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Review of  A Grammar of Semelai

Reviewer: Tamara Pogibenko
Book Title: A Grammar of Semelai
Book Author: Nicole D. Kruspe
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Semelai
Issue Number: 18.988

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AUTHOR: Kruspe, Nicole
TITLE: A Grammar of Semelai
SERIES: Cambridge Grammatical Descriptions
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2004
Announced at

Pogibenko Tamara, Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow

This monograph is a comprehensive description of Semelai, a language that
belongs to Aslian group of Mon-Khmer (MK) branch of Austroasiatic (AA)
family. Semelai is spoken by some 4,000 people in Peninsular Malaysia. The
monograph is a revision of the doctoral dissertation submitted to the
University of Melbourne in 1999.The study is based on a corpus of data
collected during the period of fieldwork from July 1990 to June 1991 as
well as the data collected during visits in 2000-1, while Kruspe was a
postdoctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary
Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

This book is a pioneer full description of a language belonging to the
least explored group of AA language family, an area much underrepresented
in cross-linguistic studies. Located at the periphery of AA, Semelai and
other Aslian languages are key for our understanding of the paths of
historical development and typological evolution of a most challenging
language family, which includes such typological extremes as polysyllabic
Munda languages with complex verb and noun morphology on the one hand, and
monosyllabic isolating Vietnamese, on the other hand. The description is
carried out in terms of Basic Linguistic Theory; an abundant number of
clearly presented examples, and an impressive body of texts representing
different oral genres are included, therefore this work would be equally
useful to researchers of the AA languages, typologists and descriptivists.
The method for data collection was based on the following principles:
monolingual work with a cross-section of the community; collecting
narratives in a range of genres, the narrator performing in a setting of an
interactive audience, direct elicitation of language material kept to a
minimum; texts' transcription and annotation being carried out with one
principle speaker in group settings which included people of all ages from
different settlements, spontaneous and lively debate increasing the
researcher's insight into the intricacies and subtleties of the language.


The book consists of fourteen chapters (the last chapter is the collection
of texts), the list of Tables and figures, Preface, Acknowledgements, list
of Abbreviations and conventions, three maps, Vocabulary (Semelai-English),
References, and Index.

Chapter 1 ''Semelai'' (1-31) provides general information about the
typological characteristics of Semelai, the subgrouping of the Aslian
languages and their geographical distribution, affiliation of Aslian with
MK, previous research, the prehistory of the Aslian languages, ethnographic
background. Semelai exhibits many of the typological features of a mainland
AA language, as well as incorporates aspects of Austronesian due to
sustained contact with Malay. It is an isolating language with
agglutinating features and complex morphology. The inventory of affixes
includes those of AA origin, as well as those borrowed from Malay. These
two different sets of affixes have different forms of attachment: a)
non-concatenative type for prefixes and infixes of MK origin b)
concatenative type for borrowed prefixes, suffixes and a circumfix. A most
intriguing morphophonological process is coda/onset copying. Roots can feed
multiple affixation, combining affixes from both systems of attachment.
Borrowed Malay lexemes can feed affixation of indigenous affixes. Word
order in NPs is essentially MK: the attribute, possessor, and relative
clause follow the head. Word order at the clause level drastically differs
from that in most non-Aslian MK languages: it is not used to express
grammatical relations, it is fluid, with variations driven by pragmatic
factors. Semelai combines core role marking on the predicator and NPs:
subject marking in transitive clauses on the predicator and subject NP and
object marking on the object NP. Semelai speakers practice avoidance speech
styles which depend on the environment, including particular household
activity locations.

Chapter 2 ''Phonology and Phonotactics'' (32-60) is a full description of the
phonological system. Semelai has a rich phonemic inventory: thirty-two
consonants and twenty vowels (ten oral vowels, each with a nasal
counterpart). The structure of the syllable is essential to the
organization of the phonology and morphological processes. Semelai, as all
Aslian languages, has a strong monosyllabic tendency, although disyllabic
and polysyllabic words are attested. Word can consist of one main syllable,
or main syllable with one or two presyllables.

Chapter 3 ''Morphology'' (61-93) describes morphemic composition of words in
terms of structures and structural processes. Two subsystems are described
separately, they are the indigenous system and the borrowed system.
Structural units such as lexeme, grammatical word, clitic, root, affix and
base are distinguished, defined and their phonological and
morphophonological features described. A phonologically specific affix type
involving coda and onset copy is described in terms of templatic morphology.

