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Review of  A Grammar of Western Dani

Reviewer: Peter Freeouf
Book Title: A Grammar of Western Dani
Book Author: Peter Barclay
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Anthropological Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Dani, Western
Issue Number: 20.3917

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Date: Tue, 10-Nov-2009
From: Peter Freeouf
Subject: A Grammar of Western Dani

AUTHOR: Barclay, Peter
TITLE: A Grammar of Western Dani
SERIES: LINCOM Grammar Handbooks 01
YEAR: 2008

Peter Freeouf, English Department, Chiang Mai University


The island of New Guinea, with a population of close to 9 million, includes the
independent state of Papua New Guinea in the eastern half and the Indonesian
province of Irian Jaya in the western half, and contains a large fraction of the
total number of languages of the world. It is estimated that there are around
one thousand languages spoken on the island. These languages are genetically
divided into two groups: languages which belong to the wider Austronesian family
and non-Austronesian languages, which are commonly referred to as Papuan
languages. It should be noted that, while ''Papuan'' is the commonly used term to
refer to this latter group of languages, it is misleading in that the
relationship of these languages to each other is still to a great extent
uncertain. There are a number of reasons for this uncertainty. One is the sheer
number of Papuan (non-Austronesian) languages involved, around 750 (Foley 1986:
8). The other reason is that relatively few of these languages have been
adequately described. And this too has various reasons in addition to the sheer
number of languages in question. The land itself is characterized by remoteness
and inaccessibility as well as relative underdevelopment of the transportation
and communication infrastructure.

The Western Dani language is a member of the far-flung Trans-New Guinea phylum,
which according to the Ethnologue website contains 568 languages, a majority of
the Papuan language group. It is listed as one of the Dani-Kwerba sub-grouping,
which contains 22 languages, and finally as a member of the smaller more closely
related Dani family with seven languages ( The number of
speakers for Western Dani is given by the Ethnologue site as 180,000 according
to a 1993 census. This is considerably larger than the 100,000 for Western Dani
given by Foley in his survey of Papuan languages, which classifies the language
as a member of the Dani family along with five other languages (Foley
1986:239-240). These numbers clearly make Western Dani one of the languages of
the island with the greatest number of speakers. Most indigenous languages of
the island have from a few hundred to several thousand speakers. Thus, Western
Dani does not seem to be immediately endangered by Indonesian at least for the
time being, nor by a widely spoken lingua franca of the Tok Pisin type as in the
eastern half of the island (Papua New Guinea).

Barclay's ''Grammar of Western'' Dani is a welcome addition to the slowly
accumulating descriptions of a large group of languages which are characterized
by their grammatical and syntactic complexity. The author is a Christian
missionary of the Australian Baptist Missionary Society who lived among the
Western Dani people for nearly ten years and learned their language as few
outsiders would be able to do with more limited contact. The grammar is an
edition of a doctoral thesis prepared for Monash University in Australia. With
more than 650 pages, it is a comprehensive and detailed description of the
language with numerous paradigm lists of forms and lexical items. It also
contains numerous example sentences illustrating the grammatical points.


The book is divided into ten units of varying length. The introduction
discusses mainly the history of contact between the Western Dani and Europeans
which began early in the twentieth century when the western half of the island
was under Dutch rule. Christian missionary contact began after the Second World
War and since then the language has been studied and written down by
missionaries in connection with their proselytizing work. The introduction
discusses more briefly the linguistic setting of the language and the
methodology employed by the author in his compilation of the grammar. The second
unit, ''The Dani Sound System'' lists the segmental phonemes of the language and
gives a detailed description of the complex morphophonological processes
including the extensive assimilation processes.

