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Review of  A Grammar of Mongsen Ao

Reviewer: Harald Hammarström
Book Title: A Grammar of Mongsen Ao
Book Author: Alexander R Coupe
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Naga, Ao
Issue Number: 21.248

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AUTHOR: Alexander R. Coupe
TITLE: A Grammar of Mongsen Ao
SERIES: Mouton Grammar Library 39
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
YEAR: 2007

Harald Hammarström, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Chalmers


The present book is the publication of the author's MA (1999, ANU) and PhD
(2003, LaTrobe U) theses in the Mouton Grammar Library Series for comprehensive
reference grammars. The language being described is the Mongsen dialect of Ao, a
Naga language in northeast India (near the Burma border), belonging to the
Sino-Tibetan superfamily.

The grammar begins with an excellent section describing the geographical and
dialectal situation of Mongsen Ao. The total Ao dialect cluster has 170,000
speakers according to the 1991 Census of India, of which about 50% speak the
prestige Chungli dialect, 40% the Mongsen dialect and 10% speak various other Ao
dialects. On the subdialectal level, there are small intra-dialectal
differences, and the present description focusses on the Mangmetong village with
about 2,000 inhabitants. In fact, full details on the duration of fieldwork,
informants, equipment, and so on are laid out in the introduction along with a
clear statement on methodology. The author follows the functionalist-typological
framework with data collected through elicitation, analysis of texts, earlier
published data, spontaneous conversation, and native corrections of his own
attempts to speak. Examples are glossed 4-way throughout, with orthographic
representation, linguistic transcription, morpheme glossing, and free
translation. A short but enjoyable ethnographic overview contains information on
subsistence, religion, and history, based on other sources and the author’s own
observations. Previous work on closely related Ao varieties are wordlists
collected in colonial times, a missionary grammar sketch, dictionary and
complete bible translation, a grammar sketch produced by the Central Institute
of Indian Languages (CIIL), and modern comparative work. (Mongsen) Ao is not
presently endangered, but is under pressure from Nagamese.

The section on genetic classification is only a page long but for good reasons.
While it is clear that Mongsen Ao is a Sino-Tibetan language and that some
nearby languages are closer relatives, the existing (sub-)classifications are
based on lexical lookalikes, typology, and geographically-based intuitions. It
is less meaningful to have a detailed discussion on genetic classification when
very much high-quality descriptive data is outstanding. The book itself does
exactly this for one more language and, indeed, at least two major points of
subclassification update come as a direct result of better documentation of this
one language. However, the parts of the book that touch on genetic
classification were probably written up before 2003, since references to more
recent works, e.g., Matisoff (2003) and van Driem (2001), are missing.

The phonology section is concrete and complete, including marginal phonemes
(that only contrast in a very few lexical items) and spectrograms. There is some
dialectal and village-level variation in the contrastive segmental inventory. An
interesting point is that the glottal stop behaves (appears and disappears on
surrounding conditions) so differently from other segmentals that it is not
analysed as a segmental phoneme. The study of voicing contrasts in the
phonological inventory shows that Marrison (1967)'s genetic sub-classification
needs revision. The language, at least in Mangmetong village, has three lexical
tones occurring on all syllable types but the high tone has a marked
distribution and there is actually no minimal triplet. The author, laudably, is
very careful as to variation in the tone system, and reports variations among
different speakers and even variations within the same speaker. This material
could be interesting for a typologically informed study of tonogenesis. Another
piece of descriptive delight is the insight that intonation contours serve to
delineate the rightmost edges of noun phrases. There is a phonological word in
Mongsen Ao, which nearly coincides with the grammatical word.

Word classes and word sub-classes are recognized using a large array of formal
criteria, such as whether such-and-such affix can be taken, is quantifiable, can
be the head of possessive NP, and so on (Evans 2000). Mongsen Ao has 2 open word
classes, nouns and verbs, and 8 closed classes. The closed class includes
adverbs, but what corresponds to adjectives in other languages are taken over by
a subclass of verbs.

Pronouns distinguish three persons, in singular, dual, and plural, and the 1st
person dual and plural also have an inclusive/exclusive distinction, but there
is no gender distinction. The author is careful to record what appears to be an
age-conditioned shift in the functional reference of the third person singular
pronoun. We also find some interesting digressions with diachronic explanations
for asymmetries in the possessive phrase.