Chapter 4 ''Word classes'' (94-104) deals with general principles of division
into word classes; a short description of each class is given in terms of
subclasses, word formation, inflexion and function. The following word
classes are distinguished for Semelai: nominal, verb, expressive,
preposition, adverb, auxiliary, existential and ascriptive predicators,
negator, connective, interjection. Generally, assignment to a particular
word class raises no problems (including noun and verb distinction) except
for some specific cases such as Malay loans, which can function both as
verbs and nouns, a few cases of verbs which are used as modifiers without
undergoing nominalisation, locative nominals, which may function as
prepositions. Each word class comprises prototypical, less prototypical and
boundary members. In contrast to other AA languages, deverbal nouns in
Semelai do not generally function as arguments except subjects; they can
also function as predicates in non-verbal clauses and in interrogative
sentences. Indigenous classifiers are derived from nouns. Prepositions
include deictic dimensions: three degrees of height and speaker
orientation; they also feed nominalization.

Derivational morphology is most productive for verb to verb derivation,
more constrained for verb to noun derivation, restricted for noun to noun
derivation and highly restricted for noun to verb derivation. Affixes of
the same phonological form found in verb to noun and noun to noun
derivation are treated as homophones.

In chapter 5 ''The verb'' (105-169), word structure, morphological categories
and semantic classification of verbs are described. A characteristic
feature of verb morphology in Semelai is ''peaceful'' and even ''cooperative''
coexistence of forms with similar functions derived by indigenous and Malay
borrowed affixes. Morphology of intransitive verbs is simpler than that of
transitive verbs. Verb form can be root form or can include a number of
affixes and/or clitics. Affixes are mostly prefixes or infixes, but there
is also a suffix and a circumfix. Trivalent verbs do not feed derivational
processes, even valency decreasing ones. Verb roots can host combination of
up to two affixes. The particular function of the derivational morphemes is
dependent on the root. Thus, coda copy can derive the following:
imperfective (from transitive verbs), new lexical item (from active
intransitive verbs), noun (from adjectives), intransitive verbs (from bound
roots), and stative intransitive verbs (from nouns). Section 5.3 describes
derivational morphology, i.e. verbal forms, derived from verbal or nominal
roots with prefixes, infixes and suffixes including those borrowed from
Malay, the latter include: the imperfective prefix mN-, found in those
Malay loans where coda copy is inapplicable; the middle voice prefix b(r)-;
the collective circumfix; the causative prefix p-; the applicative
suffix –i; the happenstance prefix t(r)-. The forms derived with AA
inventory include: the imperfective derived with coda copy; the causative
with par-, tar-, -r-; the comparative with raʔ-/-raʔ-; and the intensive
derived by means of light syllable reduplication. Functions of verb forms
in different environments are described in detail and several subsections
are supplied with comparative notes concerning corresponding affixes in
other Aslian languages and Malay. Section 5.5 describes verbal clitics:
pronominal and irrealis proclitics (which are mutually exclusive and
primarily associated with transitive roots or stems and a limited number of
intransitive roots), imminent aspect proclitic. Section 5.6 deals with
means of expressing modal meanings.

In Chapter 6 ''Pronouns: personal, ignorative, and demonstrative'' (170-201),
three types of pronouns are described. Personal pronouns include familiar
forms for 1SG and 2SG, inclusive/exclusive distinction for 1SG and 1PL, and
plural forms both simple and derived with the clitic =ʔen (first and second
person free pronouns). Third person singular pronominal clitic can be used
with a distributive meaning. Ignoratives in Semelai are numerous and they
are described in detail. Two different constructions are used to express
interrogative ''whose'': one with ''who'' in postposition to the noun head and
the other with ''who'' in preposition to the noun head with the possessive
preposition. Semelai has three basic demonstratives of distance orientation
-- proximal, distal, and non-specific proximal, it also has an elaborated
paradigm of spatial demonstrative forms, which are derived from deictically
specified directionals with the help of the prefix naʔ- ~ na-. Personal
pronouns can be modified by proximal/distal demonstratives and by the
temporal deictic. Kruspe also observes that the demonstrative may precede
the head in imperative and directive constructions.