The third unit, the shortest of the book, ''Words,'' is a brief summary of the
various word classes to be discussed and analyzed in the following chapters and
contains a brief discussion of word order, which is SOV, as is typical for most
Papuan languages. The fourth unit, ''Nouns,'' begins with a discussion of the
cultural aspects and semantics of the nominal vocabulary. As is expected, the
Western Dani vocabulary is a comprehensive descriptive apparatus of the distinct
natural environment and culture of its speakers. As new concepts and objects
have inevitably begun to enter the world of the speakers, names for these
previously unknown items and concepts have had to be developed. Many are based
on native lexemes. Others have been imported from the Malay-based Indonesian
language, particularly in the translation of the Christian Bible into Western
Dani. This would seem to be a logical choice for such vocabulary since
Indonesian is the official language of the state in which the people live, it is
the language of most formal schooling they receive, and since Malay-Indonesian
has a centuries-old tradition of Islam, an Abrahamic religion related to
Christianity. This Indonesian source furnishes a large number of loans (marked
as such in the glossing) in the example sentences, a large proportion of which
are taken from the Western Dani version of the Christian scriptures. An example
of an Islamic-based loan is the word for ''God,'' Ala, which did not exist
previously in the language. However, the translation of ''Holy Spirit''
(Aberiniki), a uniquely Christian concept, is built up from the indigenous forms
/abet/ 'true' and /iniki/ 'heart' (p. 54). Since Western Dani has native words
for only the first three numbers, plus a reduplicated form for 'four',
Indonesian numerals are used for the higher numbers (p. 111). An important part
of this unit is the discussion of nominal possession which is indicated by
prefixed pronominal forms. If a noun is indicated as the possessor, it precedes
the possessed noun which is itself prefixed with the corresponding pronominal
form. Independent personal pronouns too generally precede the prefixed possessed
noun. Personal pronouns, quantifiers, demonstratives, color words, intensifiers,
and postpositions are also dealt with in lists and example sentences.

The following, extensive fifth unit is on ''Verbs,'' which are the most complex
feature of the language. Western Dani verbs occur generally in serial
formations, as independent verbs, finite medial verbs, non-finite verbs, and
dependent medial verbs. These verbs are variously marked with affixes for
person, number, tense-aspect-mood, subject and object, and for a realis/irrealis
distinction. Verb forms can be chained together into serial verb formations of
some grammatical and semantic complexity. This is of course a well-known
prominent feature of many Papuan languages. ''Objects'' are the topic of the next
unit, the sixth. While subjects are generally marked by a suffix on the verb,
objects referring to humans, and occasionally pigs, are marked as prefixes on
verbs. Inanimate and non-human animate objects are not marked on the verb but
occur rather as independent words in the sentence. Again, pigs, which are
traditionally the most important domestic animal in the culture, may be marked
directly on verb forms.

The seventh unit deals with ''Verbal Modifiers.'' These include various types of
adverbs and intensifiers. A separate unit, the eighth, is devoted to ''Time and
Place.'' There are extensive lexical resources in Western Dani for exact
indications of the different times of day and for periods of time either
preceding or following the time of speaking or temporal center of reference in
the sentence. Contact with the outside world and contemporary global culture has
resulted in the coinage of expressions for previously unknown concepts, such as
those for 'week' and 'year.' However, the various phases of the moon are
indicated with distinct expressions. Locational expressions are extensively
used and many expressions of this sort include an indication of location as
either relatively ''higher'' or ''lower'' than the deictic center.

The last two units cover sentence structure. The ninth unit deals with ''Simple
Sentences.'' These include ''verbless'' sentences indicating exclamations,
negation, and equational and predicative relationships. Other more usual
sentence types with full verb phrases are discussed as various types of
interrogative, negative, and exclamatory sentences. An interesting section in
this unit is devoted to ''Greetings,'' which seem to frequently occur with
explicit sexual and excretory references (pp. 482-485).

The tenth unit is on ''Complex Sentences'' and includes separate and detailed
discussions of the following topics: Complementation, Coordination, ''Stringed
Complexes,'' Serialization, Chaining, Subordinate Clauses, and Purposive Clauses.
As described in this unit, the typically Papuan clause chaining is
characterized in Western Dani by three features: 1) one or more dependent
clauses arranged consecutively with each clause ending in a one or, more
frequently, a two-word medial verb with 2) the medial verb indicating whether
the subject of the next clause is the same or different as the subject in its
clause, and 3) the final verb of the sentence which is inflected for the various
grammatical categories. The first word of the medial verb complex is a
non-finite verb form marked for singular or plural subject, and optionally for
object. It does not show person, tense, mood, or aspect.

