LINGUIST List 21.248

Fri Jan 15 2010

Review: Language Documentation; Typology: Coupe (2007)

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        1.    Harald Hammarström, A Grammar of Mongsen Ao

Message 1: A Grammar of Mongsen Ao
Date: 15-Jan-2010
From: Harald Hammarström <>
Subject: A Grammar of Mongsen Ao
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AUTHOR: Alexander R. CoupeTITLE: A Grammar of Mongsen AoSERIES: Mouton Grammar Library 39PUBLISHER: Mouton de GruyterYEAR: 2007

Harald Hammarström, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, ChalmersUniversity


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 comprehensivereference grammars. The language being described is the Mongsen dialect of Ao, aNaga language in northeast India (near the Burma border), belonging to theSino-Tibetan superfamily.

The grammar begins with an excellent section describing the geographical anddialectal situation of Mongsen Ao. The total Ao dialect cluster has 170,000speakers according to the 1991 Census of India, of which about 50% speak theprestige Chungli dialect, 40% the Mongsen dialect and 10% speak various other Aodialects. On the subdialectal level, there are small intra-dialectaldifferences, and the present description focusses on the Mangmetong village withabout 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 aclear statement on methodology. The author follows the functionalist-typologicalframework with data collected through elicitation, analysis of texts, earlierpublished data, spontaneous conversation, and native corrections of his ownattempts to speak. Examples are glossed 4-way throughout, with orthographicrepresentation, linguistic transcription, morpheme glossing, and freetranslation. A short but enjoyable ethnographic overview contains information onsubsistence, religion, and history, based on other sources and the author’s ownobservations. Previous work on closely related Ao varieties are wordlistscollected in colonial times, a missionary grammar sketch, dictionary andcomplete bible translation, a grammar sketch produced by the Central Instituteof Indian Languages (CIIL), and modern comparative work. (Mongsen) Ao is notpresently 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 somenearby languages are closer relatives, the existing (sub-)classifications arebased on lexical lookalikes, typology, and geographically-based intuitions. Itis less meaningful to have a detailed discussion on genetic classification whenvery much high-quality descriptive data is outstanding. The book itself doesexactly this for one more language and, indeed, at least two major points ofsubclassification update come as a direct result of better documentation of thisone language. However, the parts of the book that touch on geneticclassification were probably written up before 2003, since references to morerecent 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 somedialectal and village-level variation in the contrastive segmental inventory. Aninteresting point is that the glottal stop behaves (appears and disappears onsurrounding conditions) so differently from other segmentals that it is notanalysed as a segmental phoneme. The study of voicing contrasts in thephonological inventory shows that Marrison (1967)'s genetic sub-classificationneeds revision. The language, at least in Mangmetong village, has three lexicaltones occurring on all syllable types but the high tone has a markeddistribution and there is actually no minimal triplet. The author, laudably, isvery careful as to variation in the tone system, and reports variations amongdifferent speakers and even variations within the same speaker. This materialcould be interesting for a typologically informed study of tonogenesis. Anotherpiece of descriptive delight is the insight that intonation contours serve todelineate the rightmost edges of noun phrases. There is a phonological word inMongsen Ao, which nearly coincides with the grammatical word.

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

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

The synchronic numeral system is decimal but thanks to analysis and earlierpartial wordlists it can be deduced that it has recently restructured. MongsenAo used to have a system where 16-19 were formed with the morphemes for 6through 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 and30. Missionaries teaching arithmetic are on record to have found this''objectionable'' and the author managed to find an old consultant who remembersthe conscious restructuring of the numeral forms. Even more interestingly, thetraditional way of forming the numerals is a typological rarity, and shared withother near and less-near Tibeto-Burman languages. The author rightly notes thatthis may be a very good candidate for a specific shared innovation, useful forsubgrouping, which earlier comparativists perhaps have not appreciated. As aspecialist 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 AOVlanguage which can front the O for pragmatic prominence. This is undoubtedly thestandard in Tibeto-Burman, but the author repeats the stronger typological claimthat all Sino-Tibetan languages except Karenic, Bai, and Sinitic are SOV. Sincefar from all Sino-Tibetan languages are sufficiently described, such statementsshould be avoided or modulated. The section on nascent postpositions isenjoyable, providing a glimpse of a transition from common noun to petrifiedpostposition.

The language makes use of a variety of nominalization strategies, prominentlyamong them nominalizing prefixes with many functions. It must have been a lot ofwork to systematize them. However, verb root derivations are an even larger taskto 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 secondslot). The suffixes account for a variety of functions for which we are giventhe author's categorizations and a few examples for each (including, forexample, a frustrative). The analysis of verb stems into atoms is a significantimprovement over earlier sketch descriptions. There is more comparative work tobe done here as the author concludes, in very vague wording, that the complexverb stem may have a wider areal significance.

The next chapter treats verbless, existential, and copula clauses and includessome diachronic notes on the origin of copulas. Imperatives are given a chapterof their own, with justification of imperative as a distinct clause type. As iscommon in verb-final languages, there is a pervasive use of non-final verbforms, so-called converbs, which cover all kinds of adverbial meaning. Alsohere, the author includes some opportunistic diachronic notes, with Benedict(1972) as the starting point. Complementation, on the other hand, only meritstwo 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 somecategory that the language lacks, such as classifiers, there is note in theindex saying ''classifiers not found in Mongsen Ao'' or the like (some typologistsrequest this). An exception is passive voice, for which the index points tospecific 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 bookprovides an excellent and long-standing contribution to linguistics, especiallytypology and Tibeto-Burman studies. There are two reasons why this grammar isespecially good. First, the author reports faithfully what he has found, anddoes not try to simplify or cut corners. Second, the author has not imposedcategories from other languages onto the present one, yielding, e.g., a chapterof its own for imperative clauses (a particular language-specific property muchunlike the tradional organisational model). Also, generalizations not normallyfound in grammars of other languages or descriptive checklists whichnevertheless do exist in Mongsen Ao seem to be caught, such as prosody markingthe right end of an NP. I did not come across any typos, but there are someminor typographical inconsistencies in how re-published works, e.g., ''Grierson1967 [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 WordFormation,'' pp. 708–732. Mouton de Gruyter.Marrison, G. E. 1967. ''The classification of the Naga languages of north-eastIndia.'' PhD thesis, SOAS, University of London. 2 vols.Matisoff, J. A. 2003. ''Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman: System and Philosophy ofSino-Tibetan Reconstruction,'' volume 135 of University of CaliforniaPublications in Linguistics. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of CaliforniaPress.van Driem, G. 2001. ''Languages of the Himalayas,'' volume 10 of Handbuch derOrientalistik: 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.

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