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Review of  A Grammar of Kham

Reviewer: Edward J. Vajda
Book Title: A Grammar of Kham
Book Author: Sorry, No Book Author Data Available!
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Kham, Western Parbate
Issue Number: 14.1859

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Date: Tue, 24 Jun 2003 14:28:45 -0700
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

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 argument.

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.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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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