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Review of  A Grammar of Ma'di

Reviewer: Matti Miestamo
Book Title: A Grammar of Ma'di
Book Author: Mairi Blackings Nigel Fabb
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Ma'di
Issue Number: 14.3284

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Blackings, Mairi and Nigel Fabb (2003) A Grammar of Ma'di, Mouton
de Gruyter, Mouton Grammar Library 32.

Announced at

Matti Miestamo, Department of General Linguistics,
University of Helsinki.


This book is a reference grammar of Ma'di, a Central Sudanic (Nilo-
Saharan) language spoken by some 250.000 people in Southern Sudan and
Northern Uganda. The grammar focuses on the Lokai dialect spoken in
Sudan, the native dialect of one of the authors, but dialectal
differences are discussed throughout the book. The book contains more
than 700 pages and is divided into 22 chapters.

Chapters 1 'Introduction' and 2 'An overview of Ma'di' together serve
as an introduction to the later chapters of the book. Chapter 1 gives
the reader a general sociolinguistic account of Ma'di, describing the
ethnographic and demographic situation and the use of the language in
the media. The genealogical affiliation of the language is also
briefly discussed. Ma'di belongs to the Moru-Madi group together with
languages like Lugbara, Logo and Moru. The different dialects of Ma'di
are also presented. Chapter 2 introduces the central structural
characteristics of the language discussed in more detail in the rest
of the book.

Chapter 3 'Phonetics' describes the consonant and vowel inventories
from a phonetic and phonemic point of view, and gives an account of
syllable structure, phonotactics, tonology, and prosody. The authors
distinguish 44 consonant phonemes including the doubly and secondarily
articulated ones and nine vowel phonemes. Syllables are either V or
CV. There are three basic tones: low, mid and high. It is worth
noting that several grammatical morphemes are realized as floating
tones. Chapter 4 'Phonology and Morphology' discusses different
phonological and morphological processes: Advanced Tongue Root (ATR)
vowel harmony, different assimilation and deletion processes, tone
deletion and raising, and gives a short overview of the morphological
techniques employed by the language: affixation (prefixes and
suffixes), compounding, reduplication and tonal modification.

In Chapter 5 'Verbs', the reader is introduced to the central
morphological and syntactic characteristics of verbs. Derivation is
mainly prefixal whereas inflection uses both prefixes and suffixes.
Inflectional prefixes express person-number and tense-mood, and
inflectional suffixes have subordinating functions. Syntactic verb
classes are distinguished according to argument structure. Some
valency phenomena are also treated in this chapter. Chapter 6 'Other
word classes' discusses nouns, adjectives, postpositions, determiners,
adverbials, numerals, and interjections mainly focusing on morphology.
The formal and functional aspects of the pronominal system get a more
detailed treatment in this chapter. Derivation and compounding of
nouns is described. Nouns are the only class where true compounds are
found. The authors provide evidence for treating adjectives and nouns
as distinct classes (contra Tucker 1940). The functions coded by
pronominals are person (including the inclusive/exclusive
distinction), number, definiteness, tense and modality.

Chapter 7 'The uninflected verb' describes the verb forms that code
past tense, the nonpast verb forms are treated in Chapter 8 'The
inflected verb', and Chapter 9 'The directive verb' discusses the verb
forms used in commands, prohibitions and wishes. These three verb
forms have distinctive paradigms of subject pronouns. A very
interesting feature of Ma'di (and of the related language Lugbara, see
Crazzolara 1960) is the word order difference between past and nonpast
tenses: in the past objects are postverbal, whereas they precede the
verb in the nonpast (and in the directive). The nonpast and directive
forms have the low tone prefix. The authors argue that the
inflected-noninflected distinction codes tense rather than aspect,
although in earlier work on Ma'di and other Central Sudanic languages
the distinction has been seen as an aspectual one. They also argue
that true subjects are always pronominal, and full noun phrase
subjects are treated as adjoined, i.e. not as true arguments of the

In Chapter 10 'Suffixed subordinate verbs' the authors discuss the
morphology of subordinate verb forms and the internal syntax of
subordinate clauses containing these forms. There are five different
subordinating suffixes and all of these forms also have the low tone
prefix. Clauses with suffixed subordinate verbs function as
complements of verbs and as relative clauses.