The synchronic numeral system is decimal but thanks to analysis and earlier
partial wordlists it can be deduced that it has recently restructured. Mongsen
Ao used to have a system where 16-19 were formed with the morphemes for 6
through 9 and that for 20, and must be interpreted as 'the six before twenty'
and so on. 26-29 were formed similarly, with the morphemes for 6 through 9 and
30. Missionaries teaching arithmetic are on record to have found this
''objectionable'' and the author managed to find an old consultant who remembers
the conscious restructuring of the numeral forms. Even more interestingly, the
traditional way of forming the numerals is a typological rarity, and shared with
other near and less-near Tibeto-Burman languages. The author rightly notes that
this may be a very good candidate for a specific shared innovation, useful for
subgrouping, which earlier comparativists perhaps have not appreciated. As a
specialist on the typology and history of numeral systems, I can only agree.

The chapter on clause structure contains what one expects. Mongsen Ao is an AOV
language which can front the O for pragmatic prominence. This is undoubtedly the
standard in Tibeto-Burman, but the author repeats the stronger typological claim
that all Sino-Tibetan languages except Karenic, Bai, and Sinitic are SOV. Since
far from all Sino-Tibetan languages are sufficiently described, such statements
should be avoided or modulated. The section on nascent postpositions is
enjoyable, providing a glimpse of a transition from common noun to petrified

The language makes use of a variety of nominalization strategies, prominently
among them nominalizing prefixes with many functions. It must have been a lot of
work to systematize them. However, verb root derivations are an even larger task
to work out. We find a variety of discernible, but more or less fossilized,
suffixal extensions filling up to eleven slots (with the root in the second
slot). The suffixes account for a variety of functions for which we are given
the author's categorizations and a few examples for each (including, for
example, a frustrative). The analysis of verb stems into atoms is a significant
improvement over earlier sketch descriptions. There is more comparative work to
be done here as the author concludes, in very vague wording, that the complex
verb stem may have a wider areal significance.

The next chapter treats verbless, existential, and copula clauses and includes
some diachronic notes on the origin of copulas. Imperatives are given a chapter
of their own, with justification of imperative as a distinct clause type. As is
common in verb-final languages, there is a pervasive use of non-final verb
forms, so-called converbs, which cover all kinds of adverbial meaning. Also
here, the author includes some opportunistic diachronic notes, with Benedict
(1972) as the starting point. Complementation, on the other hand, only merits
two pages of discussion.

The book concludes with some glossed text and an English-Mongsen Ao glossary
(ordered by semantic field). The index is well-prepared. If there is some
category that the language lacks, such as classifiers, there is note in the
index saying ''classifiers not found in Mongsen Ao'' or the like (some typologists
request this). An exception is passive voice, for which the index points to
specific pages where the lack of passive in Mongsen Ao is explicitly discussed
(there is no such explicit discussion on any page for the ''lack'' of classifiers).


As a thorough description of a previously underdocumented language, this book
provides an excellent and long-standing contribution to linguistics, especially
typology and Tibeto-Burman studies. There are two reasons why this grammar is
especially good. First, the author reports faithfully what he has found, and
does not try to simplify or cut corners. Second, the author has not imposed
categories from other languages onto the present one, yielding, e.g., a chapter
of its own for imperative clauses (a particular language-specific property much
unlike the tradional organisational model). Also, generalizations not normally
found in grammars of other languages or descriptive checklists which
nevertheless do exist in Mongsen Ao seem to be caught, such as prosody marking
the right end of an NP. I did not come across any typos, but there are some
minor typographical inconsistencies in how re-published works, e.g., ''Grierson
1967 [1903]'' versus ''Grierson 1967,'' are cited.


Benedict, P. K. 1972. ''Sino-Tibetan: A Conspectus.'' Cambridge University Press.
Evans, N. 2000. Word classes in the world's languages. In Booij, G., Lehmann,
C., and Mugdan, J., editors, ''Morphology: a Handbook on Inflection and Word
Formation,'' pp. 708–732. Mouton de Gruyter.
Marrison, G. E. 1967. ''The classification of the Naga languages of north-east
India.'' PhD thesis, SOAS, University of London. 2 vols.
Matisoff, J. A. 2003. ''Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman: System and Philosophy of
Sino-Tibetan Reconstruction,'' volume 135 of University of California
Publications in Linguistics. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California
van Driem, G. 2001. ''Languages of the Himalayas,'' volume 10 of Handbuch der
Orientalistik: Section Two: India. E. J. Brill. 2 Vols.

Harald Hammarström is a PostDoctoral Researcher at Radboud Universiteit, Nijmegen. His interests include computational linguistics, historical linguistics, and linguistic typology, and he is especially interested in reading first-hand descriptions of languages.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 3110190885
ISBN-13: 9783110190885
Pages: 526
Prices: U.S. $ 186.30