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Review of  A grammar of Mauwake

Reviewer: Bruno Olsson
Book Title: A grammar of Mauwake
Book Author: Liisa Berghäll
Publisher: Language Science Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Mauwake
Language Family(ies): Trans-New Guinea
Issue Number: 27.2603

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Liisa Berghäll’s ''A grammar of Mauwake'', based on the author's 2010 dissertation at the University of Helsinki, is a welcome addition to the descriptive literature on mainland Papuan languages, and will be a useful resource for typologists, Papuanists and the non-specialist looking for an accessible introduction to the structure of a moderately complex Trans-New Guinean language. Mauwake is spoken by some 4000 inhabitants of 15 villages at the Madang North coast of Papua New Guinea, and belongs to the Croisilles group within the Madang language family. The most well known close relative of Mauwake is Usan, which was the topic of an influential grammar (Reesink, 1987). Like many grammar writers in this part of the world, Berghäll first came to work with the community as a Bible translator, and along with her colleague Kwan Poh San she has authored a number of smaller works on the language, e.g. a dictionary (available from the SIL web page). The present work is a traditional descriptive grammar, divided into 9 chapters, followed by a selection of 13 fully interlinearized texts with English translation.

Chapter 1, ''Introduction'' provides a general background to the grammar, and briefly situates the Mauwake people and their language within the contexts of New Guinea and previous scholarly interest in the languages of the region. The author espouses the ecumenical approach to grammaticography known to some as ''Basic Linguistic Theory'', whose anti-formalist merits stand in contrast to description made in competing, one-size-fits-all frameworks. If these declarations are intended to dissipate any Procrustean fears in the reader, it is somewhat ironic that the next page (p. 3) starts with a worrying list of concepts that ''are assumed as given'' (including ''subject'', ''dative'', ''patient'', ''medial verb''); luckily, the uses of these terms are (mostly) clarified later on, so there is really no need to say that they are presupposed.

The data on which the grammar is based were mostly collected between 1979-1985, during which period the author did linguistic work among the Mauwake. The data consist of an admittedly very small textual corpus (8500 words; p. 4) in addition to elicited material. Unfortunately, the author does not provide information on the circumstances under which these materials were recorded; nor does she indicate the sources of the example sentences used in the grammar, leaving it to the reader to guess whether a sentence was taken from a text, overheard, elicited, or even (though this is unlikely) constructed by the author herself. Strangely, the Mauwake translation of the New Testament is not mentioned in the grammar or the reference section, although it seems to be the source of a small number of example sentences.

The introduction contains a short overview of research into the Trans-New Guinea hypothesis, a research program that in its various incarnations has grouped most of the Papuan languages together into an enormous language family, with languages such as Mauwake and its closer relatives belonging to the relatively uncontroversial core. This is a useful overview although I could not decipher the maps given on pp. 15-16. A structural overview follows, comparing Mauwake with typical Papuan languages (or rather, typical highlands Trans-New Guinean languages) and verb-final languages in general.

The structural characteristics of Mauwake will not come as a shock to those familiar with the Papuan literature. The phoneme inventory is modest. Suffixal verbal morphology marks mainly subject agreement, tense, mode and valency changes (aspect is claimed to be a suffixal category on p. 17, but we learn on p. 129 that aspect is ''coded syntactically'' and not in morphology). Nominal morphology is mostly absent, with the exceptions of kinship terms and the somewhat complicated pronominal inventory. There is frequent use of so-called medial and final verbs in clause chaining.

Chapter 2, ''Phonology: a brief overview'' contains sections on the segmental phonology, suprasegmentals (stress, and intonation; there is no tone), phonotactics and morphophonological processes. I was puzzled by the intonation contours drawn on pp. 35-38, since the author does not tell whether they are based on automatically extracted pitch measures or the impressionistic judgements of the author (my guess is the latter). The morphophonological processes are straightforward and mostly described in prose.

Chapter 3, ''Morphology'' (a rather misleading title) is the longest chapter of the grammar, in fact it is longer than the six following chapters combined. It is a mixed bag of the type of information often gathered under the heading ''Word classes'' in descriptive grammars, combined with discussion of morphology where it applies (mostly pronouns and verbs). The word classes turn out to be nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs (erroneously given as ''adverbials'' on p. 53), quantifiers, postpositions, and a few other minor classes. The verbs are clearly differentiable from non-verbs on the basis of morphological and distributional criteria, while the reasons for distinguishing e.g. nouns and adjectives seem more nebulous. For example, the author states (p. 57) that an adjective may not head a Noun Phrase, and supports this by saying that sentences such as ''awona nain pekape!'' (lit. 'old that bring.IMP') ''bring the old [one]!'' in fact have an ellipsed noun heading the Noun Phrase. The syntactic phenomenon of ellipsis is not discussed elsewhere in the grammar, so the diagnostic value of this construction is not clear to me. Many of the classes and subclasses are based on predominantly semantic features, suggesting that the author has grouped them together because of expository convenience rather than the demands imposed by the language.

