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Review of  First Steps Towards a Grammar of Makasae

Reviewer: Peter Freeouf
Book Title: First Steps Towards a Grammar of Makasae
Book Author: Juliette Huber
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Makasae
Issue Number: 19.3374

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AUTHOR: Huber, Juliette
TITLE: First Steps Toward a Grammar of Makasae
SUBTITLE: A Language of East Timor
SERIES: Languages of the World/Materials 195
YEAR: 2008

Peter Freeouf, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The recently independent nation of East Timor (Timor Lorosae) is known for its
relatively small area and small population but for the large number of languages
which are indigenous to the country. In addition, there are three other
languages of wider currency that are also commonly spoken in East Timor
(Indonesian, the language of administration and education under the Indonesian
occupation; Portuguese, the former colonial language and now an official
language; and also English as the language of wider international
communication). The indigenous languages are members of two unrelated groups of
languages – the Austronesian family and the Papuan group (also commonly referred
to negatively as Non-Austronesian). Of the eighteen indigenous languages listed
on the Ethnologue site, fifteen are Austronesian, including the lingua franca
Tetum; and four are Papuan or Non-Austronesian, of which Makasae is the Papuan
languages with the largest number of speakers (70,000 according to the
Ethnologue website).

The title of the book ''First steps toward a grammar of Makasae: a language of
East Timor'' indicates the limited scope of the work. It is based on the author's
MA thesis, which she wrote at the University of Zurich. The work will be useful
and informative for Papuanists and also Austronesianists. Typologists and
researchers in language contact and areal linguistics will also find much of
interest in the work. Huber's description of Makasae covers the main grammatical
features of the language.

The work is divided into eleven sections following a short abstract and a
detailed Table of Contents, which is helpful since there is no index.

1. Introduction (pp. 1-4).
This section consists of an overview of the sociolinguistic situation of Makasae
and its genetic relationship within the Trans-New Guinea (TNG) phylum. Relying
on Wurm's 1982 classification, the author locates Makasae in the
Makasae-Alor-Pantar family of the Timor-Alor-Pintar stock. However, the author
points out that Makasae, along with the other languages of the
Makasae-Alor-Pantar family, differs structurally from most languages of the
Trans-New Guinea phylum. First of all, it is morphologically isolating although
it does share the subject-object-verb (SOV) word order which is typical for TNG
languages. The corpus on which the study is based was collected mainly from one
informant. A second informant, who speaks the same dialect of Makasae, was also
consulted. Both informants, in their thirties at the time of the interviews,
were studying in Portugal at the time. The data is based on elicited sentences
as translations of sentences in Indonesian and on stories which were recorded
and transcribed. An added feature of this section is a multicolored map of East
Timor showing the location of sixteen indigenous languages spoken in the country.

2. Phonology (pp. 4-6).
This section contains two standard phoneme charts, one for consonants and one
for vowels, which set out the Makasae segmental phonemes. The consonant
inventory contains voiceless and voiced labial, alveolar, and velar stops, along
with the glottal stop. There are two nasals /m/ and /n/, two liquids /l/ and
/r/, two fricatives /s/ and /h/ (specifically in the Ossu dialect of the
informants – other dialects of Makasae have also /f/), and one glide /w/. The
vowels are the five basic ones: /i/, /u/, /e/, /o/, and /a/. Each chart is
followed by a list of minimal pairs validating the proposed phonemic
distinctions. The concluding subsection discusses briefly allophonic variation,
word stress, and syllable structure, which is (C) V (C).

3. Lexicon (p. 6).
This section is brief (one paragraph covering less than half a page). Mention is
made of the Non-Austronesian character of most of the vocabulary. However the
author does indicate that there are a number of old Austronesian loans. She
mentions too that Tetum, Portuguese (via Tetum), and Indonesian have contributed
to the Makasae vocabulary.

4. Derivational Morphology (pp. 7-13).
In this section the essentially isolating character of the language is
illustrated. The only productive derivational process is reduplication, which
can be full or partial. Nominalization is one of these derivational processes
based on reduplication. With verbs, reduplication is used to indicate multiple
events; with adjectives reduplications has an intensifying or attenuating force.
Even numerals can be reduplicated for a distributive meaning. Other derivational
processes include a few borrowed or native lexicalized affixes which are no
longer productive.