Chapter 7 ''The noun phrase'' (202-226) describes the structure of the noun
phrase and its constituents: numerals, classifiers, measure nouns,
quantifiers; different types of noun phrases are also described: the
attributive phrase and the associative phrase, the latter covers a range of
relations holding between two nouns: filiation, whole-part relation,
possession, the second component can also denote performer, creator, user,
beneficiary, purpose, source, time. Of all these relations only the
possessive one can be (optionally) marked by the possessive preposition and
the enclitic =hn. Bordering phenomena such as compounds and criteria for
distinguishing them from the associative phrase construction are also dealt
with. This chapter includes sub-section ''Nominal derivation'' which is
comprised of two paragraphs: ''Noun to noun derivation'' and ''Deverbal
nouns''. Last but not least, it includes small paragraphs dealing with
syntactic peculiarities of derived nouns.

Chapter 8 ''Prepositions and the prepositional phrase'' (227-246) deals with
prepositions, the structure of the prepositional phrase and its functions.
Much of the space is taken up by deictic locative prepositions and
directionals. Morphosyntactic characteristics of individual prepositions
are described in detail.

Chapter 9 (pp. 247-268) focuses on grammatical relations, constituent order
and coding strategies. Grammatical relation coding and constituent order
are the features that drastically distinguish Semelai from the majority of
MK languages. Word order in Semelai does not encode grammatical relations
and allows a range of variations. The options are determined by sentence
structure, e.g. transitive vs. intransitive vs. non-verbal clause; such
pragmatic factors as type of reference, e.g. general/background statements
vs. perfective clauses (describing a specific instance of an event); and
communication structure of discourse. General statements in Semelai have
invariable SVO order. The unmarked order in the transitive perfective
clause is VSO ~ VOS, V-IO-O. Three argument sequences are not attested in
spontaneous discourse. Fronting is a strategy to place an NP into focus
position. Fronting does not affect verbal morphology but fronted core NPs
lose their role-marking. Interrogative formations also require fronting of
the ignorative and relativisation of the clause.

Two basic coding strategies are discussed in detail: agent
cross-referencing and NP role coding. Post-verbal agents are marked with
la=, which has other functions: introduces an NP or a clause providing
information about the source of causation or reason; only post-verbal
agents can be cross-referenced on the verb with pronominal proclitics. A
small subset of intransitive verbs (human activity and emotion) allow their
sole NP to be marked as agent. Agent marker can be omitted when it is
recoverable from the context or universal knowledge as well as in absence
of post-verbal O. Post-verbal direct objects can be marked by hn=, which
has other functions as well. Pronominal proclitics have an anaphoric
function, allowing high frequency of zero representation of agent NPs. Zero
anaphora is a prominent feature of the Semelai clause.

Chapter 10 ''Basic clauses'' (269-338) deals with different types of clauses:
non-verbal clauses, irrealis constructions, negative, interrogative, and
imperative clauses; it also includes a subsection which covers all types of
adverbial modifiers. Semelai has three types of non-verbal clauses:
identificational, ascriptive and locational. There are no copulas of
identity or predication in Semelai but there is a copular of existence and
a copular of transformation, the latter is used to describe some natural
processes of development, i.e. changes of state. In questions with
interrogative pronouns, different strategies are used depending on the type
of the argument that the fronted ignorative refers to.

A considerable space is allocated to the irrealis mood (marker ma=), which
covers a variety of modalities. It is only used with verbs which can host
pronominal proclitics. The irrealis marker is used in place of pronominal
proclitics so that the two markers are mutually exclusive. The irrealis in
Semelai is used to express a range of modalities, which, as Kruspe
maintains, fall into two categories: epistemic modalities (inferential,
experiential, mirative, and hypothetical) and deontic modalities (negative
imperatives, denial of permission, prohibition, and lack of obligation).
The irrealis marker is only obligatory in case of deontic modality. The
agent in an irrealis clause has zero representation; it can be only
expressed externally as an unattached NP.

Chapter 11 'Complex clauses' (338-395) deals with relative and complement
clauses, serial verb constructions, concatenated and connective clauses. In
Semelai relativisation strategy depends on the head NP status: those
representing core arguments are relativised with the marker of
relativisation, while non-core ones are relativised without the marker. The
relativisation strategy also operates in questions to O and IO, in which
case the question structure is an equative sentence where the first
component is an ignorative and the second component is a headless relative

Complement clauses exhibit three types of syntactic compression depending
on the main verb: full, reduced, and mixed. Thus, verbs of obligation and
permission take reduced complement clauses, the latter undergo obligatory
deletion of the argument co-referential with an argument in the main
clause, their verb losing the ability to be marked independently for
negation, aspect and mood. Interestingly, in the reduced-type complements
with the subject co-referential to the subject of the main clause dependent
verbs describing unrealized activity can be embedded under the verb ''desire''.

