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 University
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 postposition.
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 '' 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 Press. van Driem, G. 2001. ''Languages of the Himalayas,'' volume 10 of Handbuch der Orientalistik: Section Two: India. E. J. Brill. 2 Vols.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
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.