The text of the book ends with an ''Afterword'' serving as a short summary and
overview of the more striking grammatical and syntactic features of the
languages. This is followed by a comprehensive ''Bibliography.'' There is no index.


This comprehensive grammar of Western Dani is a nuanced and insightful
description of the main phonological and grammatical features of a Papuan
language. There were a number of issues and questions which occurred to me while
reading the grammar.

Neither in the phonological section nor anywhere else in the grammar is there
any discussion of suprasegmental features such as tone, whether it is
phonemically functional or not, nor of word or sentence stress. This is
surprising in view of the author's obviously extensive knowledge of the language
and familiarity with linguistic description. The only mention of word stress is
contained in one sentence in a larger footnote as a possible explanation of a
lengthened vowel in one verb (''It could be explained by stress assignment to the
penultimate syllable, a process which could have caused the lengthened vowels in
the class 4 verbs'' (p. 39)).

The grammar seems to be intended primarily for the use of Christian missionaries
and in particular for those involved in the translation of the Christian
scriptures into other indigenous languages on the island of New Guinea. This
would explain the fact that the bulk of the textual examples are taken directly
from the Western Dani translation of the Christian Bible. For anyone familiar at
all with the Bible it is easy to identify such examples. However, and this is I
think a shortcoming, there is no citation of the sources of the biblical
examples. There are comprehensive morphological glosses given with an English
translation, but it would be useful to know the exact source of the biblical
text example for the purpose of comparison. There are occasional sentences which
seem to be drawn from more spontaneous discourse, but the source of these as
well is generally not indicated. Barclay explicitly defends the extensive use of
the biblical quotes as reflecting the usage of native speakers who have
collaborated extensively in the translation project (p. 12). The basis of the
Bible translation into Western Dani for these native speakers is the Indonesian
version of the Bible. The written tradition in Western Dani is of very recent
origin, and the strangeness of the world portrayed in the Bible, and of
Christianity in general, to traditional Papuan -- and Western Dani -- culture is
obvious. It is only reasonable, then, to see the Bible quotes as reflecting a
highly artificial form of the language, even if they do reflect, as Barclay
claims, the grammatical structure of the language (p.12). However, linguists who
are not missionaries, such as academic Papuanists and typologists, as well as
other linguists can make use of the grammar and find much of linguistic interest
in it, especially the verbal morphology and the clausal syntax.

The last major problem with the organization of the grammar in my view is the
highly idiosyncratic interlinear morpheme glossing system used in the examples,
which requires some getting used to. This problem is alleviated to some extent
by the complete table of symbols and abbreviations at the beginning of the book
(pp. xiii-xx), but it would have been more convenient if a more conventional
morpheme glossing system had been used. One thing in defense of Barclay's system
is that it is thorough and extensive and does an adequate job of reflecting the
complex morphology and syntactic structure of the language. But any ease in
using it comes only when the reader becomes familiar with it through constant
flipping back and forth.

An index of grammatical topics would be helpful for the sake of reference. The
detailed table of contents and the page references given with the morpheme
glossing abbreviations and symbols compensate to some extent for the lack of a
topical index.

There are frequent interesting and detailed discussions throughout the text of
the relationship between the language and the culture and society and the
physical environment of its speakers. (See, for example, p. 1, pp. 50-59, pp.
62-64, pp. 116-121, pp. 182-184, pp. 333-334, pp. 355-361, pp. 373-378, pp.
425-431, pp. 445-454.) The author has obviously reflected extensively on the
relationship between the Western Dani environment, culture, and language and how
this relationship is reflected in the semantics and the grammar of the language.
These ethnographic notes are among the most interesting and informative of the

To conclude, despite a few problems with the book, Barclay's grammar is a
valuable in-depth contribution to the ongoing documentation of Papuan languages.
Any linguist not familiar with Papuan languages can learn a lot from it,
especially if it is used in conjunction with a general overview of Papuan
language structure as given in Foley's survey. The publisher is to be commended
for making this thesis available to the wider linguistic community in a
well-edited hardcover book.


Foley, William A. (1986) The Papuan languages of New Guinea. Cambridge Language
Surveys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Peter Freeouf is a lecturer in linguistics in the English Department of Chiang Mai University. His linguistic interests include typology, language contact, and language change.