The subsection on serial verb constructions includes the defining criteria;
accurate and full account of different semantic types with peculiarities of
their internal structure; full lists of supplementary verbs; as well as a
detailed description of the most specific serial constructions.

In the last two subsections concatenated and connective clauses are
examined. Sentences consisting of juxtaposed independent clauses are one of
the most prominent features of Semelai as well as other MK languages. They
function parallel to multi-clause constructions with overtly coded semantic
relationships between the clauses. Concatenated clauses in Semelai include
consecutive, purposive, conditional and simultaneous semantic types. The
syntax of concatenated clauses is described in terms of representation of
core arguments and peripheral NPs and their positioning within the clause.
Indigenous connectives in Semelai are only those of cause and condition,
the majority of connectives is borrowed from Malay. The following types of
connective clauses are described: causal, conditional and temporal. There
are two points of interest: the clitic =hn, which is optionally used with
some connectives, elsewhere, it has a range of role-making functions;
causal conjunction la=, whose other functions are introducing NPs of
cause/reason and encoding post-verbal subjects of transitive clauses.

Chapter 12 (396-402) gives a brief account of expressives -- a distinctive
shared feature of the AA language family.

Chapter 13 (403-419) deals with miscellaneous phenomena: quotative marker,
interjections and discourse clitics. In Semelai quotative marker is used to
mark reported speech; utterance verbs are not used in this function.
Quotation marker is also used to frame expressives, interjections,
exclamations and other indexical expressions of human interaction.

Chapter 14 (420-447) contains a collection of samples of Semelai oral
literature: riddles, autobiographical narratives, description of
traditional activities, and traditional narratives.


_A Grammar of Semelai_ is an important breakthrough in one of the most
obscure areas of Austroasiatic. This work sets a model of grammatical
description for future researchers in this field. Kruspe is being
meticulous in every respect: from choosing the approach to data collecting
to carefully selecting theoretical background for presenting particular
segments of the language structure or choosing solutions for the most
tricky topics. Kruspe's work proves that sticking to method and theory is
a good recipe for surviving in this troublesome but rewarding language
area. Another positive point in Kruspe's approach is that she is very much
concerned about choosing the most comprehensible way of presenting the
material. To this end the author selects a rational and efficient structure
of the book and her presentation of examples is clear and exhaustive both
in terms of grammar and cultural and conversational contexts of the
utterances. When describing a language like Semelai it is also essential
that the author is capable of providing reliable comparative data from the
relevant areas: the genetically unrelated Malay language, the main source
of borrowings into Semelai, the closely related Aslian languages, as well
as other AA languages. It is only too natural that a research like that,
full of detail and theoretical insight, should be thought provoking, and
encourage alternative opinion and attitudes.

Although the templatic morphology approach adopted in Chapter 3 makes the
description impeccably formal and consistent, as well as compatible with
data from non-AA languages, it is rather unusual for a MK language and
leaves little chance for a comparative linguist who would rather have
morphology described in terms of conventional affixes and syllabification
processes they involve to make it more compatible with historical and
comparative data. What is more, this theoretical background overshadows the
unique phenomena, most relevant in the context of Austroasiatic: Semelai
has morphophonological strategies designed to stop or slow down the
destruction of the indigenous affixation. They are: an absolute veto on
main syllable infixation and expanding infixes to a heavy syllable by coda
copy. These strategies provide and support morphological transparency of
affixed forms, stop the process of resyllabification, which eventually
results in the loss of derived forms, as it was the case with many MK

Verb morphology in Semelai appears to be much elaborated considering its MK
affinity. The accurate, consistent and detailed description that Kruspe
provides, supported by a great number of examples carefully presented and
thoroughly explained in terms of contexts they are used in, enables the
reader to understand all the intricacies and subtleties of form functions.
It is both very informative for typological and AA comparative studies, if
we are to understand how a MK language could have developed a morphology of
that kind.