Chapter 11 is entitled 'Sentences with nonverbal predicates'. The
nonverbal predicates are noun, adjective or postposition
phrases. There are syntactic differences between definite and
indefinite predicates. Sentences with nonverbal predicates always get
a present tense reading. To express a different tense, a matrix verb
construction taking the nonverbal predication as complement must be
used. Although nonverbal predicates do not always have overtly
realized pronominal subjects, the authors argue that a subject pronoun
is always present in the structure, but it may be non-overt. Full noun
phrase subjects are then analysed as adjoined. One motivation
presented for the analysis is treating nonverbal predicates in the
same way as verbal predicates, which always have a pronominal subject.

Chapters 12-14 deal with noun phrases. Chapter 12, somewhat
misleadingly entitled 'Noun phrases', focuses on determiners. Types
of noun phrase are distinguished according to the choice of
determiners. Determiners encode specificity and definiteness, and
determiners coding these functions can be combined in a noun
phrase. Determiners follow the head noun. There are three deictic
contrasts in demonstratives. Another aspect of noun phrases is
discussed in Chapter 13 'Modification of the noun (including
possession)'. Modifiers are usually placed after the head noun before
determiners. The only premodifiers are possessives, but there are also
possessive postmodifiers. Chapter 14 'Nonsingular noun phrases' deals
with the expression of number, ways of conjoining noun phrases and the
use of quantifiers and numerals. Despite the title, the topics
treated in this chapter are not restricted to noun phrases.

In Chapter 15 'Postposition phrases and other location expressions'
the reader learns that the functions of postpositions include source,
location, temporary location, possession, benefactive and comitative,
and that postpositions also have more abstract grammaticalized uses.
Place names and locational adverbs are also discussed as well as the
modification of locational expressions.

The discussion in Chapter 16 'Verbs and clausal complements' is
organized according to the type of verb found in the main clause. Both
finite and nonfinite subordinate clauses are found as complements of
lexical verbs, the latter being marked with one of the five
subordinating suffixes discussed in Chapter 10. There are also various
grammaticalized complement constructions expressing sequence and other
related meanings; these take finite complement clauses. The chapter
concludes with a discussion of coreference between the subjects of
main and subordinate clauses.

Chapter 17 'Modals and negation' deals with five sentence- final
elements expressing certainty and completion, possibility, non-
possibility, past negation and nonpast negation. Both negators occur
with past verb forms (noninflected verbs), and the tense distinction
is made by the choice of negator instead of verb form.

In Chapter 18 'Adverbials', adverbials are grouped according to their
syntax: freely placed, fixed final and sentence-initial adverbials.
Temporal nouns, adverbials with specific discourse functions and
subordinate clauses functioning as adverbials are discussed

The title of Chapter 19 is 'Focus and information structure', although
in the table of contents the title is given simply as 'Focus'. It
begins with an overview of different information structure strategies:
left- and right-dislocation and the different focus constructions.
Ma'di has several ways of focusing subjects and objects. Verbs, non-
arguments or whole sentences can also be focused. The different focus
constructions are discussed in detail. Contrastive and noncontrastive
focus are distinguished, and the interaction between focus and the
modal/negative elements is also described.

Chapter 20 'Questions' sheds light on the ways of forming
interrogative sentences. In information questions the wh- element can
remain in place or be left-dislocated. Yes-no questions are marked by
sentence-final high tone (but in Ugandan Ma'di a final question
particle is found instead). The chapter ends with a short discussion
of implicatures carried by some interrogative strategies.

Chapter 21 'Lexicon' contains a general word list and more detailed
treatments of selected semantic fields. The general word list,
containing some 240 items, is an expanded version of the word list
proposed in the Lingua descriptive studies questionnaire (Comrie and
Smith 1977). Chapter 22 'Texts' concludes the book with two spoken
texts covering some 60 pages altogether. These are given with
interlinear glosses just like the examples in the grammar chapters.


The book provides a detailed and comprehensive description of the
language. As the authors note (p. 11), this book together with Lojenga
(1994) is thus far the only detailed grammar of any Central Sudanic
language. Nevertheless, some previous work has been done on Ma'di and
this is naturally taken into account in the book. The authors do not
only state how thing are, but try to find arguments for their
analyses. In general the analyses are plausible and well argued for
(although I do not quite see why it is necessary to posit covert
pronominal subjects for nonverbal predicates when no overt subject
pronoun is present (p. 236-237)).