The section on pronouns (p. 87ff) starts out by reiterating ideas about proto-pronouns from the Trans-New Guinea literature (pronouns is a hot topic within this field), mixed with some typological remarks, before discussing the 9 pronominal sets distinguished by the author. These sets have various interesting grammatical and/or pragmatic functions, some distinguishing case (unmarked vs. accusative, dative, genitive), while others have isolative ('alone') or reflexive-reciprocal semantics. The accusative 'pronouns' (as well as the dative ones, it seems) are restricted to the immediately pre-verbal position, where they index a human object, suggesting that they could be analyzed as prefixed markers instead. The author rejects this analysis on phonological grounds (p. 96). Although this decision is probably well-founded, lumping them together with the other pronominal sets does not seem to do justice to their peculiar syntactic behaviour, and I would have preferred some other solution to this descriptive problem. I also find it odd that the author refers to 3sg objects, which lack a corresponding accusative 'pronoun', as being indicated by a ''zero pronoun''. (The first footnote on p. 34 only adds to the confusion since the citations given there seem to refer to bound object markers and not to free pronouns.) I understand that the author prefers to reserve the label 'clitic' for other items, but some terminological innovation would have been appropriate in order to distinguish the object markers from pronouns proper. Other interesting features of the pronominal system are the various functions of the genitive and dative pronouns (pp. 100-110), seemingly with reflexive possession and source as their respective core uses.

There are four demonstrative roots, marking what the author claims is a four-way distance-based distinction. These roots are the basis of demonstratives, locative adverbs and manner adverbs. Short sections are devoted to question words (p. 123) and indefinites (p. 127), most of which turn out to be question words used as free-choice items. The inclusion among the question words of the tag ''naapi?'', translated as 'right?/is that what you're saying?' seems dubious to me.

The section on verbs is naturally the longest, and could well have been a chapter on its own. It contains informative sections on derivation (pp. 133-144), inflection (144-151) and the switch-reference system (151-156). Several subsections are devoted to subclasses of the verbal lexicon, based on e.g. transitivity and semantics (utterance verbs, directional verbs). An interesting feature of Mauwake, and many Trans-New Guinean languages, is that a small subclass of verbs index the object by means of special person/number markers prefixed to the stem. In Mauwake these cross-referencing verbs are 'give', 'feed', 'follow', 'shoot' and 'hide (among a group)' (pp. 162-163). The section closes with discussion of some types of complex predicates. Under the heading ''Verbal groups'' (p. 184) we find: compounds of a ''medial'' verb plus an auxiliary meaning 'put' (expressing completive aspect), compounds of a medial verb and the auxiliary 'be' (expressing progressive and habitual aspect) and compounds of a ''punctiliar verb'' in the sequential medial form plus the 'be'-auxiliary (with stative/resultative meaning: ''be sitting'', ''be dead'' etc.). The statement attributed to Cristofaro 2006 on p. 187 would have been more properly attributed to the original source Bybee et al. (1994: 153); either way the reference is not really relevant since the statement concerns devoted habitual grams, and not broader imperfective forms such as the progressive/habitual in Mauwake. There are also serialized roots, e.g. push-descend ''push downwards'', bite-cut ''bite off'' etc., and ''adjunct plus verb constructions'', by which is meant lexicalized combinations of a verb and a (mostly) nominal element that have non-compositional meaning and occur tightly together; in fact, the ''adjunct'' seems to be the only element that can intervene between an accusative pronoun and the verb (p. 194). Most of these constructions seem to be metaphorical expressions of psychological states involving the noun 'liver' ( ''be thirsty'', liver+float ''be enthusiastic'', etc.).

The remainder of the chapter treats minor categories (e.g. negators, postpositions & clitics, interjections), some of which are treated in more detail later in the grammar.

Chapter 4, ''Phrase level syntax'' is a short overview of the Noun Phrase, Adjective Phrase and some other constructions (the author does not consider the Verb Phrase a useful concept for the description of Mauwake). A general problem is that there is no strict application of distributional criteria in the identification and description of these constructions, with some of them distinguished on primarily semantic grounds, giving categories such as ''temporal phrase'' or ''locative phrase''. From what I can gather from the example sentences, neither of these phrase types form coherent classes on the basis of internal or external syntax, so it is not clear why these concepts are needed in the description of Mauwake syntax.

Chapter 5, ''Clause'' describes possible orderings of constituents, the status of syntactic arguments (subject and object), and various clause types (transitive, intransitive, existential, verbless and nominalized clauses). The main arguments for describing certain participants as syntactic subjects come from indexing on the verb, the switch reference system, and the case forms of the pronouns. The discussion would have profited from inclusion of cases where there is a mismatch between semantic agent and the proposed subject category, and the force of the argumentation is diminished by the fact that the unmarked (''subject'') pronouns can be used for the object participant in certain cases (see e.g. example 173 on p. 93). A construction with an external possessor coded by means of the pre-verbal accusative pronoun is treated under the heading ''possessor raising''. Finally, there is discussion of clauses nominalized by means of a suffix -owa. These clauses have various interesting uses, the most spectacular of which is the expression of ''not yet'' (p. 278). I found this section to be one of the highlights of the grammar. The second type of nominalization consists of a full-fledged finite clause followed by a demonstrative. To me, this use of the label ''nominalization'' seems something of a stretch, but this extended use of the term appears to be common in language description nowadays.