One of the most thought provoking verbal forms in Semelai is imperfective
derived from transitive roots by coda copy or coda and onset copy (coda
copy is also involved in verb to noun derivation.) Although this derivation
does imply concomitant changes in aspectual meanings, i.e. is used to
describe an ongoing event, a persistent event, a permanent state, a
habitual action or a non started action, one can notice that imperfective
forms exhibit some marginal features. Firstly, imperfective derivation is
actant decreasing. Secondly, imperfective forms cannot be used with
agentive pronominal proclitics. At the same time, imperfective forms
exhibit some features of non-finite ones. Thus, they are used in multi-verb
constructions such as serial constructions (with verbs ''go'' and ''take'') and
complement clauses (as arguments of verbs ''desire'', ''want'', ''know'', ''be
difficult''). Imperfective forms are also used in subjectless sentences of
identity with the underlying copular of identity (38, p. 117).

Semelai causative forms exhibit a variety of specific features
distinguishing them from causative formation in other MK languages. Of the
four causative affixes, i.e. par-, tar-, -r-, p-, the last one is a Malay
borrowing notwithstanding its AA appearance. Causative bases (except those
which are derived from noun roots), can feed happenstance t(r)-, which
Kruspe also considers to be a Malay borrowing though we can find traces of
an involuntary t- in non-Aslian MK languages too (Katu). Semelai has two
semantic types of causation. Causatives with par- describe a situation
where the causer only assists or facilitates the situation in which the
causee is willing to participate (''feed''). Where causative formation is
inapplicable, causation is expressed syntactically with the connective la=
introducing an NP or a clause providing information about the source of
causation. In three-participant causative sentences both objects can be
marked with the object clitic hn=, the indirect object having one of the
locative prepositions. Causatives with tar-, which Kruspe labels as
manipulative causatives, describe events which involve direct physical
manipulation on the part of the causer (''close someone's eyes'') or ''hands
on'' manipulation (''get someone to weave'', ''put food in someone's mouth'').
The opposition of the two semantic types of causation is only possible with
one-syllable roots and only several roots are found with both prefixes (all
of them being bound ones). Causatives derived from disyllabic roots, i.e.
those with p- and -r- affixes, can have cooperative auto-causative meaning.
Overtly, such derivation is not valency increasing; however, such
causatives imply that the action is performed with some sort of
consideration and ''being-cooperative'' attitude towards someone else. The
use of this type of causative in imperative sentences, which Kruspe points
out too, might qualify as an indirect speech act designed to make the
imperative less direct. Kruspe's remark to ex.107 (p. 133) that the
auto-causative is only used when addressing a woman supports that
suggestion. Interestingly, in Semelai we find semantic types of causative
similar to those found in other MK languages; however, their distribution
across the inventory of presumably related affixes is different. Thus, in
MK languages where different semantic types of the causative are
distinguished, deliberate causative is generally expressed by forms with a
labial prefix, non-deliberate causative by forms with a dental prefix or by
an analytical form, and in Katu we even find a form, which is semantically
comparable to cooperative causative in Semelai: it is a combination of
deliberate p- causative and non-deliberate analytical causative with the
verb ''make''; the form is used as an apology for causing inconvenience to
someone else.

Pronominal proclitics in Semelai which encode person, number and degree of
respect, mark the agent in transitive clause, the agent can also be
represented in a post-verbal NP with/without the agent marking proclitic
la=. Actually, examples found in the texts suggest that post-verbal
position of the subject may have to do with rheme shift (4, p. 432; 14, p.
430). As Kruspe points out, pronominal proclitics are also found with
intransitive verbs of motion and emotion describing an atypical situation
induced by some indirect external cause (230, p. 160) or an action
instigated by an external force (231, p. 160). Actually, the examples
suggest that a pronominal proclitic on an intransitive verb may mark a
rheme shift too.

Possessive constructions in Semelai exhibit idiosyncratic features, which
might be of some relevance for comparative studies. Core argument third
person possessor can be marked on the possessee NP by the enclitic hn=
homonymous to object proclitic. Coincidence of object and possessor marking
is found elsewhere in MK (Old Khmer and Nicobarese) (see Long Seam 2000,
Man 1889).

