussion of the morphophonemic changes that are
created when certain nasal-bearing prefixes occur; indeed, this is the only
discussion of anything phonological in the book, a fact that points to the
necessity of having a teacher as a model.

The discussion of affixing morphology is both complete and detailed,
especially when it comes to the discussion of verbal morphology, which
presents a depth of detail on the topic that is rarely made available in
grammars of languages, and indeed rarely surfaces even in specialist works
on a particular construction.


In this chapter the components, orders, and restrictions of noun phrases
and adjectival phrases are dealt with, with sections dealing with specifics
like pronominal usage (over 15 pages!), prepositional phrases, adjuncts and
what S calls the 'predicate phrase', which includes verbs and their
immediate constituents, or any other lexical class that is serving as a
predicate. Interestingly, for a chapter that is divided up according to
lexical classes as this one is, we find no discussion, in this chapter or
the preceding one, on the criteria used to establish these as separate word
classes. Pedagogically this is probably the right approach to take, so as
not to confuse students who most probably do speak languages with these
distinct word classes, but descriptively we are somewhat cheated.


As with the preceding chapter, the discussion of clauses is arranged
according to the lexical class of the predicate. The main part of the
chapter deals with the word order possibilities, ad the effects of using a
verb in the "active" or "passive" voice. S's use of the traditional
terminology, rather than something reflecting more recent advances in
analysis, is again justified: it makes the book more accessible to a wider
audience, and (in my opinion the best argument), S explicitly defines the
notions of "active" and "passive" in his extensive glossary of terms at the
beginning of the book, so that a reader in doubt about the precise sense in
which a word is used need only refer here. The chapter also contains an
extensive discussion of what S calls "derived clause types, referring to
Topic-comment constructions, relative clauses, quoted speech, and other
types of subordinated clauses. As usual, his treatment of these topics is
at the same time broad and deep, and can be recommended as a model for
others writing grammars to follow.


This final chapter deals with actually producing speech, in real sentences,
and contains information about different speech acts, sentence tags, and
various other devices required to sound natural when speaking. I suspect
that regular users of this book will refer to this section more frequently
than the others, since this information is constantly required in
production. Luckily, S's treatment is detailed enough to stand the test of
a lot of time. The second half of the chapter is perhaps the most useful,
and most interesting: here, in addition to dealing with strategies for
coordination and subordination, and an assortment of complex sentence
linkers, S also includes a section on ellipsis. Alas, this is only five
pages long, but it does prepare the student for the extensive ellipsis of
arguments that is such a feature of spoken Indonesian; and at this point
the book deviates form S's stated intentions to describe "standard formal
Indonesian. This can loosely be identified as the language of government,
administration and the mass media in the Republic of Indonesia". The
language in this final section is rich in ellipsis, and bridges the gap
(though a competent teacher will be needed to ensure that the gap is
bridged gradually) between the formal variety of Indonesian exemplified
elsewhere in the book with the type that students will be more likely to
hear away from the offices of Jakarta,; my only regret is that this final
section is only five pages long.


I am always slightly annoyed to read reviews which glow, and which praise a
book endlessly without seeming to offer enough harsh (constructive)
criticism to let me feel that I am really reading a review that will help
me to decide whether the book in question is good enough to warrant buying,
or merely good. I fear that I am have written such a review. I have found
S's grammar to be topical, complete, and thorough enough to provide useful
information and examples for many years to come, and with enough breadth to
act as a guide for others planning on writing a grammar of a well known
national language. There are points on which S can be criticised, but they
are few, and in the main trifling.

The organisation of the book is such that a naive reader would have little
idea of the use of many of the morphological constructions presented in the
first chapter, since there is no overview, or typological summary of the
language. S has written his grammar for a particular audience, namely
teachers and students of Indonesian, and so this is not a problem for that
target audience. For a linguist with absolutely no idea of the language,
S's book could well be bewildering: the lack of interlinear glosses
anywhere, the frequent absence of translations in the first chapter, and
the lack of a glossary of Indonesian words anywhere could make this grammar
rather impenetrable. On the other hand, dictionaries and articles
discussing Indonesian are not hard to come by, and so this criticism cannot
be levelled too harshly. Had S glossed and offered translations for every
example given, and there are many, then the book would have doubled in
size. Given that Indonesian is not an otherwise unknown language, S's
decision to write for a target audience, and to refer to other dictionaries
and other works published on the language, is understandable. A grammar of
a previously described language must make a contribution in terms of
coverage or completeness, and S has certainly achieved that.

S has chosen not to include a detailed account of the phonology of
Indonesian; partly, this is excusable given that his target audience
consists of people who already speak, or are learning form someone who can
speak, the language, but for a wider audience it is perhaps somewhat
unfortunate. Only peripherally do we learn that the grapheme {e} represents
both the front mid unrounded vowel and the schwa, for instance. Another
(possible) omission in the book is more discussion than the five final
pages of ellipsis, and the tendency to use non-inflected verb forms. S has
allowed for this, however: as stated before, he announces that he is
writing a reference grammar of formal, written Indonesian, and so describes
this. It now remains for further studies, by S or others with experience in
Indonesia, to fill in this gap in out knowledge.

The organisation of the book is rather un-intuitive, with only four main
chapters leading to a proliferation of subsections, without any immediately
apparent hierarchical grouping. Since such grouping is implicit in the
organisation of the table of contents, it would be nice to see subsequent
editions with a revised system, one that will also make the index more
accessible. Given the increasing demand for good grammars and textbooks on
Indonesian, S's book has found a niche in the former category, and given
the availability of materials on Indonesian the grammar is detailed enough
to be a welcome addition to the library of anyone working on the language.


Mark Donohue (Department of Linguistics, University of Manchester) is has
worked in Eastern Indonesian on and off for the last five years. He has
worked mainly on the Tukang Besi language of Southeast Sulawesi, a grammar
of which is soon (?) to appear. More details can be found at

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