What I find particularly useful is the large number of well glossed
examples. Each point is illustrated with more than one example (which
is not always the case in reference grammars). It should be relatively
easy for typologists and other general linguists to find examples
relevant to their theoretical discussions. The extensive and properly
glossed texts are also a merit of this book.

As well as knowing which characteristics a language has, it is often
useful to know what is lacking; users of this grammar will certainly
appreciate the negative statements on page 42 (Ma'di shows neither
downdrift nor downstep, nor is any use made of stress) and on page 109
(where we find a list of meanings that pronouns do not code).

The authors use the terms noninflected vs. inflected verbs, but the
same inflection (the low tone prefix) is also present on the third
structurally parallel verb form, the directive. Why not simply refer
to these forms according to their function, i.e. past vs. nonpast,
respectively, as is done with the directive? The usage adopted by the
authors may be motivated by the fact that the forms sometimes do get
other readings than the default past vs. nonpast ones. But the
diverging cases are usually marginal, the only significant difference
being the use of the past form for both past and nonpast in the
negative. But it is by no means rare in the world's languages that a
form assumes the function of another form in the negative (see e.g.
Miestamo 2003).

More generally this touches upon the issue whether grammars should be
written going from function to form or the other way around. In this
grammar the starting point varies to some extent from chapter to
chapter and even inside chapters, e.g. Chapter 12 on noun phrases is
more formally delimited, whereas Chapter 14 on non-singular
expressions starts more clearly from function. Of course, different
audiences prefer different approaches. Typologists and other readers
with a general linguistic point of view might find a function-based
approach more useful, whereas historical linguists and specialists of
Central Sudanic would perhaps vote for a more form-based organization.

In a form-based grammar, a good index can serve a reader interested in
the ways different functions are encoded in the language, and vice
versa. The index covers the most important terms, but some concepts
that one would expect to find are missing, e.g. word order. There are
a few Ma'di elements in the index, and some of the elements in the
word list in Chapter 21 also include references to the grammar
sections. A better solution would have been to give a separate and
more extensive index for the Ma'di elements.

Often several alternative translations are given below examples. This
welcome practice, rarely seen in reference grammars, highlights the
fact that isolated examples can have different interpretations in
different contexts. This is of course made possible by the fact that
one of the authors is a native speaker (a grammar written by nonnative
speakers is more dependent on the translations taken from the real
discourse contexts of the examples). However, at many points readers
could appreciate more comments on the different meanings and their
contexts. The provenance of the examples is not clarified. Apparently
many of them are constructed by the native speaker author, but are
some examples elicited, and do some of them come from texts? One
further point arising from my personal interests: the relationship
between affirmatives and negatives is well described, but the chapter
on negation would gain from presenting the corresponding affirmatives
for each of the negative examples given.

For ease of reading, the authors deviate from the IPA standards in
transcribing the vowels: they do not use the +ATR and -ATR diacritics,
but use different symbols altogether for the vowels distinguished by
the ATR feature. This may indeed contribute to ease of reading, but it
can also create confusion, as the symbols usually mean something else
than what they are used for in this grammar. I think IPA symbols
should be used throughout in a scientific grammar. We are used to
diacritics in many different contexts, so why should they be
particularly detrimental to ease of reading when coding the ATR

A Grammar of Ma'di by Mairi Blackings and Nigel Fabb is an important
contribution to the field of Central Sudanic linguistics, and there is
no doubt that it will also have its place on the bookshelves of
typologists making thus the language familiar to a wider audience of


Comrie, Bernard, and Norval Smith (1977) Lingua Descriptive Studies:
Questionnaire. Lingua 42:1-72.

Crazzolara, J. P. (1960) A Study of the Logbara (Ma'di) Language.
London: International African Institute, Oxford University Press.

Kutsch Lojenga, Constance (1994) Ngiti, A Central-Sudanic Language of
Zaire. Nilo-Saharan 9. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.

Miestamo, Matti (2003) Clausal Negation: A Typological Study. Ph.D.
Dissertation, University of Helsinki.

Tucker, A. N. (1940) The Eastern Sudanic Languages. London: Oxford
University Press.

Matti Miestamo is a researcher at the University of Helsinki,
Department of General Linguistics. His interests are mainly
typological. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the typology of
negation, and his current focus is on the complexity of natural

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