Numeral phrase in Semelai exhibits both regular MK and specific features.
The former are: optional character of classifiers and alternative
positioning of numeral-classifier cluster before or after the noun head. As
it is often the case in descriptions, Kruspe, when making observations
about the position of numeral-classifier cluster, does not distinguish
between predicative and non-predicative use of numerals (p. 204). It also
should be mentioned that the communicative structure can influence the
positioning as well (e.g. 5, p.421). All components of Semelai numeral
phrase exhibit idiosyncratic features, which would be of interest to a MK
comparativist. Firstly, in contrast to other MK languages, where we only
find occasional instances of classifiers derived from common nouns, in
Semelai all indigenous classifiers are derived from common nouns by the
nominaliser n-/-n- (with/without coda copying). Secondly, noun head forms
derived by means of the same morphological process and numeral forms
derived by means of coda copy can be used instead of classifiers.
Derivation of numeral forms exhibits irregularities: only numerals 1-7,
i.e. indigenous ones, can have such forms, derivation is only applied to
main syllables, all pre-syllables being dropped, in derivation from
numerals 6 and 7 the prefix t-(or ta-) is additionally involved.

Nominal derivation in Semelai makes an extensive use of coda copy both in
combination with other affixes (n-/-n, p-/-p, -m-) and alone. One can
hardly agree with Kruspe who tends to qualify coda copy as a process
independent of and prior to affixation, introducing such notion as
coda-copy base (p. 222). It looks like coda copy used alone in formation of
the imperfective is a morphological device, while coda copy found in noun
derivation is a morphophonological device generating allomorphs of one

In Semelai we find two nominalising affixes: pn-/-pn- (with irregular
allomorphs pN- and p-), and pC-/-pC- (''C'' stands for coda copy), which
Kruspe describes as two different morphemes, the first one deriving object
nouns and the second one process nouns (p. 223-24). This seems to be
disputable (compare s-pn-wak from swak 'go' in ex. 93, p 223). It might
well be one affix (at least by origin) with a range of allomorphs. It would
be interesting to find out in what relation does it stand to labial
nominalising affix found elsewhere in AA.

In Semelai we find the infix –m(C)- which is the reflex of the rare MK
agent prefix/infix. In Semelai it is both found in agent and instrument
nouns, however, the examples are too few to conclude, whether the latter
are cases of assimilation of the affix n-/-n-. Kruspe refers to it as
''agent nominalisation'' (p. 80) and ''agent/attributive nominalisation'' (p.
224), and suggests that it corresponds to the Proto-Monic *-m-, which
derived agent nouns from transitive verbs and attributive adjectives from
stative verbs. It remains unclear what exactly enables the author to label
it as attributive in Semelai, and, actually, Kruspe seems to have failed to
spot the attributive usage of the infixed form in 96a (p. 225),
interpreting it as a noun.

To compare with other MK languages, it should be noted that while deverbal
nouns in Semelai can function as modifiers in noun phrase, verbs can only
function as modifiers in capacity of a relative clause predicator. Another
specific feature of Semelai deverbal nouns is that they can maintain aspect
marking adverbials (104, p. 226).

Prepositions are an interesting as well as highly language specific domain.
They also tend to be the least described. Kruspe's work is an exception to
the rule. Her account is scrupulous and methodical as well as full of
detail, the use of a handful of prepositions is illustrated with 130
examples. What strikes most is that in Semelai, unlike in most MK
languages, there are no prepositions homonymous to verbs. Some
prepositions, though, bear resemblances to verbs in other MK languages.
Yet, there are specific functions of the PP in Semelai, not found in other
MK languages, which suggest that prepositions do have verbal origin. Thus,
PPs in Semelai, in addition to their normal functions (core arguments,
non-core arguments, adjuncts, attributes) can function as the main
predicator and in that capacity host aspectual markers (ga=); in non-core
PPs pronominal complements can be marked with the proclitic hn=, which
otherwise can only mark core arguments; several prepositions can take verbs
as complements; locative PPs can host the marker of relativisation, the
construction, as Kruspe points out, is used to generate avoidance lexemes
(e.g. ''the one who is under the house''). On top of that, locative and
deictic prepositions derive demonstrative pronominals with the prefix naʔ-
~ na-, the process is similar to the derivation of deverbal nouns, the
prefix could well be allomorph of n(C)- used in deverbal derivation, since
the majority of locative prepositions are monosyllables with glottal stop coda.