5. The Noun Phrase (pp. 13-46).
This section is one of the longest and most detailed of the study. It deals with
various features of nouns such as gender (which is not a property of Makasae
nouns but can be indicated lexically when necessary); diminutives; number, which
is generally not specified but can be indicated for the plural by the clitic
/-la/ attached either to the head noun or to last member of a coordinate NP.
Definiteness and indefiniteness is not an inherent grammaticalized feature but
is indicated by context or the use of the numeral /u/ 'one' for the indefinite.

A subsection discusses the personal pronouns and here a feature associated with
Austronesian rather than Papuan languages is noteworthy: the inclusive/exclusive
distinction in the first person plural. The first person plural inclusive serves
also as a formal and polite form of address. There are no gender or animacy
distinctions in the personal pronouns. Included in this sub-section on pronouns
are lists and examples of interrogative and indefinite pronouns. The next
sub-section contains lists and examples of numerals (the numeral /lima/ 'five'
is an obvious borrowing from Austronesian), the limited system of nominal
classifiers, quantifiers, possessives (the only pronominal possessives which
differ from the personal pronouns are the first person singular and plural
exclusive). Here the syntactically important reflexive possessive marker /ni/ is
introduced and discussed in some detail. There are separate sub-sections on
adjectives, which follow the noun, and which are commonly constructed as
relative clauses or linked to the head noun by the particle /gi/, which is
homophonous with the third person singular personal pronoun. Relative clauses
are discussed in some detail. In Makasae, relative clauses follow their head
noun, unlike in typical SOV languages. However, relative clauses are commonly
marked by the demonstrative /ere/ at the end of the clause. This is reminiscent
of a similar usage in Indonesian of the demonstrative /itu/:

/dahan pohon yang ramping dan kuat itu/
branch tree REL slender and strong DEM
'the branch of the tree which is slender and strong'
(based on Kwee 1965: 13).

The range of accessibility of relativization is quite broad, covering the
spectrum from relativization on subjects, through direct objects, indirect
objects, objects of adpositions, to possessives. The next subsections deal
briefly with apposition of noun phrases; coordination, which can be indicated
with the conjunction /to/ 'and' or by unmarked juxtaposition; and the syntax of
noun phrases, which is predominately head-initial. The structure of the noun
phrase is shown schematically as:

of grammatical role).

The ''marker of grammatical role'' is optional. The various markers of grammatical
roles are dealt with in some detail in section 9 (Syntax). It is noted here that
the head noun can be preceded only by a possessive determiner or a nominal
possessive phrase with the linking particle /gi/:

/asi mistri gi noko gi keta/
1SG:POSS teacher 3SG:POSS:NONSUBJ younger sibling 3SG:POSS:NONSUBJ rice field
'my teacher's younger brother's rice field.'

6. The Verb Phrase (pp. 46-70).
The only inflectional morphology in verb structure are the distinct singular and
plural forms for three common verbs: singular /mi/, plural /diar/ 'sit;'
singular /na/, plural /nahar/ 'stand;' and singular /ria/, plural /ditar/ 'run.'
Tense, aspect, and mood (TAM) are indicated by a number of ''more or less
grammaticalised'' particles which occur mostly before the verb. The main
categories are continuing action, completed action, progressive, and recent or
immediate past and future. There are also ''time adverbs'' which can be used to
indicate near and remote past and future. These are less grammaticalized than
the TAM markers. Modality is likewise shown by pre-verbal elements. Verb
serialization is briefly discussed with examples. Valence changes are discussed
in a subsection followed by a more extensive discussion of the marking of
nominal arguments of main verbs. Direct objects (or ''undergoers'') are
obligatorily marked in ditransitive sentences with the post-NP particle /ma/,
which can also serve as a resumptive marker for a ''left-dislocated'' (fronted)
direct object. Other nominal arguments, such as instrument and beneficiary, are
marked with postpositional particles as well. The agent of a transitive verb can
be omitted but there is no corresponding change in verb phrase morphology. The
author refers to this type of sentence in a later section as ''passive-like.''
This section concludes with a discussion and chart of the numerous lexical items
used for spatial deixis. These terms exhibit a type of vowel harmony, which is
apparent from the chart but not mentioned by the author.

