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Review of  Grammar and Inference in Conversation

Reviewer: Ruben Stoel
Book Title: Grammar and Inference in Conversation
Book Author: Michael Carter Ewing
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Javanese
Issue Number: 17.2392

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AUTHOR: Ewing, Michael C.
TITLE: Grammar and Inference in Conversation
SUBTITLE: Identifying clause structure in spoken Javanese
SERIES: Studies in Discourse and Grammar 18
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2006
ISBN: 9027226288

Ruben Stoel, Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (LUCL), Leiden University


This book is about transitive clauses in Cirebon Javanese conversation,
based on the author's Ph.D. dissertation. It is written within the
tradition that sees grammar as emerging from discourse, initiated by the
work of Chafe, Hopper, Thompson, and others. The book is divided into seven

Chapter 1: Introduction

The introduction quickly places the book within the perspective of grammar
and discourse, presents the language variety discussed in the book, and
describes the data that were collected. Javanese is a language spoken in
Indonesia with some 70 million speakers. While Standard Central Javanese
has a long tradition of study, not much attention has been paid so far to
the other dialects. Cirebon Javanese is almost exclusively a spoken
language, with about two million speakers living on the north coast of
Java. The data were collected by Ewing during fieldwork in 1993-94, and
consist of some six hours of spontaneous conversation, or more than 23,000
intonation units. One thousand of these were extensively coded for the text
counts presented in chapters 4 and 5.

Chapter 2: The morphology of predicates

Predicates in Cirebon Javanese include intransitive verbs, transitive
verbs, and non-verbal predicates. Intransitive verbs may be monomorphemic,
take a nasal prefix N-, or a prefix m-. Transitive clauses have two
arguments, the A (the more agent-like argument) and the P (the more
patient-like argument). A prefix on the verb signals a voice distinction,
marking either the A or the P as the trigger. P-trigger constructions take
the prefix di-, the prefix tak- (1st person only), or no prefix. A-trigger
constructions take the nasal prefix N-, or no prefix. Both intransitive and
transitive clauses may thus have a nasal prefix, or no prefix. There are
also two transitive suffixes.

Chapter 3: The morphology of nominal expressions

Nominal expressions include headless relative clauses, lexical nouns, names
and kinship terms, pronouns, and unexpressed participants. Nouns may be
modified, among others by the definite suffix –é, which indicates an
associative relationship with another referent, and also occurs in
possessive constructions. Core arguments are not generally marked with
prepositions (except for the A of P-trigger clauses), while oblique
arguments are marked by various prepositions. Pronouns are not marked for
case. Thus morphology plays only a limited role in establishing grammatical

Chapter 4: Information flow

Following Du Bois and Thompson (1991), Ewing distinguishes five categories
of information flow: 1. activation (new vs. given), 2. identifiability
(identifiable, non-identifiable, or not applicable), 3. identifiability
pathway (refers to how a referent is made identifiable: previous mention,
anchoring, etc.), 4. generality (particular vs. general), and 5. discourse
referentiality (tracking vs. non-tracking, in which tracking refers to
continuity within the text). Ewing used these categories to analyze a
sample of 417 nominal expressions. The most common configuration of
information flow categories in the sample is (excluding identifiability
pathway): given + identifiable + particular + tracking (42%), followed by
new + not applicable + general + non tracking (17%).

Chapter 5: Constituents and constituent order

Ewing introduces two prosodic units: the intonation unit (IU) and the
prosodic cluster, which contains one or more intonations units. After a
short discussion of intransitive clauses, he turns to constituent order in
transitive clauses in a sample of 281 independent main clauses. He then
distinguishes single-IU clauses from multi-IU clauses, and P-trigger
clauses from A-trigger clauses. Out of the 107 single-IU P-trigger clauses
in the sample, 88 consist of a verb alone, in which the unexpressed
arguments mostly represent given identifiable referents that are being
tracked. In other P-trigger clauses there is no dominant order. In
single-IU A-trigger clauses, 83 out of 136 have VP order, and the P
argument is usually general and non-tracking. V, AVP, and AV orders are
also common among A-trigger clauses. Constituent order is thus more
predictable among A-trigger clauses than among P-trigger clauses, and Ewing
concludes that among the former a higher-level constituent structure is
emerging in discourse.

Chapter 6: Clauses and interaction

This chapter is about how the various morphosyntactic properties discussed
in chapters 2 to 5 interact with each other. The number of explicit
grammatical cues in a clause varies from several to none, so role
assignment can sometimes be based only on pragmatic understanding. Ewing
also presents a longer example with many unexpressed arguments to show the
importance of pragmatic inferencing.

Chapter 7: Conclusion

Ewing gives a summary of the book, and then discusses two minor issues.
First, he concludes that the abstract definition of arguments that he has
used in the book is indeed the best choice. Secondly, he argues that a
semantically motivated definition of transitivity is better than a
grammatically defined one.


This book is a welcome addition to the few linguistic studies on Javanese
that have appeared in English. Ewing's book is more specifically concerned
with Cirebon Javanese, and this appears to be the first publications in
English on this dialect. However, it remains to be seen if there are any
syntactic differences between Cirebon Javanese and Standard Javanese.

Ewing says that Javanese has been traditionally regarded as an SVO
language, but he does not mention Uhlenbeck (1975), who showed that the
order of constituents in a clause can actually be rather free. Ewing shows
that in conversational language there are actually few clauses with two
expressed arguments. And in clauses that do have two expressed argument,
the equivalent AVP order is common only in case of A-trigger verb.

Ewing rightly points to the important role of intonation in the
interpretation of a clause. The order of two constituent in an A-trigger
clause is free only if they appear in different intonation units. But, as
Ewing admits, the intonation of Javanese is still a topic that deserves
more study.

The book shows that pragmatic understanding is often essential in order to
understand what the referents are of the A and P in a transitive clause.
The longer example in chapter 6 is particularly convincing in this respect.

The book is well written and easy to read, although repetitive at times.
There are numerous examples of every structure discussed. The book is light
on theory and will therefore be accessible to a wide range of linguists.


Du Bois, J.W. and S.A. Thompson (1991). 'Dimensions of a theory of
information flow'. Unpublished Ms. University of California, Santa Barbara.

Uhlenbeck, E.M. (1975). 'Sentence segment and word groups: basic concepts
of Javanese syntax'. In J.W.M. Verhaar (ed.), Miscellaneous studies in
Indonesian and Languages in Indonesia. Part 1, 6-10. Jakarta: Badan
penyelenggara Seri NUSA.

Ruben Stoel is a researcher at Leiden University associated with the
Fataluku Language Project (for more information visit:
His interests include the Austronesian and Papuan languages of Indonesia
and East Timor, the study of intonation, and the expression of information
structure across languages.