Chapter 6, ''Functional domains'' is the most original chapter from an organizational point of view, and presents shorter overviews of phenomena based on their ''function'': modality, negation, deixis, quantification and comparison. The longest section is that devoted to negation, an area in which Mauwake seems to show more complexity than many other Papuan languages.

Chapter 7, ''Sentence types'' is a short (12 pages) discussion of questions and commands. Information questions (''non-polar questions'' in Berghäll's terminology) have a question word in-situ, while polar questions are marked by a sentence final clitic. The most memorable features of the imperatives, which the author describes as a full paradigm covering all six person-number combinations, is the existence of a 1st person dual hortative (dual number is not distinguished elsewhere) and the fact that an overt pronoun (corresponding to the addressee) is often required in commands (p. 317).

Chapter 8, ''Clause combinations'' is a rich treatment of coordinated clauses, clause chaining (employing the switch-reference markers) and subordinate clauses. The author stresses the distinction between coordinate and subordinate constructions, and affirms that the medial clauses used in clause chaining are of the coordinate type. There should have been a clearer exposition of the diagnostics behind the coordinate/subordinate divide, as it was also not obvious why e.g. the apprehensive clauses (''lest''-clauses) are coordinate and not subordinate. Relative clauses are internally headed, with the head present inside the relative clause as a full-fledged Noun Phrase. Again, some more structured syntactic argumentation would have been in order to explicate this particular point. In general, however, this section is quite informative, as is the following, dealing with complement clauses. Many of these constructions involve an utterance verb as the superordinate predicate (desiderative, purpose and conative clauses).

Chapter 9, ''Theme, topic and focus'' deals with these concepts, which the author refers to as ''features of textual prominence''. ''Theme'' is a function that Berghäll assigns to whatever non-verbal constituent happens to be in the left-most position of a clause (p. 384). According to one of the definitions cited on p. 383, this argument is responsible for setting a ''framework within which the main predication holds''. The main reason for the introduction of the ''theme'' concept seems to be that of accounting for sentences in which the subject is preceded by other material (such as an object), which turns out to be a ''left-dislocated theme'' in Berghäll's terminology.

The section on ''Topic'' is concerned with how a topic is introduced or re-activated in narrative. Here it does not seem to be any specific constructions or morphosyntactic resources of Mauwake that are the focus of description, rather the idea seems to be that handling of topics in narrative is a matter that should be treated in a reference grammar. This is probably correct, but much of the information contained within this section was rather obvious (e.g. pronouns can be used to refer to an established topic). The ''Focus'' section deals with two clitics: a contrastive focus marker and a marker labelled ''neutral focus''. The latter has a number of enigmatic uses, especially in irrealis-type contexts, and would make an interesting topic of further study.


Berghäll's insightful grammar of Mauwake provides a wealth of data and analytical detail, generally presented in a clear and reader-friendly manner. I would have preferred a more rigorous treatment of some topics, with more attention paid to issues such as productivity and distributional differences. The discussion of semantic issues is somewhat heavy-handed, and more detailed discussion in combination with properly contextualized examples (preferably from interactional language use) would have been necessary to prove some of the points, e.g. to show that there is indeed a four-way distance contrast in deictics. While most of the terminological choices seem motivated, the occasional use of transformationalist vocabulary such as ''dislocation'' and ''raising'' struck me as unnecessary. Often a large number of example sentences are given to illustrate some point, when perhaps a smaller number of examples combined with some more discussion (including contextual information) would have offered more insights into the phenomena. There are many comparative notes in the grammar, which attests to the author's knowledge of the related languages and some of the general Papuan literature, but some of these facts are listed in passing and do not really contribute to illuminate any aspects of Mauwake (e.g. the short excursion on Papuan constituent order on p. 252).

I spotted a small number of errors (e.g. mixed up example numbers in the 2nd paragraph on p. 165; the formulation ''the subject of a noun phrase'' on p. 224), and there are a few problems in the typesetting of the book, such as the frequent insertion of extra blank space before commas or after italic text, and problems in the interlinear glossing (e.g. the abbreviation ''BPX'' is given as ''BP'' in the gloss list on p. xiii, there is a missed hyphen in ex. 154 on p. 90, and some of the markup accidentally made it into ex. 413 on p. 142, etc.).

Despite some of the shortcomings pointed out in the summary, this book is an invaluable resource on an interesting language, and Berghäll's mostly clear and accessible account of Mauwake is particularly promising for comparative work given that there are good grammars of related languages such as Usan. The author should be lauded for her choice to publish the grammar in an open-access format, meaning that the electronic version of the grammar is freely downloadable from the publisher's web page.


Bybee, Joan L., Revere Perkins, and William Pagliuca. 1994. The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect and Modality in the Languages of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Reesink, Ger. 1987. Structures and Their Functions in Usan: a Papuan Language of Papua New Guinea. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Bruno Olsson is a PhD student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His interests include typology, morphology and lesser-known languages. Bruno is currently doing fieldwork with speakers of Marind, a language of South New Guinea.