7. Postpositions (pp. 70).
This section is very brief, less than one half of a page and refers the reader
to another study by Brotherson (ms). Two example sentences are given where the
postposition is stranded and its object is fronted or mentioned in the preceding

8. Negation (pp. 71-74).
The numerous negating particles are listed here and discussed with example

9. Syntax (pp. 74-102).
This is another large section and focuses on the markers of grammatical roles.
Much of the content in this section repeats what is discussed in the sections on
the noun phrase and the verb phrase (Sections 5 and 6). The author points out
here that the basic word order SOV is untypical for isolating languages in which
morphologically unmarked subject and object NPs would be adjacent.

Of interest here is the discussion of the marker for subject (agent) of the
verb. The particle /ini/ is apparently not strictly obligatory to mark the agent
of a transitive verb, but is extensively used for that purpose and also for
emphasis. It is most commonly used with human agentive nouns, as well as with
personal pronouns and interrogative pronouns referring to humans. The particle
frequently occurs in reduced form as /ni/ or even /n/. Another particle, /ere/,
is multifunctional. In addition to its function as a demonstrative, it can also
indicate definiteness, demarcate a subjectless clause as a nominalizing
particle, and can indicate the undergoer argument of a verb. Also discussed in
this section are the structure of simple sentences and the various types of
complex sentences. Under simple sentences are examples of interrogative,
optative, and imperative sentences. In the subsection on complex sentences,
coordination, marked and unmarked is discussed with examples. Subsections on
various types of dependent clauses including temporal, conditional, purpose,
concessive, and complement clauses finish out this sections.

10. Conclusion (p. 103).
The author mentions two things in particular here, the main focus of the study,
the NP and its structure, and the functional organization of the NP within

11. Appendix: A story transcript (pp. 104-113).
The text of the story is glossed and translated. It is noticeable that there are
a fair number of borrowings from Indonesian, Tetum, and Portuguese. The
Indonesian and Tetum borrowings are indicated typographically, by underlining
and non-italicization, respectively.

There is a short Bibliography (pp. 114-115) at the end of the book, including a
number of relevant websites.

Despite the book's brevity – it is only 115 pages - it is a welcome addition and
a valuable contribution to the growing body of descriptive work on the numerous
and previously little studied languages of Eastern Indonesia and East Timor. In
addition to being of interest in its own right, Makasae is interesting for its
consistent SOV word order with the only deviation from this consisting of
optional object-fronting (or ''left-dislocation'') for what seem to be pragmatic
reasons. Since the language exhibits almost no inflectional morphology and very
little derivational morphology, the marking of grammatical roles of nominal
arguments of verbs is carried out fairly consistently by means of various
particles, one of which appears to be in the process of being grammaticalized as
an affix. The SOV word order is characteristic of Papuan languages in general,
but several of the other features of Makasae as described in the book are more
characteristic of Austronesian languages, with which Makasae as been in close
contact for probably several thousand years.

The main complaints are the fairly large number of spelling or typographical
errors, a few abbreviations not defined in the list of abbreviations, and two
works mentioned in the text which are not listed in the bibliography. These,
however, are editorial oversights and do not detract in any substantial way from
the comprehensibility or the importance of the study.

The only other problem is the high price (US $61.70), effectively putting the
book out of reach of many students and researchers, especially those in
developing countries.

In the prefatory abstract it is mentioned that the author is currently working
on a larger study of Makalero, a closely related non-Austronesian language of
East Timor. This work too will be welcomed by researchers and students of the
languages of East Timor and Eastern Indonesia, as well as by linguists in
general and others interested in the region and its diverse cultures.

Brotherson, Anna. Ms. 2003: A Spatial Odyssey: Referring to Space in Makasai.
Unpublished Bachelor of Arts with Honours thesis. Canberra: School of Language
Studies, Australian National University.


Kwee, John B. 1965. _Indonesian_. London: Teach Yourself Books.

Wurm, Stephen A. 1982. _Papuan Languages of Oceania_. Tubingen: Gunter Narr Verlag.

Peter Freeouf teaches English and linguistics at Chiang Mai University in
northern Thailand. His linguistic interests include typology, language contact,
and language change.

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