Of the specific features of individual prepositions one should mention the
following. The locative, directional, comitative, and possessive
prepositions can occur in a ''sandwich'' construction (Pi NP Pi). The
preposition 'SOURCE' is used with epistemic predicates to denote the
subject of epistemic judgment (e.g. ''That was so far for us''). The
preposition 'WITH' besides instrumental and comitative meanings is also
used to encode ''actual path of the event or locations encountered on the
path'' (p. 244), to compare, the same is true for the
instrumental/comitative preposition in Khmer.

The scope of functions of the core role-coding marker hn=/=hn might seem
somewhat puzzling (3.3.4, 9.3.1 and 11.5.2). The proclitic is used
optionally to mark direct objects in post verbal position. At the same
time, O marking is used in single argument constructions: middle voice and
irrealis. It is used to mark pronominal indirect objects in addition to
their role marking prepositions. It is also attested in pronominal non-core
prepositional phrases. The enclitic is used anaphorically on the verb when
O has zero representation as well as on the possessee NP to mark third
person possessor. As Kruspe assumes, it is also found as a fused marker of
third person pronominal subject in intransitive clause. Finally, the
enclitic is optionally used in temporal and conditional conjunctions. In
the last case Kruspe suggests that a possible function of the enclitic
could be marking the clause as backgrounded information (p. 382). All this
would indeed be puzzling if it were not for the fact that functions of this
Semelai clitic largely overlap with the functions of the Old Khmer
ta-marker introducing dependent predications, appositive NPs, possessors,
and non-core NPs, (see Sak-Humphry, 1993; Pogibenko, 2005); to a less
degree, its functions overlap with ta in Nancowry (Man, 1889); reflexes of
this function word (supposedly, of pronominal origin) are found elsewhere
in MK and, possibly, in Munda. In addition, the grammatical status of the
clitic in Semelai is somewhat unclear; it is optional in all its usages
and, as Kruspe points out, in case of direct object marking, direct
elicitation never yielded examples with the proclitic, whereas spontaneous
clauses when rechecked proved to be correct (p. 262). As a matter of fact,
Man recognized only two functions of ta in Nancowry: in passive
constructions and with modifiers, all other occurrences he considered as
purely euphonic (Man, 1889: xlvii.)

Kruspe's account of the irrealis provides a good deal of detail (pp. 278-
296). Her description of the many facets of this modality in Semelai is
accurate and precise. Apparently, this work is going to be much quoted by
linguists studying mood and modality. It is evident that Kruspe's insight
into the intricacies of this highly elusive domain was acquired through
extensive analysis and discussion with informants. However, there remain
some ambiguous points which deserve further consideration. A strong (and
successful too) advocate of systematic rather than pragmatic approach to
description, Kruspe is trying to place all usages of the irrealis within
the scope of deontic and epistemic modalities. Yet, judging by the
examples, the use of the irrealis in Semelai goes beyond that scope.
Firstly, it is very likely that it is used for pure future reference (58.
p. 281), the more so since the only other means to refer to future in
Semelai is the imminent aspect. Secondly, it looks like the irrealis is
used to express ability (72, 73, p. 284; 77, 78, p.285, 16, p. 423), as
well as possibility (238, p. 161, 59, p. 281). Finally, the usage which
Kruspe labels as ''retrospective experiential'' does not seem to belong to
epistemic usage, at least the examples given do not suggest that a degree
of commitment by the speaker to the truth of what is being said is
involved. On typological considerations, there are no reasons why the only
oblique mood in Semelai should not be asymmetrical, multifunctional, with
vague boundaries between different usages.

Of the different strategies used in questions with interrogative pronouns
two are of particular interest. One is relativisation of the verb group in
questions to core arguments O or IO, the result of applying this strategy
being an equative sentence. Interestingly, this structural type is
occasionally found in Khmer. The other strategy, in Kruspe's wording,
involves nominalisation of verbal predicate, resulting in a nominalised
clause; it is used in questions about direction and, as Kruspe puts it,
about possession. However, the latter usage actually might be the result of
reanalysis of questions about the agent, induced by the form of the verb
(compare ex. 302, p. 330). Bearing in mind that the nominalised verb form
in Semelai has other marginal functions, such as modifier in nominal
compounds (101, p.226), main verb in subordinate clauses (108, p. 226), its
status requires further analysis.

The relativisation marker in Semelai has specific features that are common
with relativisation markers in Old Khmer (ta/ti, tel) and Mod. Khmer
(dael): in Old Khmer the markers ta/ti are also role-oriented; in Mod.
Khmer relativisation strategy is also found in questions; both in Old and
Mod. Khmer relativisation strategy is involved in derivation of sentences
with rheme shift (see Pogibenko, 2005). It seems that the latter usage of
the relativisation marker in Semelai has escaped Kruspe's attention (see
23, p. 343). What is more, while in Khmer in sentences with rheme shift the
markers of relativisation can appear in combination with the copular of
identity (which is often perceived as a sort of emphatic particle), in
Semelai it appears in combination with a discourse clitic =pa (which is
rather vaguely dealt with in the last subsection of Chapter 13). Lastly, as
Kruspe mentions, in Semelai a headless relative clause is often associated
with a contrastive function; a similar function of Old Khmer ta is
preserved in Mod. Khmer.

Serial verb constructions (SVC) in Semelai are mostly of the types found in
other MK languages, where the supplementary verb expresses manner, various
aspectual characteristics, purpose, result, or is quasi-synonymous with the
main verb. The relative ordering of the components for the most part
follows the MK patterns. Although Kruspe correctly observes that in
Semelai participant-oriented supplementary verbs (see Himmelmann and
Schultze-Berndt, 2005) precede main verbs, she seems to miss that so do
aspectual supplementary verbs (except those expressing result). Of special
interest is the fact that besides resultive SVC proper, Semelai has a
construction which expresses semi-result or suspended result (with pay 'put
aside', p. 364).

The fact that the majority of Semelai conjunctions were borrowed from Malay
on no account can be puzzling (see, however, p. 381). The need for explicit
codification of the relationship holding between conjoined clauses is more
urgent in a written language rather than a spoken one. Vernacular forms of
speech can surprisingly do without any conjunctions, the context providing
the necessary unambiguity (Spoken Russian is a good example in that
respect). In a vernacular language nothing ever triggers the indigenous
mechanisms of grammaticalisation coining the means of that sort of
codification, but they are readily borrowed when available. That is why
Kruspe's suggestion that Semelai knaʔ 'when' is borrowed directly from the
Malay verb kena 'to affect' can hardly be justified. Actually, it could as
well be a borrowing from the Khmer kaal naa 'when'.

To conclude, the main point of the discussion is that this comprehensive,
scrupulous and detailed description of Semelai, accomplished by a talented
and dedicated scholar, based on the data collected in a demanding and
strenuous fieldwork environment, is an outstanding contribution to the
field of Austroasiatic studies as well as general typology. It fills a
considerable gap in our knowledge and sets an example for future research.
For the years to come it will be a valuable source of information about an
idiom that is unique, though, as many minority languages on our planet,
regretfully, threatened with extinction. Hopefully, Kruspe's description of
Semelai will encourage further research.


Himmelmann, Nikolaus P. and Schultze-Berndt, Eva (2005). Issues in the
syntax and semantics of participant-oriented adjuncts: an introduction. In
Himmelmann, N. P., Schultze-Berndt, E. (eds.). Secondary predication and
adverbal modification: the typology of depictives. Oxford University Press,

Long Seam (2000). Dictionnaire du Khmer Ancien (D'après les inscriptions du
Cambodge du YIe. – YIIIe. siècles). Phnom Penh.

Man, E. H. (1889). Dictionary of the Central Nicobarese Language
(English-Nicobarese and Nicobarese-English). London.

Pogibenko, T. (2005). Drevnekhmersky i palaungicheskije yazyki: zavisimyje
predicativnyje konstructsii [Old Khmer and Palaungic languages: dependent
predicative constructions]. In Alpatov, V., Shalyapina, Z. (eds.).
Actualnyje voprosy yaponskogo i obtschego yazykoznanija. [Issues of the
Japanese and General Linguistics.] Moscow: Vostochnaja Literatura RAN, 359-388.

Sak-Humphry, Chany (1993). The syntax of nouns and noun phrases in dated
pre-Angkorian inscriptions. Mon-Khmer Studies 22, 1-126.
Tamara Pogibenko is a research fellow in the Institute of Oriental Studies,
Moscow. She is a graduate of the Department of theoretical and applied
linguistics, Moscow State University. Her current research is in Khmer
(grammar, semantics, pragmatics), Old Khmer, and Austroasiatic comparative
studies. Since 1978 she has taken part in several joint linguistic
expeditions in Vietnam, collecting data on a number of minority languages.